The Mayans rise and fall: Water security and Climate change

Many mysteries surround the Maya-civilization, living from 250 BC to 900 AD. It is seen as the most developed society in Mesoamerica in ancient history. One of the more intriguing question is how the Mayans managed to flourish and how they abruptly came to their fall in 900 AD (Livescience). Amongst the possible causes to its demise are the exploding population growth and the intensification of land use, both leading to greater resource scarcity. Moreover, in the seasonal climate, water supply had been an ongoing problem for the Mayans. This month, archaeologists led by the University of Cincinnati have revealed new details about the Maya’s sustainable water and land management, including the discovery of the largest ancient dam in Central America (Published in PNAS, see also Sci-News).

Ancient water management
The gravity dam, positioned at the Mayan city called Tikal, presents the largest hydraulic architectural feature known from the Maya era. It was constructed from cut stone, rubble and earth – stretched more than 260 feet in length, stood about 33 feet high and held about 20 million gallons of water in a human-made reservoir. The dam, most likely, contributed to the Mayans’ ability to conserve and use natural resources to support its populous, highly complex society despite environmental challenges, including periodic drought. Due to the civilization’s growth and success, its resource needs were great, but they were able to develop a sophisticated, long-lasting management system that helped them thrive, with stone-age tools and technology (ScienceDaily).

The Temple, palace, and hidden reservoir chain with location of excavations and ancient arroyo drainage (Sci-News).

Water collection and storage were critical in the environment where rainfall is seasonal and extended droughts not uncommon. And so, the Maya carefully integrated the built environment – expansive plazas, roadways, buildings and canals – into a water-collection and management system. At Tikal, they collected literally all the water that fell onto these paved and/or plastered surfaces and sluiced it into man-made reservoirs (Sci-News). The overall system of reservoirs and early water-diversion features, which were highly adaptable and resilient over a long stretch, helped Tikal and some other centers survive periodic droughts when many other settlement sites had to be abandoned due to lack of rainfall (Awaken).

Antropogenic Climate Change
The growing insights into the rise and collapse of the ancient Mayan civilisation shows that intensification of agricultural land use and deforestation had contributed to climate change in the area, such as lack of rainfall and drought. NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies climatologist Benjamin Cook and his colleagues found that forest-clearing by Mayan farmers worsened drought conditions in the area (LiveScience). That is why it is argued that the Mayans ‘did it to themselves’, making themselves and their own success one of the causes for their collapse (Nasa).

Nowadays, protecting the world’s freshwater resources is important more than ever. The fall of the Mayans shows what antropogenic climate change can do to a flourishing civilization. Especially when fresh water, the most essential of natural resource, is threatened and not sufficient. In 2010, a group of scientists pleaded for prioritizing global and local water security for humans and freshwater biodiversity: “Given escalating trends in species extinction, human population, climate change, water use and development pressures, freshwater systems will remain under threat well into the future”. Therefore, we need better land use management, better irrigation techniques and emphasis on protecting ecosystems and the life forms within them (Riverthreat).

Hopefully, it is not too late to learn from the Mayans that a sophisticated water management system is not enough to survive.

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