The Drought Theory of the Maya Collapse

The Maya Collapse refers to the decline of the Mayan Classic Period and abandonment of the Classic Period Maya cities between the 8th and 9th centuries. The classic Maya collapse is one of the biggest mysteries in archeology. To this day, nobody knows where the Maya people came from before they arrived in the Yucatan Peninsula, and nobody knows why they left or where they went when most Mayans abandoned their cities and disappeared from the peninsula.

There are several theories that try to explain the Maya Collapse, but there is no universally accepted theory regarding it. However, a new study shows that the Maya culture collapsed a thousand years ago because it failed to cope with climate change, making the drought theory more and more accurate.


The drought theory says that mega-droughts hit the Yucatan Peninsula and Peten Basim areas with particular ferocity for several reasons, one of these reasons being thin tropical soils, which decline in fertility and become unworkable when deprived of forest cover. The colonial Spanish officials accurately documented cycles of drought, famine, disease, and war, providing a reliable historical record of the basic drought pattern in the Maya region.

The Central American people had developed a sophisticated society, accurate calendars, and complex architecture which included pyramids. They thrived during rainy periods but a prolonged drought somewhere between AD 800 and 1100 is said to have brought about its collapse. Scientists came to this conclusion after re-analyzing a wooden beam from a Guatemala temple, originally radiocarbon-tested in 1960.

For a long time, experts struggled to match dates from the Mayan Long Court with the modern European calendar. The Long Count system comprised 20-day cycles made up of k’in, which formed 360-day cycles known as turns. Another unit, b’ak’tun, represented a cycle of 400 years – and it was the ending of one of these that led to the belief that the world would end on December 21, 2012.


Now, archaeologist Douglas Kennett from Pennsylvania State University has applied modern carbon dating methods to a lintel carved with historical records and found at Tikal, which was a major city during the prosperity times of the Maya empire. His purpose was to confirm the accuracy of the dating: 50 years ago, other researchers at the university reckoned the beam had been carved between Ad 695 and 712.

When looking at how climate affects the rise and fall of the Maya, I began to question how accurately the two calendars correlated using those methods”, said the researcher. As well as using carbon isotopes to establish its age, Kennett and his team locked at the three rings in the wood. The date they concluded was around AD 658-696, which backed up the original correlation estimates.

These events and those recorded at cities throughout the Maya lowlands can now be harmonized with greater assurance to other environmental, climatic and archaeological datasets”, the report says.


Last year, scientists from Pennsylvania State University and Zurich, with expert input from Durham University, conducted a project in which precisely-dated rainfall records were made from deposits in local caves. The results were compared to a so-called “war index” which mentioned the dates of hostile events which Mayans recorded on stone monuments.

The findings, published in the journal Science, described how Maya rulers commissioned monuments to record events and the research team found the frequency of texts carved in stone indicating rivalry, war and alliances increased significantly between AD 660 and 900, during the drying trend.

It is not just climate drying and drought that is important, but the preceeding conditions that helped stimulate societal complexity and population expansion”, said Professor Kennett at the time. “This set the stage for societal stress and the fragmentation of political institutions later in time as conditions became drier”, he added.


The rise and fall of Mayan civilization is an example of a sophisticated civilization failing to adapt successfully to climate change. Periods of high rainfall increased the productivity of Maya agricultural systems and led to a population boom and resource overexploitation. The progressively drier climate then led to political destabilization and warfare as resources were depleted. After years of hardship, a nearly century-long drought from 1020 sealed the fate of the Classic Maya.”, concluded the professor.

Climatic changes are, with increasing frequency, found to be major drivers in the rise and fall of civilizations worldwide. The drought theory suggests that rapid climate change in the form of severe drought brought about the Classic Maya collapse.