Drought and the Collapse of the Maya Civilisation

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The ancient civilisations of Central and
Southern America are still largely surrounded with an air of mystery.

Much of this resulted from the discovery of cities, many with gigantic pyramids, in the central
American jungles; these appeared to have been simply abandoned, long before the Spanish Conquistadors’ arrival. Some of these were known to the Conquistadors; that a great many more were hidden in the forests was only revealed to the world through the writings of an American archaeologist, illustrated by the paintings of an English artist, who together explored the jungles of Yucatan and Guatemala in the years 1839
1842 AD.

John Lloyd Stevens
, the archaeologist, wrote:Here was the remains of a cultivated, polished, and peculiar people, who had passed through all the stages incident to the rise and fall of nations; reached their golden age, and perished.” (Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan. Vols. 1 & 2. J.L.Stevens.1841.)
Click here to view illustrations by the artist: F. Catherwood.
But these abandoned cities were an enigma. The buildings and monuments were inscribed with hieroglyphs that would not be translated until the 1980s. The descendants of the people that built these cities still live in the region; they are known as the Maya.

The fascination these abandoned cities hold arose because it became clear that many great cities, over a very wide area, had been abandoned before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors. These cities and their magnificent buildings had clearly been centres of major states, supported by a vast complex of productive farms.

To name just some of the more significant cities: Aguateca, Calakmul, Copan, Caracol, Chichen Itzan, Coba, Copan, Edzna, Ek Balem, El Mirador, Izimte, Palenque, Rio Azul, Tikal, Uaxactun, Uxmal & Yaxchilan.

 Drought had been suspected by some archaeologists as the cause of the abandonments, but dismissed for lack of evidence. The pioneering climate historian Hubert Lamb  had also mooted the possibility, back in 1982 (CHMW. Chpt. 9. p160-161. See also Note at bottom of page); but without evidence for drought, the strongest alternative hypothesis (dozens have been put forward, only to wither for lack of evidence) was that of a rural peasants’ revolt against a remote, elite priesthood caste that had inhabited these cities - put forward decades ago by archaeologist Eric Thompson. (The Rise and Fall of Maya Civilisation. E. Thompson. 1954.)

But such a revolt, occurring simultaneously to so many competing states, spread across such a large region; that appeared to cost so many lives; (Estimates for the southern Maya lowlands suggest that  by 1000 AD the population was 20% of what it had been in 700-800 AD. [Folan.1995 & 2000. Also: Fletcher et al. 1987, Santey. 1990.]) together with the failure of the populations to rebound or new societies to form (Civil wars often end with new dynasties being founded; fragmentation often produces numerous warlords etc.) failed to convince.
Later translation of the hieroglyphs (1980s) failed to provide support. Thompson's rebellion hypothesis came to be seen as increasingly implausible; particularly when it became evident to subsequent archaeologists that the cities had been economically thriving, well populated metropolises - not sparsely populated religious enclaves.

Evidence also pointed not to the slow decline of this civilisation (based on centralised city-states, each with large urban populations supplied by a sophisticated and extensive agricultural system), but to its collapse.

No dates have been found on monuments or buildings in the Maya areas for the period between 909 AD and the rise of the city of Mayapan at around 1200 AD. Nor is there much evidence for mass migration into areas neighbouring Maya lands, apart from movement from lowlands into the Guatemalan highlands and, in Yucatan, towards the lakes in the heart of the Petan district.

Any explanation had to account for the nature of abandonment of almost all cities and states in particular areas at particular times; the cessation of metropolitan activity for nearly 300 years (After 909 AD only a few Maya cities show evidence of continued inhabitation - e.g. Coba, Lamanai, Mayapan, Copan, Chichen Itza, Tulum – but with much reduced populations and activity.), the disappearance of millions of peoples, the failure of the population to rebound;
and also had to plausibly explainand evidence – the events and processes that led to this outcome.

