REPORT #578 December 2002

Produced by the Belize Development Trust

The Mayan Mystery: a Lesson From the Past
Why did the Mayans abandon their cities so suddenly?

Historians of the world have not discovered the reasons for the ancient Mayanís strange behavior, a people who lived in densely populated cities with a developed culture and then suddenly vanished. The first Mayan settlements appeared around 2000 B.C., but by 950 of the Common Era, the majority of the lowland cities were abandoned. The once-flourishing Mayan cities with their astonishing pyramids were with tropical forests, but archeologists rediscovered them in the middle of the 19th century.

A group of scientists headed by Professors Nicholas Dunning and Vernon Scarborough from Cincinnati University discovered evidence of an ecological catastrophe, which explains the mystery of the first Mayan settlements and their subsequent migration. This evidence might answer the question that has perplexed scientists of the world for several decades already: why did the Mayan people live in areas where the basic water reservoirs turned into bogs for half a year, and why did they abandon these places so suddenly?

As it turned out, the Mayans themselves are the reason : their activity caused an ecological disaster and made them arid. Earlier, even before people came to those areas, the territory was a permanent bog, and a drought had never been registered there. The investigation unveiled why many of the original cities inhabited by the Mayan people were abandoned approximately 1.600 years after this civilization first appeared on the lowland territory of the Yucatan Peninsula in Latin America. Scientists have also discovered why the Mayans migrated to new areas, where they created complex systems of storage reservoirs, which further helped the civilization prosper for several centuries.

Geographer Dunning, anthropologist Scarborough, and other scientists from the UC McMicken College of Arts and Sciences published a joint report about the discovery in the last issue of Annals of the Association of American Geographers (Volume 92, No. 2, 2002).

The majority of the early Mayan centers were situated around seasonal bogs. This fact posed another problem for scientists: in fact, the bogs were damp only from July to November, which makes the area around the bogs uninhabitable for large goups of people, who certainly need water year round.

However, the scientists from Cincinnati University and their colleagues discovered that the seasonal bogs used to be swamps or small lakes. Only starting with approximately 400 B.C. until 250 of the Common Era, the affect of mankind on the environment turned these seasonal swamps into non-constant water-containing hydro-systems.

Initially, the lakes (bogs) were steady ecological hydrological systems, which resembled storage reservoirs and were much more attractive places than the seasonal bogs currently in those areas. The scientists say that the ecological changes caused by the Mayan, as well as climatic changes, affected at least some of the swamped areas within the period of 1700 to 3000 years ago.

The scientists explain these conclusions with the facts collected during local research projects held in northwest Belize in 1997 and 1998, and in the northeast Guatemala in 1999. They studied the topography, hydrology, soil, plants, and cultural peculiarities of the Mayan people. They also analyzed numerous sedimentary rocks taken from the seasonal bogs and deserted artificial canals.

The samples discovered by the Scientists dated back to approximately the year 100 of the Common Era. The majority of the surface water disappeared from the seasonal bogs. The scientists discovered a layer of swamped peat several feet below the surface The peat bogs contained pollen from trees, water plants, and seeds.

Judging by these layers, the scientists reached the conclusion that the larger the Mayan population grew, the more their agricultural activity deforested the areas where they lived. Deforesting, in its turn, caused soil erosion. In rainy periods, water came to the bogs with the topsoil, and the bogs gradually flooded the storage reservoirs and reduced their depth. As a result, those territories were no longer suitable for agriculture and produced no drinking water. The bogs then turned from permanent to seasonal.

This fact explains why the Mayan people could happily live on those territories for some time, and why some of the central Mayan cities were abandoned from 400 B.C. to 150 of the Common Era. They migrated and started developing new, more complex systems of storage reservoirs. It is not ruled out as well that large Mayan settlements made the Mayans especially vulnerable to an ecological catastrophe, including long droughts.

In many areas, like in the north-western Belize, when the Mayans lost permanent water sources (permanent bogs), they had to seek new water sources and became more careful with water storage, in order to cope with long droughts and be less dependent upon rains. Thus, no wonder that every time a new Mayan settlement appeared and developed, water reservoirs became an essential part of the city landscape.

Results of the investigation obviously demonstrate the destructive and long-lasting consequences of deforesting, which are also currently being cut down in Central Latin America. Scientists also mention that turning of the bogs from permanent to seasonal occurred approximately 2000 years ago; however, despite the fact that it happened many centuries ago and the territories are already wooded, the bogs have not yet not recovered.

Translated by Maria Gousseva

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