Drought led to the fall of Mayapan, but without people, she could not have coped

(ORDO NEWS) — Increasing violence, political conflicts, and depopulation of a major Postclassic Mayan city may have been caused by climate change. But it is not exactly.

An international team of scientists led by Douglas J. Kennett from the University of California at Santa Barbara (USA) conducted a study that combined archaeological, historical and paleoclimatic data.

All of them date back to the rise and fall of Mayapan, the largest Mayan city of the postclassic period.

Mayapan is located in the northwest of the Yucatan Peninsula (modern Mexico). Archaeologists believe that the first settlements on this territory date back to the classical period, but the real heyday of the city begins in the 12th century: after the destruction of Chichen Itza, it became the political center of the Maya.

Drought led to the fall of Mayapan but without people she could not have coped 2
Mayapan Center with the Pyramid of Kukulkan and the Round Temple

According to sources, there were several particularly influential families in the city who exercised joint control. But around 1400-1450, there was a series of conflicts between the political and military elites of the Maya, as a result of which, by 1461, Mayapan was finally abandoned by its inhabitants.

Scientists chose this Mayan city for research, since a lot of archaeological material has been collected on it, there are historical sources, in addition, there is a lot of paleoclimatic data. As the researchers suggested, a severe drought could cause an increase in tension in society, which led to a political collapse.

The fact is that the Maya were highly dependent on agriculture – primarily on corn crops. And the productivity of agriculture in the north of the Yucatan is determined by rainfall during the wet season: when it starts, what level it will be, and how long it will fall.

Indeed, in that region, the norm of precipitation for the entire season can be met as a result of the impact of one hurricane, but the reverse situation is also possible – drought.

Of course, the Maya arranged granaries, besides, they could move food from areas where it rained to those that were not lucky.

The question here is the duration of the drought and its coverage: after all, corn has a far from infinite shelf life, besides, transporting large volumes of food was not an easy task at that time.

The wheel in the New World was considered a child’s toy and was not used in transport, and it is difficult to carry grain on foot.

Drought led to the fall of Mayapan but without people she could not have coped 3
Here you can see the Round Temple better

Paleoclimatic data showed that in 1100-1340 the climate of Yucat√°n was humid enough for normal crops. During the same period, the population of Mayapan grew steadily, including due to immigrants. From 1340, droughts become more frequent, this period continues until about 1430. The population begins to decline around 1350.

The authors of the work brought together historical sources and conducted additional dating and osteological research (the study of bones for intravital and postmortem injuries) of the remains of people belonging to the period before and after the onset of serious droughts. As a result, they identified several periods.

In 1302-1323, Mayapan actively fought, captured prisoners, who then became slaves in the construction of the city or victims on its altars. Two decades after the onset of droughts, in 1361-1381, conflicts begin between the ruling families. Some are massacred entirely, including children.

As a result of these civil strife in 1382-1401, many settlements that were previously controlled by Mayapan were decentralized (that is, they fell out of his sphere of influence), and the population was reduced.

The last surge of conflicts between the remnants of the ruling families occurs in 1440 and leads to a complete decline. Maya leave Mayapan, and until the arrival of Europeans, the city remains abandoned.

According to the authors of the work, the important point is that political conflicts and a surge in violence are taking place against the backdrop of an increasingly severe drought.

They suggest that this climate change and the resulting food shortages contributed to the level of anxiety and conflict in society as a whole, and this already led to the struggle between the ruling houses.

At the same time, scientists note that the dramatic events in Mayapan have practically no effect on life in other parts of the Yucatan – except, of course, decentralization, which at that moment is rather a blessing. There was no surge of violence in the rest of the peninsula.

In this regard, the authors acknowledge that although the drought could lead to a general increase in tension in society, other factors are needed for the emergence of serious conflicts. Such were in Mayapan (rivalry between the elites), which led to his downfall.

But these factors were not in other, small Mayan cities. As a result, the remaining inhabitants of the Mayapan migrated to these cities and villages, thereby ensuring the existence of the political and economic structures of the Maya until the arrival of Europeans in the 16th century.


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