Maya historical accounts document two later great droughts between 1330-1334 AD and 1441-1461 AD. As a result of a long (documented) drought in Mexico and the Yucatan in the 16th Century (post-conquest), it has been estimated that half of the then Yucatan population died from famine and disease. A translation of a Maya account is here.

Post-colonial records show twenty-seven periods of drought, six of which were severe, between 1450 AD and 1840 AD. In the 20th century the rainfall record kept at Merida in the Yucatan shows the seasonal rains failed in 1902-1904 AD, resulting in a severe drought. Eight further notable droughts occurred during the 20th Century.  It is accepted that the Maya region has suffered other great droughts in its past, at times causing great loss of life.

In recent years there have been a number of breakthroughs in explaining the abandonment of the Mayan cities.
In 1995, archaeologist Richardson Benedict Gill used the last dates carved on monuments in cities to identify four periods when the abandonment of Mayan cities had occurred, in clusters:

a.) The pre-Classic abandonment’s of 150200 AD.

b.) The Hiatus of 530
590 AD.

c.) The main period of collapse ~ the Classic period: 8th/9th Centuries

d.) The Post Classic abandonments, centred on 1450 AD.
Most of the Maya city abandonments had occurred during the Classic period. Gill argued that during this there had been three distinct phases of collapse, these ended at 810, 860 and 910 AD. (The last recorded Long Count date [at Itzimte] is 910 AD.)

Gill’s deeply researched case was that drought was the cause each time, that the Maya city states were unable to withstand such droughts and that meteorological conditions at that time explained such droughts; his research and conclusions were published as a book in 2000 AD.
(The Great Mayan Droughts. Water, Life, and Death. R. B. Gill. University of New Mexico Press. 2000.)
Gill noticed that cold droughts afflicted Yucatan during periods when N. Scandinavia also experienced long periods of cold. He realised that this was due to areas of pressure that form the North Atlantic Index moving into new positions, in relation to each other.

Using Swedish tree ring records Gill identified periods of severe cold during 150
200 AD, 530590 AD , 790950 AD, 11101160 AD, 13301360 AD &14501500 AD. (NB: See Note 4 in 'Other Abandonment Periods' below for explanation.)

Evidence for drought at the time of abandonments appeared at the end of the last century from three sediment cores taken from Lake Chichancanab, in the north of Yucatan, and a finely detailed sediment core taken from Lake Punta Laguna, also in the Yucatan.

Scientists David Hodell, Jason Curtis and Mark Brenner radiocarbon dated organic material embedded in these layers and subjected shell calcium carbonate remains (from millions of minute creatures – ostracods and gastropods
[e.g. see left] that have lived and died in the waters over the centuries, the remains of which make up the sediment) to oxygen isotope analysis that revealed changes in levels of precipitation levels etc.

Hodell, Curtis and Brenner found that the Maya region had experienced three major drought episodes: between 475
250 BC, between 125 BC210 AD and from 7501025 AD.

The second of these coincides with the pre-Classic collapse of El Mirador, the third with the Classic Period collapses. Of the last episode they reported:
Geochemical analysis of sediments from Lake Chichancanab shows that this period of 800 to 1,000 AD was the driest in the region of the middle to late Holocene epoch. i.e. of the past approx. 3,500 years.” (Possible role of climate in collapse of Classic Maya civilisation. Hodell et al., Nature. June. 1995.)

In the sediments at the bottom of this lake they found a layer of gypsum (calcium sulphate), that is dissolved and carried by rivers in the region into the lake. Usually this gypsum remains dissolved, but if the lake level drops the concentration increases to a point where gypsum crystals form and settle on the lake bed. The gypsum layer was dated to 800 to 1000 AD.

These results showed severe drought episodes in the region and provided accurate dates that matched those for the abandonments. 


Yet more supporting evidence for droughts came from similar lake bed cores from Lake Satpten in the Maya lowlands of Guatemala, Lago de Patzcuaro in the central Mexican highlands, Laguna de Cocos in N. Belize, Laguna Pallcacocha in SW Ecuador - and also a seabed core from the Cariaco basin off the Venezuelan coast.
Gerald Haug’s Cariaco basin team recovered and analysed a high resolution core (from drilling into the seabed) containing the annual layers of silt (and levels of titanium that come only from river-borne materials) discharged by rivers, that clearly showed periods of heavy and light river discharge.

