Did Water Shortage Cause The Demise Of The Ancient Maya Civilization?

– At the end of the Classic Maya Period in the 9th century something happened that cause the demise of this once great ancient civilization in Central America. Suddenly, without any apparent reason the advanced Maya civilization went from flourishing to collapsing.

The population diminishing rapidly and monumental stone structures, like the ones built at Yucatán, were no longer being constructed. What happened?

A new study suggests water shortage cause the demise of the Maya civilization. A group of researchers at the TU Wien have explored the interactions between sociology and hydrology and represented them by coupled mathematical models. The results of their study lead them to conclude the irrigation technology that served the Mayans well during periods of drought may have actually made their society more vulnerable to major catastrophes.

Water influences society and society influences water. The water supply determines how much food is available, so in turn affects the growth of the population. Conversely, population increases may interfere with the natural water cycle through the construction of reservoirs, for example.

“It’s well-known that the Mayans built water reservoirs in preparation for dry spells,” Linda Kuil, one of Prof. Günter Blöschl’s PhD students of the Vienna Doctoral Programme on Water Resource Systems, funded by the Austrian Science Fund, at TU Wien says.

“With our model, we can now analyze the effects of the Mayans’ water engineering on their society. It is also possible to simulate scenarios with and without water reservoirs and compare the consequences of such decisions.”

As it turns out, water reservoirs can actually provide substantial relief during short periods of drought. In the simulations without reservoirs the Mayan population declines after a drought, whereas it continues to grow if reservoirs provide extra water.

However, the reservoirs may also make the population more vulnerable during prolonged dry spells. The water management behavior may remain the same, and the water demand per person does not decrease, but the population continues to grow. This may then prove fatal if another drought occurs resulting in a decline in population that is more dramatic than without reservoirs.

We will probably never know all the reasons for the decline of the Mayans. After all, wars or epidemics may have played their part too.

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