• Tufan Akbay

Could the collapse of the Mayan capital be related to the drought?

A prolonged drought may have fueled civil conflict and caused political collapse in Mayapan, the Mayan capital of the Yucatán Peninsula.



Mayapan served as the capital for some 20,000 Mayans from the 13th to the 15th centuries, but collapsed and was abandoned after the Xiu, a opposing political group, massacred the powerful Cocom family.


Kukulkan Temple in Mayapan: Wikimedia Commons


But new evidence suggests that drought in the previous century may have played a larger role in the city's collapse than previously known.


Archaeologist Marilyn Masson says, her team have found shallow mass graves and evidence of carnage in monumental structures around the city.



“Some of corpses were stabbed to the ground with stabs in the pelvis and rib cages, and other skeletal remains were chopped up and burned,” Masson said. Not only did they dismember and burn the corpses, they did the same to statues of their gods."


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But that wasn't the most shocking discovery for researchers.


The discovery came when the study's lead author, Douglas Kennett, dated the skeletons using accelerator mass spectrometry, an advanced radiocarbon dating technology, and determined that they were dated 50 to 100 years before the city's collapse in the mid-15th century.



There are many ethno-historical records of the city's violent collapse around 1458. But evidence of carnage dating to some 100 years ago, along with climate data that found prolonged drought at that time, led the team to suspect that environmental factors may have played a role as well.


Paleoclimatologists calculated annual precipitation levels for that period using a dating method based on calcite deposits in nearby caves, and found a drought trend throughout the 1300s. Researchers found significant links between a particularly drought period and a drastic population decline from 1350 to 1430.


The Mayans relied heavily on rain-fed maize but did not have any long-term grain stores. The research shows that the effects of precipitation levels on food production have an impact on human migration, depopulation, warfare and shifts in political power.



The authors of the study speculate that Xiu, who carried out deadly attacks on Cocom, may have used the drought and famine in the 1300s to incite rebellion, along with the unrest that led to mass deaths and exodus from the city in Mayapan.


But after this period of drought and unrest, the city seemed to recover, albeit briefly, with the help of healthy precipitation levels around 1400, according to the authors.


Masson said, “As Mayapan recovered a bit, the drought reappeared in 1420. They had not yet had time to recover and the atmosphere was still tense, the city administration could not afford another crisis like this.”


The conclusion from the study shows that the response of people in the Yucatan Peninsula to drought is complex. While drought caused social distress and institutional collapse in Mayapan. These results are important in assessing the potential success or failure of modern government institutions designed to maintain domestic order and peace in the face of future climate change.