At times of heavy rainfall more material is carried by rivers and deposited at sea, at times of low rainfall less material is carried. These show as distinct layers. These layers can also be analysed to get information about sea temperatures etc. It is known that dry periods in the Yucatan coincide with a southward shift in the Trade winds and Intertopical Convergence Zone (ITCZ).

During dry periods these winds are over the Cariaco basin, causing more cold water and nutrients to rise from the depths. Life in the ocean flourishes, producing much carbonate and silica that is then deposited on the ocean floor.

Essentially these show as light coloured layers, wet periods as dark layers.
If the trade winds remain over the basin for lengthy periods it means drought for the Yucatan as these carry rain to the region, something that also shows in a reduction of river born material.

Using detailed measurements it’s possible to estimate the length of any drought. Analysis provided much more exact dates.

Huag’s team identified three periods of severe multi-year droughts, centred on 760 AD, 810 AD, 860 AD and 910 AD.

The last three periods were the same dates for the Classic abandonments as Gill had proposed. (Does Climate Make History? Climate and the Decay of the Maya Culture. Haug et al. Science. 2003.)


Huag noted three phases to the collapse.

In phase one the western lowlands were hardest hit. (Tikal lost around 90% of its population at this time; it was completely abandoned by 890-910 AD.)

Phase two saw the abandonments in the south eastern lowlands.

Finally, in phase three, the remaining cities in the central lowlands and in north Yucatan were abandoned.

The only places where people appeared to have survived in any numbers were where there was a shallower water table and water could still be obtained from deep lakes, caves and sink-holes (cenotes). The remaining cities had gone from a centralised state to a few peasant subsistence farmers - possibly organised into chiefdoms.
Yet more evidence for the Maya droughts comes from analysis of a stalagmite from Chilibrillo cave in the Isthmus of Panama. As stalagmites are built up by calcite and water slowly slowly dripping onto them over the years, they record both a physical (more rain = thicker bands) and geochemical record of precipitation that can be precisely analysed and dated using Uranium and Thorium isotopes.

This stalagmite shows two very dry periods at the time of the pre Classic abandonments. A third dry period at 560-630 AD coincides with the Maya period called the Hiatus, whilst: "Two pronounced dry episodes in Panama between ~ 770  and 1010 A.D. coincide with the Classic Maya collapse [Webster*, 2002] from 750-950 AD." (* Note: David Webster is another noted Maya historian & author of The Fall Of The Ancient Maya. Thames and Hudson. 2002.)

The researchers also noted that their isotope results: "show a broad increase (drying) from 180 B.C. to 1310 A.D." in southern Central America.

Their results: "also show pronounced hydrologic anomalies during Medieval time, particularly during the 1100-1200 A.D. "High Medieval" [Bradley et al. 2003] when western European temperatures were anomalously high. Rainfall anomalies began as early as 550 A.D. in Panama, but the driest conditions occurred between 900 and 1310 A.D.". (
M. Lachniet et al. A 1500 year El Nino/Southern Oscillation and rainfall history for the Isthmus of Panama from a Spelotherm calcite. Journal of Geophysical Research. 2004.)

