did climate collapse culture?

Famed for their temples, their astronomy, and their human sacrifices, the Mayan civilization’s sudden collapse has always been mysterious. In the eighth century, the Mayan empire, which lasted more than a thousand years, stretched from Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula to Honduras, and had a population of more than 13 million people. But within 200 years, the great cities and temples were deserted. It’s been speculated that drought wiped out the population, and new research published in the March 14 Science states that climate indeed may have played a role. The team of Swiss and US researchers studied sediment cores drilled from the ocean floor, and used titanium levels as indicators of rainfall. (Titanium levels tend to be higher when there is more rain, which washes the metal from the land into the ocean floor sediments.) The researchers discovered that there was a long period of dry weather in the ninth and 10th centuries, as well as three intense droughts, which seemed to match up with the times proposed for the abandonment of the Mayan cities. The Maya depended heavily on reservoirs, canals, and other systems for catching rainwater, so the droughts may have pushed them over the brink.

This news brief appeared in the Random Data column of the Boston Globe’s Health/Science section on 3/25/2003.
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