Scientists discover Mayan mystery

By WND Staff

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Researchers have discovered what they believe is the reason the ancient Mayans suddenly left their densely populated cities on the Yucatan Peninsula in Latin America hundreds of years ago.

The first Mayan settlements appeared around 2000 B.C., but by A.D. 950, the majority of the lowland cities were abandoned. The once-flourishing Mayan cities with their astonishing pyramids amid tropical forests were rediscovered by archaeologists in the middle of the 19th century.

In the latest issue of Annals of the Association of American Geographers, a group of scientists headed by professors Nicholas Dunning and Vernon Scarborough from Cincinnati University detail evidence of an ecological catastrophe that severely impacted the Mayans’ ability to collect and store life’s most precious resource: water.

The Mayans’ activity caused ecological changes that made the areas where they lived too arid. Before people came to those areas, the territory is thought to have been a permanent bog. Leveraging those bogs, they created complex systems of storage reservoirs, helping the civilization prosper for several centuries.

The scientists and their colleagues discovered that what are now seasonal bogs used to be swamps or small lakes. During the period between 400 B.C. and A.D. 250, the effect of the Mayan civilization on the environment turned these swamps into non-constant hydro-systems.

Initially, the lakes were steady hydrological systems, which resembled storage reservoirs and were much more attractive than the seasonal bogs currently in those areas. The scientists say that the ecological changes caused by the Mayans, as well as climatic changes, affected at least some of the swamped areas in that time period.

The scientists’ conclusions are based on research projects done in northwest Belize in 1997 and 1998, and in northeast Guatemala in 1999. They studied the topography, hydrology, soil, plants and cultural peculiarities of the Mayan people. They also analyzed numerous sedimentary rocks taken from the seasonal bogs and deserted artificial canals.

The samples discovered dated back to approximately A.D. 100. The majority of the surface water has disappeared from the seasonal bogs, but the scientists discovered a layer of swamped peat several feet below the surface. The peat bogs contained pollen from trees, water plants and seeds.

Judging by these layers, the scientists reached the conclusion that the larger the Mayan population grew, the more their agricultural activity deforested the areas where they lived. Deforesting, then, caused soil erosion. In rainy periods, water came to the bogs with the topsoil, and the bogs gradually flooded the storage reservoirs and reduced their depth. As a result, those areas were no longer suitable for agriculture and produced no drinking water.

The Mayans eventually began to migrate and started developing new, more complex systems of storage reservoirs.

In many areas, like in northwestern Belize, when the Mayans lost permanent water sources, they had to seek other sources. They became more careful with water storage to cope with long droughts and to be less dependent on rain. Every time a new Mayan settlement appeared and developed, water reservoirs became an essential part of the city landscape. As the effect of human inhabitants continued to take its toll, the Mayans were forced to quickly abandon areas where they had lived and prospered for hundreds of years.

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