Skipping around last night through the ubiquitous Jared Diamond’s new book, Collapse(1), I found some good discussion about something I’ve been trying to understand better: the climatological component of the collapse of the Maya. What I’ve been wondering is the extent to which they’re a case study similar to the Anasazi.
(click through for more)
Actually it’s a bit of a cheat to suggest this was an accident. Diamond, whose work intrigues me, has been writing and talking for a while about this “how societies collapse” thing. I’d been reading about the Maya-climate link. When I realized Diamond talked about the Maya in his new book, I tooled over to the local Borders and picked up a copy last night.
The proximate cause of all of this is a paper in Science in spring 2003 by Gerald Haug and colleagues using a clever bit of analysis on sea floor cores to link drought to the Maya collapse.(2) Their sediments are from the Cariaco Basin, off the coast of Venezuela, an area in the climatological neighborhood of the Mayan country on the Yucatan Peninsula. (You’ve gotta trust them on that part, I know it’s a bit far away. The line of argument connecting the two involves their shared fate along the Intertropical Convergence Zone.)
Drought had been linked to Maya collapse before. It’s not like this is new. (See, for example, Dick Gill’s The Great Maya Droughts(3), a book I haven’t seen yet but which everybody writing about this seems to quote.) The remarkable bit in Haug was the precision with which the dates they found suggesting drought in the sea sediments matched the dates in Mayan history – a long dry spell “punctuated by more intense multiyear droughts centered at approximately 810, 860, and 910 A.D.” Diamond quotes Gill as noting collapse at various sites around the Mayan world (they were a bunch of city-states, not a single empire) at around 810, 860 and 910. Gill wrote his book before Haug et al.’s seafloor data was available. Back to Haug:
These new data suggest that a century-scale decline in rainfall put a general strain on resources in the region, which was then exacerbated by abrupt drought events, contributing to the social stresses that led to the Maya demise.
Diamond suggests an explanation here much like what he and others have talked about in the Anasazi case – a population that maxed out its resources, losing the flexibility to respond in the face of changing climatic conditions.
1. Diamond, J. M. (2005) Collapse : how societies choose to fail or succeed (Viking, New York).
2. Haug, G. H., Gunther, D., Peterson, L. C., Sigman, D. M., Hughen, K. A. & Aeschlimann, B. (2003) Science 299, 1731-1735.
3. Gill, R. B. (2000) The great Maya droughts : water, life, and death (University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque).