Study: Prolonged Drought Played Key Role in Collapse of Mayan Capital City

Mayapan emerged as a regional Maya capital on the Yucatán Peninsula, following the demise of Chichen Itza between 1000 and 1100 CE.

Drought may have led to an increase in civil conflict followed by political collapse in Mayapan, the capital of the Maya in the Yucatán Peninsula in the 13th and 14th centuries CE. Image credit: Bradley Russell.

Drought may have led to an increase in civil conflict followed by political collapse in Mayapan, the capital of the Maya in the Yucatán Peninsula in the 13th and 14th centuries CE. Image credit: Bradley Russell.

In pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, the impacts of rainfall levels on food production may have been closely aligned with human migration, population decline, warfare, and shifts in political power.

However, it may also have led to instances of resilience, transformation and sustainability in the face of climate pressures.

Mayapan, which existed from 1200 to 1450 CE, is particularly well-suited to examine the impact of climate on civil conflict because records of the city also exist in Colonial-Period documentary accounts.

“Mayapan emerged as a regional capital on the Yucatán Peninsula, following the demise of Chichen Itza between 1000 and 1100 CE,” said Dr. Douglas Kennett, a researcher in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and his colleagues.

“Numerous political families, smaller polities, and substantial populations endured through the fall of the Chichen Itza polity.”

“Many of these entities were reintegrated into the Mayapan confederacy, especially those concentrated in the northwest region of the peninsula.”

“Historical sources indicate that the most influential nobility came from the houses of the Cocom, the Xiu, and the Chel (among others) who governed the polity as members of Mayapan’s ruling council.”

“These lords established the city’s monumental center, replete with its principal pyramid, the Temple of K’uk’ulkan, and a nucleated set of other temples, colonnaded halls, and shrines covered in murals and sculptures that reflect the city’s mythical foundations.”

“Densely settled residential zones extend from the center in all directions within the city’s 9.1 km-long circumferential wall, which encloses an area of 4.2 km2, and housing sprawls at least a half kilometer beyond this boundary.”

“Twelve formal gates in the wall directed pedestrian traffic into and out of the city; the wall was clearly a defensive feature.”

“The monumental and settlement zones were founded with the intent of establishing a new political capital.”

“Population aggregation and recruitment across the Yucatán Peninsula, and occasionally beyond, persisted throughout Mayapan’s history. Subject peoples were summoned to move to the city to provide all manner of services.”

“The site was once home to 15,000-20,000 inhabitants who were sustained by household gardens and orchards, hunting, and rain-fed maize agriculture, supplemented by trade.”

“Dietary stable isotope studies indicate heavy reliance on maize, a crop that was highly sensitive to periodic droughts, given the limitations for long-term grain storage.”

In the new research, Dr. Kennett and co-authors studied historical documents for records of violence and examined human remains from Mayapan for signs of traumatic injury. They then compared these instances to indicators of drought conditions.

They found that increased rainfall was associated with a population increase in Mayapan, but subsequent decreases in rainfall were associated with conflict.

“Prolonged drought between 1400-1450 CE escalated existing societal tensions and eventually led to the city’s abandonment,” they said.

“With the collapse of Mayapan, residents migrated to other smaller, successful towns and these adaptations provided regional-scale resiliency, ensuring that Maya political and economic structures endured into the 16th century CE.”

“Human responses to drought on the Yucatán Peninsula were complex, and serve as an important example as we navigate future climate change.”

The study was published this week in the journal Nature Communications.

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D.J. Kennett et al. 2022. Drought-Induced Civil Conflict Among the Ancient Maya. Nat Commun 13, 3911; doi: 10.1038/s41467-022-31522-x

Source: sci-news.com

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