Much of Mesoamerica was also suffering from repeated drought episodes during this time; numerous other studies have been undertaken. From one into historic lake levels in the Mexican state of Michoacan,
one of the researchers concluded that the very rapid drying at Lake Zacapu: "seems to reflect a drying of the region as a whole, the most pronounced of the whole Holocene." S. Metcalfe et al. The Palaeoliminological Record of Environmental Change: Examples from the Arid Frontier of Mesoamerica. In Environmental Change in Drylands. Ed: A. Millington. J. Wiley & Sons. 1995.
With drought extending both southwards down towards Panama and northwards into Mexico, the Maya (through trade links with other cultures) would have realised there was no obvious refuge to head to. This could well explain why there are no signs of attempted mass migrations to areas outside Maya lands during these droughts.
Note 1: Tree-ring and sediment core evidence also show that severe drought gripped the USA’s Great Plains, Colorado and New Mexico between 735–765 AD ( (Stahl et al. 2002.); extending into Mexico and the Yucatan at the time of the Hiatus and Classic periods of abandonments. Large city states also collapsed in central Mexico e.g. between 750800 AD - Cholula, Cacaxtla and Xochiclco declined and were abandoned by 900 AD. In central Mexico the major city state of Teotihuacan had collapsed by the first half of the eighth century. Drought in Northern Mexico and the Sierra Madre Occidental in the 8th century caused a major period of disruption and migration that resulted in the Toltecs arriving in central Mexico. For more on this click here.

Note 2: Droughts of great magnitude afflicted vast regions of the Americas during the Medieval period. Tree-ring and sediment cores show the Canadian plains endured 300 year period of drought between 500-800 AD. North Dakota was gripped by drought between 700850 AD. California's Sierra Nevada experienced extremely severe drought conditions for more than two centuries between 892–1112 AD. 

Further south, ice cores from the Quelccaya glacier in Peru show two dryer than normal periods, between 535-665 and 855985 AD, that overlap the periods of the Hiatus and Classic collapse.

The 760 AD drought signalled the end of a 200 year ‘wet’ period in the Yucatan, during this time the cities prospered, but populations grew to such great numbers that agricultural production became over stretched.
Much of the Maya civilisation and its agriculture was fatally sited on a vast area of porous, karst limestone; here rain often simply disappears into deep underground rivers flowing though caverns to the sea.
In normal years many regions have a long dry spell lasting 4 6 months; much of the Maya lowlands is a seasonal desert.

Above: Chac Mool - the Maya rain god. It is thought that the hearts of sacrificial victims were placed into the dish on his belly.


As the water table was far beneath the ground; the Maya had turned quarries into reservoirs and built ingenious irrigation systems - but these were wholly dependent on rainfall replenishing their supplies.

A study found that a large city such as Tikal* had reservoirs that could hold 18 months supply; but the three severest drought episodes were each between 39 years duration. In the drought centred on 810 AD the city of Tikal lost around 90% of its population.

* The city of Tikal occupied a six-square mile (9.5 km square) area with up to 10,000 individual structures, ranging from huge pyramid temples to thatched huts. Its population is estimated to have been around 60,000. A large rural population of farmers would have supplied the city.


Annual rainfall varies from 17 inches (0.4 m) in the Yucatan peninsula to a much higher 157 inches (4 m) in Guatemala. Planting was timed to coincide with the seasonal rains.The Maya created raised-fields (milpas), where better soils were collected and piled up, irrigated by networks of channels. This resulted in a more sustainable means of farming than slash and burn methods. Mayan farmers also practised double cropping to increase yields and devised ingenious systems of drainage ditched to cultivate swamplands, again dependent on rainfall. Much more of the region was under cultivation than today.

reported three phases of the collapse.

In the first phase, the western lowlands, where rainfall was the primary source of water, were decimated.

Phase two saw the abandonments in the south eastern lowlands, an area where freshwater lagoons store some surface water.

Finally  in phase three the remaining cities in the central lowlands and in north Yucatan were abandoned.

Gill notes that the only areas where people did survive in any numbers were in the northern lowlands; where the water table was shallower and water could be obtained from sunken lakes and deep sink holes - even if scaffolds had to be constructed to reach the water.

Food production would have been very severely affected, as it is unlikely they would have been unable to porter enough water to continue to irrigate their fields. The cities situated by the major rivers were all early casualties, suggesting the rivers dried up without yearly rains to replenish them.

The Maya’s western lowland reservoirs seem to have just about coped with the drought centred on 760 AD. But from then until 1025 AD, the intervals between the severe droughts also became much dryer than normal; placing the already fully stretched Maya agriculture and irrigation systems under increasing stress.

The later three droughts, lasting 3-9 years each, delivered knock-out blows.
Faced with such droughts, lasting several consecutive years, it would have been impossible to set aside sufficient stockpiles to feed the populations or build adequate reservoirs.


The rains did not come, crops did not grow, water supplies ran out, fires burned in the jungles, the administrative systems of the cities were overwhelmed and one by one the cities collapsed.

Millions simply died of thirst, hunger and the diseases that accompany them. With them died the skills and knowledge accumulated and handed down over generations. Those that survived were unable, or unwilling, to attempt recolonise the cities and rebuild those societies. It really does seem that brutally simple.

This dry period, punctuated by severe droughts, continued following the Classic Period Maya collapse.
 There were reoccurrences of severe drought in the Maya lands between 910-990 AD and 1060-1100 AD.
The circumstances of each individual city's abandonment would have been unique to it. Each city would have had its own internal politics, administrations and the like. Some cities would have been more ably led and administered than others; some had better food reserves or would have had greater ingenuity when faced  with a crisis. A few neighbouring cities may have been engaged in warfare with each other when the crisis broke, or resorted to raiding as a survival strategy. Some cities would have had access to better resources (land, water etc) than others and so on. Stress on already overstretched resources, Maya over-reliance on Maize as a food staple (Maize and its cultivation had been imported from central Mexico.) large population sizes, deforestation etc. may also have played a part. The time of the Classic Period abandonments is likely to have been chaotic and complex.

But drought, particularly of the length (3-9 years) and severity of those during the Classic Period collapses, applies unique stresses on societies and cruelly exposes any deficiencies. The limits of available reservoir capacities (many cities had reservoirs located in their centres), replenishment rates together with the quantities of available food reserves impose their own harsh deadlines; when food and water supplies ran out and the the rains still did not arrive the Maya had no options, or hope, left to them.
The droughts and food shortages would have reduced the peoples' resistance to disease. Without rains to wash away human waste, standing water can become both stagnant and contaminated, leading to intestinal infections (Typhoid fever, cholera, poliomyelitis, diarrhoea etc.) and parasitic infections (Malaria, Yellow Fever etc.). Malaria is well known in areas below 5,000 ft  (1,500 m) in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and southern Yucatan; pools of stagnant or standing water increases its incidence. (Yellow Fever was first identified by Europeans in Yucatan in 1648. Vaccination is recommended for visitors today.) Famine and thirst both weaken human resistance to disease, and can kill in their own right.

Each city's collapse may have been the result of a complex set of processes; but drought seems to have been the catalyst for each of these cities failing, their fall in populations and the absence of attempts to re-establish them as viable entities afterwards. A situation also seen elsewhere in central and South America between 600 AD and 1100 AD.

A tree-ring study found that in the eighth century AD a great drought extended from the northern Great Plains, across the southwestern United States, and extending into Mexico and the Yucatan peninsula. Tree-ring data from Colorado and New Mexico document severe drought there from 735-765 AD. (Stahl et al. 2002.) (The final act in the major central Mexican city state of Teotihuacan's history is dated at 750 AD.)

In northern Mexico, drought later was a probable contributory factor in the collapse of the
Toltec state in 1170 AD; a period characterised by drought, warfare and migrations - this drought extended up into the west and southwest of northern America.
In Peru a long drought caused the collapse of the Wari and Tiwanaku Empires in 1100 AD and 1150 AD respectively.

The Classic Period Maya droughts were not isolated events; droughts afflicted many regions of the Americas during these centuries. Those Maya that survived probably then just looked to their own year-to-year survival as best they could.
Archaeologists believe that in the period following the Classic Period abandonments the surviving Maya became more commercially minded; trade links became more important, and they became less elite and caste based than before.
The droughts hadn’t just caused the abandonment of the Maya cities, but perhaps also the abandonment of the idea that cities were the most effective means of social organisation in these circumstances; organising around cities may have been seen as being too high risk. The surviving Maya had adapted as best they could to this change in climate.

