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Theories Behind the Disappearance of the Myan Cilization

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Theories Behind the Disappearance of the Mayan Civilization

Travis Epling Prof. Aprile Castagna Cappuzzo
Introduction to Humanities
2 May 2014

Theories Behind the Disappearance of the Mayan Civilization There are many theories behind the decline of the Mayan Civilization. They range from over-population, war, famine, immigration, deforestation, climate change, and even aliens. When we say the disappearance of the Mayans we do not mean that the culture completely disappeared, we are talking about and extreme reduction in population. Tom Server believes as much as 90 to 95 percent of the population. Many of the major bustling cities of the Mayan Empire such as Tikal, Palenque, and Copan were simply abandoned for, what appears to be, no reason. Many of these theories have been debunked over time with the development of new science technology that allows for more thorough of investigations of these ancient civilizations. The first theory we will visit will be the affects of deforestation which also encompasses part of the climate change theory. NASA archaeologist, Tom Sever(2004) states that , “The Mayan civilization in Mesoamerica was one of the densest populations in human history”. He believes that the population during the height of the Mayan Empire would have been between 1800 and 2600 people per square mile. In 2000, the population density of Los Angeles was around 2300 for a comparison. The extreme amount of people living in the area would have put a strain on the natural resources of the area; water, usable land, trees, animals, etc. It would have pushed the limits of what the land could support. Based on Sever’s theory he believes that, in order to sustain the population not only did they have to clear land for living areas but also there would be a great need for land to cultivate enough food for everyone. This extreme clearing of trees coupled with an exceptionally long drought that occurred at this time would have essentially destroyed the land. There was already a scarcity of water and without vegetation to help retain the water in the soil it would dry out and be useless as farm land. Another factor increasing the rate of deforestation is how they built their temples and buildings. It is believed that to make a square meter of the stone used in their temples would have taken at least 20 trees to make a fire big enough and hot enough. With the amount of land needed for the population to live and farm and add in the amount of trees it would take to build their temples and buildings we can speculate on the high rate of deforestation. Bob Oglesby, a colleague of Sever’s and an atmospheric scientist calls this. “The granddaddy of all deforestation events.” With the disappearance of trees and the forest turning to grasslands, studies have shown that this may have potentially raised the ambient temperature 5 to 7 degrees Celsius. This would have increased the rate of evaporation and sped up the loss of valuable water that was already in short supply. No water and dry land would mean no food for these people and with the large population size any resources they would have had in storage would have been used up very quickly and would have lead to the downfall of the civilization. Another theory, which in a sense combines with the deforestation theory, is that there was an abnormally long drought in the area. Dr. Richard Gill, a banker, studied this theory and wrote a book called, “The Great Mayan Droughts: Water, Life, and Death.” In his book he makes the statement, “Sunny days, in and of themselves, don’t kill people. But when people run out of
Theories Behind the Disappearance of the Mayan Civilization food and water they die.” It is his belief that this abnormally long drought in and of itself is what lead to the demise of the Mayans.
Throughout years of research with the help of people like Dr. Fred Valdez, and archaeologist from the University of Texas and a team of scientist from the University of Florida, and pulling from resources such as colonial records from Spanish authorities in the Yucatan and meteorological papers he was able to conclusively prove that there was a major drought in the area that lasted at least 3 years. On his own he came up with the idea that a drought is what destroyed the Mayans and with the help of Dr. Valdez, he was able to conclude that the Mayans had amassed a huge population that died off very quickly. Many factors could explain this so he set out once again to find more evidence to support his theory. That is when he stumbled upon records from Spanish authorities in the Yucatan in which someone documented a horrible drought. They wrote, “'The crops had been very bad in the year 1795 - they were running out of grain and they were afraid that the terrible death they had seen so often in the past was going to repeat itself again, so they asked for help.” Once again this was more evidence to support his theory but at best it was still just circumstantial. He needed to find a way to prove an extreme shift in weather in the area. For this he started researching hundreds of meteorological documents. One in particular that helped was the “Dendrochronology.” It told of an extremely cold period of time in Northern Sweden during the time of the Mayan fall. He found through studying more meteorological documents from this time frame that an extreme high pressure system had moved from North American down into Central American. Once again he found more substantiating evidence that was, once again, circumstantial.
It wasn’t until he linked up with a team of Scientist from the University of Florida that he found what he was looking for. They were pulling core samples from Lake Chichancanab in the Yucatan region of Mexico. They discover through analyzing these samples that the ninth century was the driest period of time in this region in 7000 years. At last he had the proof he needed to substantiate his claim that a drought is what caused the fall of the Mayan civilization.
These are just a couple of the theories that try to explain the mystery behind the disappearance of such an advanced civilization. I believe that no one theory is correct. It is my opinion that they all work together to help us understand what happened. Massive population growth, depletion of natural resourced, different cities feuding with each other in an attempt to survive a hard time, and abnormally long drought, and I can even understand the killing of their leaders since it was their belief that if they fell out of favor with the gods they would be punished. I believe that this great civilization simply became to successful for their own good and all that they created an built essentially destroyed their environment and lead to their downfall.

Theories Behind the Disappearance of the Mayan Civilization
BBC History:
National Geographic News:
Earth Observatory:

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