Why did the Maya civilisation collapse? We don’t know yet, but drought was likely not the cause: Study

The Maya people could have turned to chaya and cassava to meet their carbohydrates and protein needs

By Rohini Krishnamurthy
Published: Friday 07 January 2022

The mystery behind Maya civilisation’s sudden fall from glory still eludes us. Scientists have long suspected that drought pushed its people towards starvation.

However, this theory appears to be losing steam. The Maya civilisation may have had access to nearly 500 edible plants, many of which were highly resistant to drought, according to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“One thing we do know is that the overly simplistic explanation of drought leading to agricultural collapse is probably not true,” Scott Fedick, an archaeologist at the University of California Riverside and one of the authors of the study, said. 

The Maya civilisation originated in the Yucatan Peninsula. Known for its monumental architecture and an advanced understanding of mathematics and astronomy, it flourished between 600 and 800 AD. 

But then, suddenlybetween 800 and 950 AD, many of the southern cities were abandoned. This period is called the collapse of the Classic Maya civilisations, puzzling modern-day scientists.

Piecing together evidence from the past, scientists think that this period saw significant droughts. This seeded a theory: The Maya people faced starvation because of their dependence on drought-sensitive crops such as corn, beans and squash. 

The lead authors of the new study were not convinced. So, they dug deeper to understand if the droughts were severe enough to hamper food production at the time.

They made a list of 497 indigenous food plants of the Maya lowlands. These plants have also been identified through paleoethnobotany, a branch of science dealing with behavioural and ecological interactions between past humans and plants.

Next, they examined the drought tolerance of the 497 plants under three different scenarios: Short-duration, medium-duration and extreme drought.

“Even in the most extreme drought situation — and we have no clear evidence the most extreme situation ever occurred — 59 species of edible plants would still have persisted,” Louis Santiago, professor of botany and plant sciences at the University of California Riverside, said.

Under extreme drought conditions, stems such as hearts of palm and cactus pads would remain available for multiple years, the study found.

Chaya, a shrub whose leaves are high in protein, iron, potassium and calcium, could have also been available.

The Maya people could have turned to chaya and cassava to meet their carbohydrates and protein needs, the researchers explained.

Still, the question of what drove the downfall of the Maya civilisation remains unanswered. The researchers of this study think social and economic upheaval likely played a role. 

Further, the study draws attention to exploiting various plants to survive drought and climate change. 

Climate change is already hampering food security. For instance, studies suggest it has negatively affected the yield of maize and wheat in low-latitude areas. 

“Even given a series of droughts, maintaining a diversity of resilient crops would enable people, both ancient and modern, to adapt and survive,” Santiago said.

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