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May 6, 2024 11 mins

It wasn't a total cultural collapse, but several Maya cities were abandonded all around the same time. Learn how natural and human-driven climate change may have been key in this episode of BrainStuff, based on this article: https://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/green-science/climate-change-end-mayan-civilization.htm/printable

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Speaker 1 (00:01):
Welcome to Brainstuff, a production of iHeartRadio, Hey Brainstuff. Louren Boglebaum.
Here Back in nineteen twenty nine, Colonel Charles Lindbergh, the
same aviator who two years before had become famous by
flying solo across the Atlantic Ocean, was flying a Pan
American Airways plane from Miami to Panama when he decided

(00:24):
to do a little sight seeing over what's now Belize.
Lindberg veered inland and flew over a stretch of southern
Mexico and Central America that was covered with dense vegetation,
a region so remote and inaccessible that outsiders reportedly had
never ventured there. As Lindberg soared over the trees, something

(00:45):
ahead caught his attention, what an Associated Press account later
described as two emerald eyes staring up at him out
of the tangle of the jungle brush. As Lindberg swooped
in low to investigate, he was astonished. It was the
ruins of a vine enshrouded city about eight miles across
that's about thirteen kilometers, dotted with numerous small periods, and

(01:08):
what turned out to be a stone temple two hundred
and fifty feet tall that seventy five meters with twin
reflecting pools, the green reflections from which had looked to
him like a pair of eyes, But there were no
signs of humanity anywhere around the site. E Lindberg was
filled with awe as he gazed upon the ruined grandeur

(01:28):
of a once mighty Maya city whose builders apparently had
abandoned it to be swallowed by the jungle. But why,
That's a question that archaeologists, scientists, and historians have been
puzzling about ever since. During its heyday, what's called the
Classic Maya Civilization, which blasted from about two hundred and

(01:50):
fifty to nine hundred CE, the Maya peoples had one
of the most advanced and complex civilizations on the planet.
They built more than forty network worked, yet independently run
cities across what's now Central America and Mexico, filled with
temples and palaces and elaborate sculpture and carvings whose magnificence
still impresses. They developed advanced irrigation techniques for growing crops,

(02:14):
and performed astronomical observations that enabled them to predict solar eclipses.
They had a family of around thirty languages that included
written hieroglyphs, which some Maya used to write books on
paper made from fig trees. They devised an elaborate calendar
whose cycles ran for centuries into the future. And yet

(02:35):
by the time Spanish conquerors arrived in Central America in
the early fifteen hundreds, many of the Great Maya cities
were empty, and the builder's descendants had integrated into other
communities or cultures, or returned to smaller communities with smaller
scale architecture. We should note that the entire civilization did
not collapse. No civilization at that large of a scale

(02:58):
as a monolith, and the fact that there are Maya
peoples living today attests that the entire population didn't just vanish,
but several large urban centers were all abandoned between around
eight hundred to nine hundred CE. Over the years, scholars
have developed numerous theories about why the mighty Classic Maya

(03:19):
civilization went through this fall, but recent discoveries point to
a cluster of causes that sounds eerily familiar, one centered
on climate change. Oh, we are lucky that at least
some of the Classic Maya's written records survived, and that
they were also written about by post classic Maya peoples.

(03:40):
That some of those records survived, which has enabled scholars
to partially reconstruct their history. But in some ways, those
tenalizing clues have only made the mystery of the decline
more frustrating. Over the years, researchers have developed various theories
about what caused the decline of those Maya cities, though
it was most likely a combination of these and other

(04:02):
factors and not anyone alone. Here are a few of
the most prominent theories, in no particular order. First, we
have over farming. Some scholars have argued that my society
grew too rapidly for its own good. As the population
of some cities increased, it put vocal farmers under more
and more pressure to grow food, and gradually they ran

(04:24):
out of fresh forest land. Clear that would have forced
them to plant crops in their fields without an adequate
fallow cycle, that is the time it takes soil to
rebuild its nutrients supply. Deforestation like that can also disrupt
the water supply by rerooting rainwater and groundwater. A Second,
we have interior and exterior political turmoil. Each Maya city

(04:49):
state had its own rulers who often had their populations
convinced that they had ties with deities and were powerful
enough to control the weather. Hard to say whether or
not those leaders believed in those magical powers themselves. Their
efforts to conquer neighboring cities and peoples may have backfired,
as long periods of war sapped resources been led to retaliation.

