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Climate and the Collapse of Maya Civilization

A series of multi-year droughts helped to doom an ancient culture

Larry Peterson, Gerald Haug

Figure 7. Droughts did not affect...Click to Enlarge Image

Between 750 and 950 A.D, the Maya suffered a demographic disaster as profound as any other in human history, one brought on in part by the increasing frequency of multi-year droughts. Good evidence for these droughts (and detailed information about their timing) comes from sediment cores extracted from the Cariaco Basin, which lies just off the coast of Venezuela. These marine muds are very finely laminated, which allows them to record past environmental changes in superb detail. Although the Cariaco Basin lies thousands of kilometers from the ancient Maya cities of the Yucatán, both locales are subject to systematic shifts in the tropical rainfall belt and hence experience the same variations in climate. Cariaco Basin sediments thus provide an excellent window on the environmental crises that sparked the collapse of Classic Maya civilization.

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