Climate and conflict intertwined when the prehistoric Maya city of Mayapan collapsed, research shows.
A long period of unrest in Mayapan, in the Yucatan region of Mexico, has led to population declines, political rivalries and civil strife.
Between 1441 and 1461 CE, the conflicts reached an unfortunate crescendo – complete institutional collapse and abandonment of the city. All of this happened during a prolonged drought.
It’s unlikely to be a coincidence, according to new research by anthropologist and professor Douglas Kennett of the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Write in the journal Nature Communicationlead author Kennett and collaborators suggest that the drought may actually have fueled the civil conflict that spawned the violence, which in turn led to the institutional instabilities that precipitated Mayapan’s collapse.
The researchers say their work “highlights the importance of understanding the complex relationships between natural and social systems, particularly when assessing the role of climate change in exacerbating internal political tensions and factionalism in areas where drought leads to food insecurity”.
“We found complex relationships between climate change and societal stability/instability at the regional level,” says Kennett. “The drought-induced civil conflict had a devastating local impact on the integrity of Mayapan state institutions that were designed to maintain social order. However, the fragmentation of populations in Mayapan led to a reorganization of the population and society that was very resistant for a hundred years until the arrival of the Spaniards on the shores of Yucatan.
Researchers reviewed Mayapan archaeological and historical data, including isotopic records, radiocarbon data, and DNA sequences from human remains, to specifically document an interval of unrest between 1400 and 1450 CE. They then used regional sources of climate data and combined it with a more recent local record of drought from cave deposits beneath the city, Kennett says.
“Existing factional tensions that developed between rival groups were a key societal vulnerability in the context of the prolonged droughts during this interval,” Kennett said. “Pain, suffering and death resulted from institutional instabilities in Mayapan and the population fragmented and returned to their homelands elsewhere in the region.”
The vulnerabilities revealed in the data, the researchers said, were rooted in the Maya’s reliance on rain-fed maize agriculture, a lack of centralized long-term grain storage, minimal investment in irrigation, and a socio-political system ruled by elite families with competing policies. interests.
The authors state that “long-term climate-caused hardship caused turbulent tensions that were stoked by political actors whose actions ultimately culminated in political violence more than once in Mayapan.”
Yet, significantly, a network of smaller Maya states also proved resilient after the collapse of Mayapan, in part by migrating across the region to still-thriving cities. Despite decentralization, commercial impacts, political upheavals and other challenges, the document notes, they adapted and persisted until the early 16th century. All of this points to the complexity of human responses to drought in the Yucatan Peninsula at this time – an important consideration for the future as well as the past.
“Our study demonstrates that the convergence of information from multiple scientific disciplines helps us explore important and highly relevant questions,” says Kennett, “such as the potential impact of climate change on society and other issues with enormous social implications.
“Climate change worries me, especially here in the western United States, but it’s really the complexities of societal change in response to climate disruption that worries me the most,” he adds. “Archaeological and historical records provide lessons from the past, and we also have much more information about our Earth’s climate and the potential vulnerabilities of our own sociopolitical systems.”
Source: UC Santa Barbara