Drought, agricultural adaptation, and sociopolitical collapse in the Maya Lowlands

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Douglas, Peter M. J.
Pagani, Mark
Canuto, Marcello A.
Brenner, Mark
Hodell, David A.
Eglinton, Timothy I.
Curtis, Jason H.
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Paleoclimate records indicate a series of severe droughts was associated with societal collapse of the Classic Maya during the Terminal Classic period (approximately 800 to 950 CE). Evidence for drought largely derives from the drier, less populated northern Maya Lowlands, but does not explain more pronounced and earlier societaldisruption in the relatively humid southern Maya Lowlands. Here we apply hydrogen and carbon isotope compositions of plant-wax lipids in two lake sediment cores to assess changes in water availability and land use in both the northern and southern Maya lowlands. We show that relatively more intense drying occurred in the southern lowlands than in the northern lowlands during the Terminal Classic period, consistent with earlier and more persistent societal decline in the south. Our results also indicate a period of substantial drying in the southern Maya Lowlands from ~200 to 500 CE, during the Terminal Preclassic and Early Classic periods. Plant-wax carbon isotope records indicate a decline in C4 plants in both lake catchments during the Early Classic period, interpreted to reflect a shift from extensive agriculture to intensive, water-conservative maize cultivation that was motivated by a drying climate. Our results imply that agricultural adaptations developed in response to earlier droughts were initially successful, but failed under the more severe droughts of the Terminal Classic period.
Author Posting. © The Author(s), 2014. This is the author's version of the work. It is posted here by permission of National Academy of Sciences for personal use, not for redistribution. The definitive version was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of American 112 (2015): 5607-5612, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1419133112.
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