New Findings on Drought and the Ancient Maya Collapse

Ancient Maya farmers adapted to drying conditions, but eventually succumbed when it became too long and severe, says study.

The well-known societal collapse of the ancient Maya civilization in the southern Maya lowlands during the Terminal Classic Period (about 800 – 950 CE) was more pronounced than in the northern lowlands, at least in part because of more severe drought conditions in the southern region, suggest researchers in a report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

“We conducted a new analysis of regional drought intensity that shows drought was most severe in the region with the strongest societal collapse,” concluded Peter M.J. Douglas of Yale University and a team of colleagues from five other institutions.*

Data has been comparatively robust for the northern lowlands, showing a clear correlation between the Maya societal decline in that region and changing climate conditions, specifically the development of drought conditions affecting agricultural production. Less robust has been the correlating data for the southern lowlands, precipitating an ongoing scholarly debate about the various causes for the collapse in that region, where it is recorded to have been even more severe than in the north.

To reach their conclusions, Douglas and colleagues conducted stable hydrogen and carbon isotope analyses of plant wax lipids in sediment cores taken from Lakes Chichancanab and Salpeten, in the northern and southern Maya Lowlands, respectively. 

What they found was that the southern lowlands experienced more intense drying than the northern lowlands in the period leading to the Maya collapse, consistent with archaeological evidence of earlier and more persistent societal decline in the south.


tikalA view of the ancient Maya center of Tikal, one of the most thoroughly researched and best understood Maya cities. Along with many of the other great Maya centers, Tikal experienced the great societal decline/collapse during the Terminal Classic Period. Wikimedia Commons


mayadroughtpicchichancanabResearchers collecting sediments from Lake Chichancanab, Mexico. Image courtesy of Mark Brenner, University of Florida.


mayadroughtpicsalpetenResearchers collecting sediments from Lake Salpeten, Guatemala.Image courtesy of Mark Brenner, University of Florida


In addition, the researchers identified a previous period of substantial drying in the southern lowlands from around 200 to 500 CE (during the Early Classic Period), coinciding with agricultural intensification.

“Drying during the Early Classic period is associated with the decline and abandonment of some of the largest Late Preclassic political systems in the third century C.E. and subsequent political fragmentation in the region,” the authors wrote in their report. “During that time, widespread political realignment developed gradually under the strong influence of a foreign power, the central Mexican city of Teotihuacán. We suggest that climatological stress disrupted the largest Late Preclassic states, enabling smaller and more resilient polities to grow by using adaptations to more variable conditions, such as water conservation.”* 

In sum, the researchers’ findings suggest that the Maya successfully adapted to early periods of drying but eventually failed as droughts became increasingly severe, in both the north and the south, but more dramatically and earlier in the south. 


*Peter M. J. Douglas, et al., “Drought, agricultural adaptation, and sociopolitical collapse in the Maya Lowlands,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,

Some material adapted and edited from the subject PNAS press release.


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