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We could be inspired by the collapse of this Mayan city, more than 500 years ago, dominated by climate change and social instability.

Lhe Mayan civilization, based in Central America, was among the most advanced in the world. But all was not rosy even before the arrival of Europeans in the 16th century.

Mayapán, 40 km southeast of the modern city of Mérida, Mexico, was the political and cultural capital of the Maya in the Yucatán Peninsula. It had thousands of buildings and a population of 15,000 to 17,000 at its peak. Appeared in 1200, the city was finally abandoned in 1450 after the overthrow of its despotic rulers of the Cocomes dynasty.

Header image: Kukulkan temple in Mayapan. (Wikimedia)

A new study (link below) suggests that the civil unrest that led to the collapse of Mayapán arose as a result of climate change.

The interdisciplinary team included researchers from the University of New South Wales in Australia, the University of California in the United States and the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. Their findings shed light on the impact of climate change on societies, drawing on city records dating back to before the colonial period.

According to the authors, a prolonged drought, which lasted between 1400 and 1450 CE, aggravated existing social tensions in the city. The effects of the drought on food availability, in particular, provided the impetus for the civil conflict that ultimately led to the city’s abandonment.

According to the researchers:

Our data indicate that institutional collapse occurred in the environmental context of drought and conflict within the city. The vulnerabilities of this coupled natural-social system existed due to the heavy reliance on rain-fed maize-based agriculture, lack of centralized long-term grain storage, minimal irrigation opportunities, and of a socio-political system ruled by elite families with competing political interests, from different parts of the Yucatán Peninsula. We argue that the long-term hardship caused by the climate caused tensions that were stoked by political actors whose actions ultimately resulted in political violence more than once in Mayapán.

In addition to studying the climate (political and environmental) during the Mayapán collapse, researchers also examined human remains found in the ancient city.

Direct radiocarbon dates and mitochondrial DNA sequences of the remains of the individuals in the city’s last mass grave suggest that they were members of the family of heads of state (the Cocomes), ironically and judiciously buried at the base of the K’uk’ulkan, the iconic main temple and ritual center of Mayapán.

According to the researchers, the wind of revolution was fanned by political actors as the living conditions of the city’s inhabitants deteriorated. The main people responsible for the change in political power were the members of the Xiu family house.

Also according to the researchers:

Our results suggest that the rivalry between the ruling elites of Mayapán materialized in action in the context of more frequent and/or more severe droughts. By comparison, such climate challenges present a range of opportunities for human actors, ranging from developing innovative adaptations to inciting revolution. These climatic difficulties and the resulting food shortages would have undermined the city’s economic base and enabled the usurpation led by Xiu. The unifying and resistant institutions that kept the state of Mayapán together until about 1450 eventually eroded, the confederacy was dissolved, and the city was largely abandoned.

But the researchers also note the ability of the Maya to persist despite their difficulties. Those who left Mayapan headed for other towns, cities and villages. “Yet economic, social and religious traditions persevered until the arrival of Spanish rule, despite the reduced scale of political units, attesting to a resilient system of human-environment adaptations. »

Such tales of human history provide food for thought as we grapple with our own self-inflicted climate crisis that is exacerbating the hardships of millions of people around the world.

The authors conclude:

Our transdisciplinary work highlights the importance of understanding the complex relationships between natural and social systems, particularly when it comes to assessing the role of climate change in exacerbating internal political tensions and factionalism in regions where drought leads to food insecurity.

The study published in Nature Communications: Drought-Induced Civil Conflict Among the Ancient Maya.

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