(05:12):
There's evidence that a number of Maya cities eventually were
besieged and fell to invaders. Third, we have disease, though
in this case the theory is about an agricultural epidemic,
not a human one. A maze was a staple crop
across the Maya civilization, and the Maze mosaic virus may
have destroyed much of their food supply. A note that

(05:36):
all three of these factors are connected to the fourth theory,
the aforementioned climate change. A destruction of the food and
water supply by overfarming, deforestation, warfare, and disease would have
been exacerbated by the happenstance of natural climate change. Add
to this the fact that political leaders were supposed to
be able to control the weather. Anthropologists say this chain

(06:00):
of unfortunate events would have caused the people to deeply
lose trust in their leaders, which would in turn further
disrupt agriculture and infrastructure and trade, everything that ties the
city together. A while our modern civilization is driving global
warming by polluting the atmosphere, the Earth's climate is affected

(06:21):
by other factors, such as changes in solar activity and volcanoes.
The plight of the Maya seems to be largely the
result of such natural cycles. Scientists who have studied mineral
deposits left by dripping water in caves have been able
to construct a two thousand year long history of weather
patterns in Central America. In an article published in Science

(06:44):
back in twenty twelve, the researchers revealed that for the
first several hundred years of classic Maya civilization, they benefited
from unusually wet weather that made it easier to grow
crops and enabled the population to expand. That also made
the Maya kings look pretty good because they could claim
credit for conducting the rituals that kept the rains coming.

(07:06):
But around sixteen sixty CE, the weather changed and rain
became more infrequent in some regions of the area. The
Maya also may have accelerated that climate change by cutting
down the forest around them, probably for fuel and create
wood plaster for use in their ornate buildings and to
clear land. From studying pollen found in ancient layers of

(07:29):
Central American lake sediment, scientists learned that around eight hundred CE,
tree pollen disappeared almost completely and was replaced by pollen
from weeds. That suggests that the region's forests had all
but disappeared. Without trees and their root systems to keep
soil in place, erosion would have worsened, carrying away fertile

(07:51):
top soil, which would have crippled local agriculture. Additionally, trees
function as natural air conditioners, a drawing water through their
leaves in cooling the surrounding air. When the water evaporates,
you can experience the same effect if you live in
a city. In a park with trees, it's going to
seem cooler than it does out on a city block
with just buildings an asphalt all around you. Computer simulations

(08:16):
indicate that some regions temperature could have increased by as
much as six degrees fahrenheit or around three and a
half degrees celsius. That change would have been enough to
alter the weather even more. Researchers who have analyzed changes
in river sediment have found that in the century after
deforestation in some regions, a rainfall declined there, with intense

(08:37):
multi year droughts occurring around the years eight ten, eight
sixty and nine ten CE. Because the people in these
cities probably depended upon rain captured in reservoirs for drinking water,
they would have faced not only hunger, but thirst as well.
It's not hard to imagine how a panicked population would

(08:57):
have fled its once great city their way of life
collapsed into a sort of pre Columbian mad max. Though
again the note that Classic Maya civilization was not a monolith.
Different communities faced slightly different pressures and came up with
different solutions. As some cities fell, others prospered. That said,

(09:19):
there are some lessons from the so called collapse of
the Classic Maya that we ignore at our own peril.
Scientists warn that we are repeating the same pattern of
deforestation that may have exacerbated climate change in Central America
a millennium ago, except on a far more massive scale.
Trees are about fifty percent carbon, and in the US

(09:39):
alone they presently absorb or sinc a little less than
a million metric tons of atmosphere warming carbon dioxide, which
offsets between ten and twenty percent of what Americans spew
into the atmosphere by burning coal and gasoline. But when
we cut down trees or burn them, they released their
stored carbon into the atmosphere, and they aren't around to

(10:00):
absorb any more of it. Over the past several centuries,
the US has cut down about ninety percent of the
forests that once covered the continent, and what still remains
is in peril and in currently developing nations, once lush
forests have been disappearing at an alarming rate thanks to logging, agriculture,
and the need for human living space. In recent years,

(10:23):
there has been some international progress in slowing the rate
of deforestation, but we still face the risk that it
will push us even faster into climate chaos. It's a
problem that we must work harder to solve, both as
a broad civilization than within our own differing communities. Personal
choices feel small, but they do add up, and you

(10:44):
can make your voice heard in your local government on
bigger issues. If you're here, you probably agree that learning
is the fun part, So learn what you can do
by checking out your government agencies in the US that's
going to be at EPA dot gov, and what local
activists are up to. Today's episode is based on the

(11:08):
article did the Maya civilization end because of climate change?
On how stuffworks dot com written by Patrick J. Kiger.
Brain Stuff is production of by Heart Radio in partnership
with how stuffworks dot Com and is produced by Tyler Klang.
Four more podcasts my heart Radio, visit the iHeartRadio app,
Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen to your favorite shows.

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