Wiped Out!- What the Maya taught us about Climate Change

The Peculiar Past Column:

Ever sat down to a succulent meal, let’s say Pizza, and wondered where the ruby red tomatoes adorning your meal came from? How about those potato chips you had for lunch? Well, in CUB Magazine’s Column ‘The Peculiar Past’, columnist Hannah Cragg has all the answers to your questions. Follow her as she uncovers the dust-coated ancient civilisations, to which we owe our cuisine and modern luxuries. 

You might have heard of the Maya, an ancient Mesoamerican civilisation hidden deep in the tangled forests of Mexico and Guatemala. Maybe you’ve seen their display at the British Museum, with impressively preserved stone statues of past rulers (both men, women, and even a man dressed in traditionally feminine clothing), large inscribed tablets depicting intriguing old traditions, and an array of items that were used in the ballcourts- a game played with teams, hoops, and a ball, but unlike basketball, usually ended in at least one sacrifice. Perhaps you know how advanced the civilisation was, with their precise long count calendar that predicted events over a thousand years into the future, their irrigation and storage systems, and their development of a written hieroglyphic language, the first in the Americas. But were you aware of their mysterious disappearance in 900AD? And how they may have been wiped out by something eerily familiar in our modern age?

So how did they disappear? When the Spanish arrived in the 1500s they found wonderful stone pyramids, temples, and government buildings in over 50 vast cities that would have housed over 40,000 people each, which at the time was incredible. But instead of a thriving civilisation, they found the cities completely empty, reclaimed by the surrounding jungle, now the home of howler monkeys and parrots all colourfully embellished with bright gemstone feathers. Unfortunately, it had been a site of ruins for centuries. Historians had long puzzled over what sort of cataclysm could have brought about the collapse of such a clearly advanced people. They came up with countless theories, from a disastrous volcanic eruption to an earthquake, to the plague to end all plagues. But now, thanks to archeological discoveries, we finally have a rough idea of what wiped out the Maya. It was climate change. Due to an unusually rainy spell that likely lasted centuries, the Mayans thrived in their metropolises and had plenty of food to sustain themselves. Even when it didn’t rain, they adapted to their harsh climate by creating systems to extract drinking water from salty caverns and lakes. The rains, unlike London’s endless downpours, wouldn’t last. Once the climate started to shift, the Mayan people found themselves without a stable source of water or rainfall, reaching its climax in a twenty year drought. And even though the Mesoamerican civilisations were all masters of their environments, the Mayans simply couldn’t adapt quickly enough. Any rain they received sank into the soil. Crops of maize could no longer be sustained. Suddenly, water became a resource worth fighting for.

Recently there have been more and more claims that the wars of the future will revolve around water, as the population swells and the essentials become more and more scarce. But that’s hardly a new concept. Wars over water have been raging for centuries at a more local level, over the control of dams and streams. After all, we all need water, so what could be more important to control? In fact, we can trace a lot of modern conflicts and their escalation in the Middle East to struggles over water distribution. So it comes as no surprise that the Maya underwent turmoil when supplies became limited. The whole political hierarchy might have collapsed. City states, such as Tikal and Palenque, were abandoned while wars were waged and water disappeared- evidence doesn’t entirely point to a mass extinction, but instead tells us that the Mayans moved towards the coasts of Central America. In fact, the Mayan people didn’t die out. There’s still an estimated six million people who speak the language, mainly in Guatemala, and many of them still practice ancient Mayan traditions. There’s a silver lining in that while the cities were left to the jungle, the Maya chose to preserve their culture elsewhere rather than let the wilderness claim them, too.

That’s the most popular recent theory about the Mayan’s disappearance, anyway. But how does it relate to the modern day? Well, especially in London, it’s impossible to miss the actions of the Extinction Rebellion movement, protesting the end of the world as we know it. It’s a fact that the world is currently at the brink of an irreversible climate disaster. All the evidence points towards an apocalyptic loss of human, plant, and animal life due to rising temperatures and increased natural disasters throwing the world off its balance. Not to be a downer, though. However, when we look at current events, we can see the effects of droughts devastating places all over the world. Australia is still on fire, and with the loss of over half a billion animal species, most found nowhere else on earth, and 33 human deaths, the scary reality of drought is clearer than ever. Scientists predict that if the climate crisis isn’t averted soon, droughts will be increasingly common, in more parts of the world. While warmer weather might seem like a blessing in constantly wet and gloomy England, it couldn’t be worse news. Storms and hurricanes thrive off warm moisture, remember how annoying Storm Ciara and Dennis were? Tag-team tempests like them will become an everyday occurrence, if we don’t do something about our carbon footprints soon. 

The Maya, while they had figured out how to master their tough environment, couldn’t adapt fast enough when the weather turned for the worse. Their climate disaster was natural (although some archeologists and geologists argue that because they cut down nearby forests to make way for cities, they removed their essential tool for retaining moisture, which accelerated the effects of drought, but that’s all too sciencey for me to get into) and there’s probably very little they could have done to stop it. But ours is all human. We are causing it. And for decades, we’ve been aware of the dangers. For so long, we’ve been complicit in our own downfall. We’ve been adding to it, actively, most of us without guilt or a second thought. We can no longer afford to watch the world burn around us, while we entertain ourselves with the next gig and the latest app. On an individual level, most of us have been recycling, and a lot of us have cut down on meat or switched to dairy alternatives and done what we can to improve our carbon footprint, which is great. What will really make a difference, though, is big companies. It’s so easy for them to posture by using paper straws instead of plastic while they continue to poison rivers and use fossil fuels. We can’t let these nero-esque corporations play their lyres atop their palaces, while Rome burns around them. This is what the Maya have taught us. We’ve got to make big changes, or watch all we’ve made turn to dust.

  CUB’s Hannah Cragg is a QM historian with a passion for all things Incan. In writing ‘The Peculiar Past’ column she aims to spread her appreciation and passion of the Incan empire. Adding to her impressive character is her skill at playing cello and her previous residence in five different countries.

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