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Aldern writes: "Aside from giving us a bit more insight into the Mayan civilization, the review offers a further window into the effects of deforestation on the climate."

A Mayan ruin. (photo:
A Mayan ruin. (photo:

Did Mayan Deforestation Change the Climate?

By Clayton Aldern, Grist

09 September 15


he pre-Columbian Mayans are known for many things: El Castillo at Chichen Itza, stucco masks and hieroglyphics, and a Long Count calendar that had nothing to do with a 2012 apocalypse, to name a few. But contemporary thinkers tend not to associate the Mayans with environmental degradation and climate change. A team of geoarchaelogists, led by researchers from the University of Texas-Austin, is here to change that.

The group’s new review claims that we should look to the “Mayacene” era (c. 1050 BCE to AD 950) as instructive of what infrastructure development can do to local ecosystems — and how, in turn, those local environmental changes force human adaptation. Previous research has suggested that pockets of devastating drought, when combined with political fragility and war, helped topple the empire.

“Many aspects of Maya landscapes can have negative impacts,” wrote the authors in Quaternary Science Reviews, “including sedimentation on slopes, valleys, wetlands and lakes, and pollutants such as mercury and potentially phosphorus, if the latter is high enough to produce harmful algal blooms.” Markers of Mayan environmental changes and adaptations are still apparent in the region today.

Here’s more from UTNews:

By looking at Maya impacts on climate, vegetation, hydrology and lithosphere from 3,000 to 1,000 years ago, researchers propose that the Maya’s advanced urban and rural infrastructure altered ecosystems within globally important tropical forests.

The researchers identified six stratigraphic markers — or “golden spikes” — that indicate a time of large-scale change, including: “Maya clay” rocks; unique soil sequences; carbon isotope ratios; widespread chemical enrichment; building remains and landscape modifications; and signs of Maya-induced climate change.

… Maya clay and soil sequences indicated erosion, human land-use changes and periods of instability. Soil profiles near wetlands revealed heightened carbon isotope ratios due to agriculture and corn production; and researchers noted a three- to fourfold increase in phosphorus throughout Maya-age sediments.

Aside from giving us a bit more insight into the Mayan civilization, the review offers a further window into the effects of deforestation on the climate. By examining pollen records as a proxy for changes in vegetation, researchers can begin to piece together a more or less unadulterated picture of how deforestation, wetland farming, urbanization, and other changes in land use can drive regional climate change, “much like how widespread forest removal is involved in climate change today,” write the authors.

We’re often given opportunities to learn from history, and this is one of them — and in this case, it’s an opportunity to learn from one of the greatest civilizations this Blue Marble has hosted. Take note. your social media marketing partner


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+4 # tedrey 2015-09-09 10:21
Quite a different explanation from when I was a kid. Then it was assumed that the Mayan cities succumbed to the encroaching jungles . . . they couldn't cut the trees down fast enough!
+2 # RobertMStahl 2015-09-09 12:00
I thought satellite telemetry identified "remnants" of concrete bedding laid on the river bottoms, thus effecting the sensitive ecological balances whereby the trees receded...
0 # Old4Poor 2015-09-09 12:14
Having spent time at a number of the major Mayan sites,and a few minor ones, it is my belief that the cities were abandoned after they were hit by massive hurricaines. The cities are all along waterways which then became polluted when the resultant storm surge flooded into the graveyards poisoning the water supply and creating widespread disease.
0 # Jump Off Joe 2015-09-09 15:01
I've only heard of two Maya ruins close enough to the ocean to have been damaged by hurricanes: Tuluum, and the tiny (one small building) ruina at the tip of Isla Mujeres.

Which cities are you referring to?
-5 # Jump Off Joe 2015-09-09 14:57
I have seen a lot of bizarre AGW theories, but this one takes the cake.

Probably their civilization was destroyed by sea level rise. :)
+1 # Jim Rocket 2015-09-11 18:28
Thinking is hard. Best leave it others, Joe.
0 # Jump Off Joe 2015-09-12 08:39
I don't find it hard at all, Jim And it's apparently not YOUR specialty, since you'd rather make rude comments than write anything thoughtful.
+2 # henryjgeo 2015-09-09 16:39
There is no question that the collapse of the Classic Maya Civilization in the rain forests was a result of human impact on the environment. They were able to survive in the more arid North Yucatan. Did their deforestation of Southern Mesoamerica cause climate change is debatable. What did cause climate change in the Northern Hemisphere was Desoto's rampage in What is Southern U.S. The hundreds of pigs he brought of which some escaped caused a mass genocide of indigenous people in the area. The population decline caused a reforestation of the area and that affected the climate.
+1 # newell 2015-09-10 05:35
all civilizations began with the advent of farming, which began 0-6,000 yrs ago. for the previous 99% of our history we were hunter-gatherer s and lived in small bands of a few to a few hundred. (to get a civilization one needs farming to provide the surplus food to get a surplus population to get a class system). the incas, aztecs and mayas were the exception to the norm of hunter-gatherer s in pre-columbian times. so i think deforesting their area quite likely just by the above info. it seems the pattern for all farming/civiliz ation/class cultures.

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