The few cities that remained inhabited were those that (just) survived the great droughts, mainly in northern Yucatan. It also appears that these cities may have been reinvigorated by refugees, possibly following the great floods on the Gulf Coast in 1100 AD, that resulted in the collapse of the powerful Gulf state of El Tajin.

The Mayan population for the time before the Classic Period collapse was an estimated 510 million people.
To give some perspective, at the later time of the Norman conquest the population of Britain was an estimated 2½ million people (based on studies of the Domesday Book etc.). It’s thought the Mayan southern highlands lost well over 75% of its population (figures up to 90% have been suggested by some archaeologists).

This was an immense natural disaster. We today struggle to imagine what droughts of this length and severity would have been like. Yet droughts and accompanying famines have also produced similar (documented) periods in the past where millions have died elsewhere in the world e.g. China, India & Africa. Go deeper into the past of these countries and the number of fatalities from drought induced famine are even more immense. For example, in India six famines (averaging two years duration) between 1860-1899 AD killed a total of over eighteen million people; two of those famines each claimed over five million people. All these Indian famines were caused by drought.

The Other Abandonment Periods

Note 1. The first dry period between 475250 BC saw the Pre-Classic abandonments between 150200 AD. Drought across the entire Maya region caused the abandonment of many cities; including El Mirador in the forest of Guatemala, the largest Maya city of its day. El Mirador was not reoccupied until the late Classic period. Researchers have found that the levels at Lakes in this area dropped to their lowest in this period at around 200 AD. Low levels were also found for this period in the lakes to the south and in Lakes' Chichancanab, Coba and Macanxoc in the Yucatan Peninsula.

Note 2. The period between the first and second drought episodes contained periods that were wetter than average. These may have encouraged agricultural expansion and population growth. (History and climate have no sense of irony.) The end of the Classic period droughts was also followed by a period of wetter than average years.

Note 3: A period of upheaval, the Hiatus, occurred between 536590 AD. This was a period of severe world-wide cold & dry fogs caused by a massive volcanic eruption; the climatic disturbances caused by the volcano lasted for several years afterwards*. 
Gill reports that Rio Azul and many smaller cities in the Petan were abandoned and rural populations dropped by 70%. Analysis of cores from the Quelccaya ice cap In Peru indicates very dry periods between 540560 AD and 570610 AD. A lake sediment core from Punta Laguna (near Coba, Yucatan) shows serious drought during the Hiatus.

* An eruption by the volcano Laki, in Iceland in 1776 AD, had a similar effect on much of Western Europe, lasting several months. The eruption caused thick fogs, containing sulphur dioxide and sulphuric acid, that proved harmful to humans. See also here.

Note 4: Gill based his period of Post Classic abandonments around 1451 AD, when several Yucatan cities: Mayapan, Chichen-Itza, Uxmal and Coba etc. were abandoned.

There is evidence for drought, cold and famine between 14411461 AD contained in the Spanish/Mayan historical accounts of 'Chilam Balum of Mani' and 'Chilam Balem of Chumayel'. (Curtis, Hodell & Brenner 1996 citing Folan & Hyde 1985. Gill. 2000.)

The Spanish/Aztec histories, the 'Codex Ramerez', records that between 145051 AD a prolonged cold, drought period, with no rain, but heavy snowfalls and summer frosts, destroyed the Aztec empire’s annual harvest in Central Mexico.

This cold was then succeeded by severe drought from 145154 AD. It is now well known that El Nino brings drought to central Mexico.

More evidence for drought in the early 1450's AD comes from south-eastern North America; where there was a well documented prolonged, uninterrupted drought between 14491458 AD. An extensive region, centred on the junction of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers; from the American Bottoms south to the Ohio River and extending into central Tennessee became largely depopulated.

Hodell and colleagues have recently
analysed sediment cores (published 2005) from large cenotes at Aguada X'caamal and San Jose Chulchaca and Lakes Chichancanab and Salpeten and found that precipitation levels had fallen again in the Yucatan during the 15th century, related to a change in temperatures of adjacent seas.

