The fall of Mayapan or the political consequences of a climate crisis [OPINION]

France and much of Western Europe are currently experiencing a severe drought. Beyond the disputes over the impact of human activity on global warming and the political responses to be provided, the history of vanished civilizations is rich in lessons. A multidisciplinary team of scientists has just published its conclusions after analyzing the remains of Mayapan, the political capital of the Mayas of the postclassic period. The postclassic era offers the advantage of being closer in time and the discoveries made by scientists (see the study published by Nature in link) confirm the testimonies that the Spaniards collected during their conquest of Mexico in the 16th century. century.

Mayapan was the center of a powerful confederation north of the Yucatan Peninsula from 1100 to its fall. The end of the Classic period, the Maya Golden Age, around the year 1000 is a subject of controversy among archaeologists. But the reason for its sudden abandonment, shortly after 1450, seems to be the consequence of a long and catastrophic period of drought. The fact is that this abandonment shifted the center of gravity of the Mayan civilization to the north, closer to the sea. Maritime resources partly compensated for a lower harvest of corn, a key food in the region. Archaeologists correlate the lack of rain with a bloody civil war that precipitated the fall of the Maya civilization.

This story is not just a warning, it also shows that human societies show a great capacity for adaptation. There is no shortage of Mayan annals and calendars that tell of the fall of the great city (whose population was estimated at 20000 at its peak). A number of documents have been saved and studied by Spanish religious (Fr. Diego de Landa for example). Successive political crises are chronicled in each generation beginning with a period of "war and terror" in the early 14rd century between great ruling families, followed by repression against the rebellious clan, an exodus of the population and the decentralization of decisions to end with the massacre of the ruling dynasty around 1450 and the abandonment of the city shortly after. Excavations have uncovered mass graves proving several massacres that were not ritual sacrifices. The bodies were sometimes dismembered, proving a desire for annihilation, whereas Mayan societies were traditionally very codified and respectful of the established order. While wars against rival cities were common, internal conflicts were rarer. The comparative analysis of bones dating from different periods and their burial sites allows us to say that deaths due to civil wars represented less than 6% on average of deaths during the period of Mayapan up to 1250, whereas external wars caused nearly 25% of deaths. A century later, around 1350, internal conflicts caused almost 15% of deaths. A few decades later, around 1400, internal revolts and unrest in Mayapan led to the death of almost 53% of the population… The most recent pits contain the remains of the ruling clan. They are shallow and there are broken pottery depicting deities. This profanation is striking in a Mayan society where politics and religion were intimately linked...

If the Mayan annals record the famine resulting from the lack of rain necessary for the cultivation of corn, scientists have sought proof using the most modern technologies. The concretions of the caves constitute veritable paleo-environmental archives. However, the analysis of stable isotopes of oxygen in the speleothems (scientific name of mineral concretions resembling stalactites) dotting a cave, and the study of the salinity of the water of a small lake - both close ruins – prove that rainfall was abundant until the end of the 13th century. From the beginning of the following century, a period of drought was detected, the catastrophic effects of which are evident around 1400. The famine exacerbated political tensions between rival clans leading to a fall in the prestige of authority and the abandonment of the city. .

The Maya of this period managed to adapt showing remarkable resilience. Forming smaller groups, they moved closer to the sea to take advantage of its natural resources and trade routes. But the last confederation had fallen and, despite initially fierce resistance, the Maya no longer had a structure allowing them to repel the invader. “Emerging” countries that depend on water-intensive agriculture are now facing a major political risk. Mayapan is a warning to the leaders of 2022…

Ludovic Lavaucelle

source: Nature

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