R. B. Gill had also noted that his Swedish tree-ring analysis showed a cold spell in Sweden at this time. These cold periods coincided with droughts in the Yucatan. Gill's explanation lay in changes to areas of high and low pressure associated with the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO). When the North Atlantic High moves to the northeast Atlantic, then humid conditions apply in both Yucatan with warm conditions over northwestern Europe. If the North Atlantic High moves to the far southwest then cold prevails in northwestern Europe as the Siberian High moves across northern Europe, whilst dry conditions prevail in the Yucatan.  (For further explanation see Chpt. 6 of R.B. Gill's book: The Great Mayan Droughts. Water, Life, and Death.)

Other studies suggest that historical droughts and the cold (negative) phase of the NAO/AMO coincide in Yucatan. (Frequency and Duration of Historical Droughts from the 16th to the 19th Centuries in the Mexican Maya lands, Yucatan Peninsula.  B. Mendoza et al. Climatic Change 2007.)

It looks as if an El Nino event may also have influenced events in Mexico and elsewhere at this time. Nile flood records in Egypt (a good indicator of El Ninos, as El Nino events are noted for reducing rainfall in the Ethiopian highlands, where the Blue Nile starts) for 145051 AD show the lowest levels for 300 years.

These droughts may also have been exacerbated by volcanic activity; Aniakchak in N. America erupted in 1450 AD.  There was also a massive eruption by the volcano Kuwae in Indonesia in 1452 AD.

The events of the Post Classic collapse in the early 1450's in Mexico could be an example of a convergent (multi-casual) catastrophe.

Note: Hubert Lamb and the Maya droughts.
Lamb devotedjust over a page (p160-161) to the Maya in his seminal book 'Climate, History and the Modern World' (1982), but noted - I quote verbatim: "...after 800 AD the decline was rapid. Pollen studies in lake sediments and bogs on the edge of the highlands of Guatemala near 17 degrees N certainly show a quick change of the surrounding vegetation from grassland to deciduous forest about AD 850-900, but a previous change in direction is dated as early as about 900 BC. It is clear that the highly organized Maya civilisation developed just in that part of Central America where the effort to keep back the forest today would nowadays be greatest. " and: "The suggestion that climatic changes also played a significant part in Mayan development and its final collapse has been little regarded in recent years."

Lamb went on to note pollen evidence that suggested: "...a natural change weakening the forest" and: "...others have suggested on the basis of archaeological evidence that towards the end of the Classical Maya time, about 800, the climate in the valley of Mexico and in the Yucatan became so dry that there was concern over water supply and soil moisture and the drought may have been prolonged to the point where it became necessary to abandon the driest regions."

Lamb further notes similarities between the fall of the Maya and the later fall of the Khmer empire in the jungles of SE Asia: "With such vegetation changes there is clearly a case for believing that some climatic shift was at work."

It's a great pity Lamb never did any field work in the Maya lands; if he had done so these epic droughts may have been evidenced much earlier.

In Lamb's day, tropical climate mechanisms (monsoon winds, jet streams, the Intertropical Convergence Zone etc) were much less well understood (if at all) than today.

Meteorologists and oceanographers in Lamb's day were also just on the verge of discovering the true nature of the El Nino phenomena

Lamb's CHMW (1982) has only one entry for El Nino (p296), noting that in 1972: "an irregular fluctuation (known as El Nino) of the ocean currents off Peru and Ecuador ruined the usually abundant anchovy fishery there."

The rest of the same page is devoted to the prevalence of droughts in Australia, China, India and the Western African Sahelian area (these latter killed very large numbers of people) - in the very same year - 1972.

How was Lamb to know that it was this "irregular fluctuation (known as El Nino) of the ocean currents" that had been the cause of those same droughts? Today we we know it as the El Nino Southern Oscillation.

 For sources and further reading on the Maya drought see below: (Scroll down.)

Click here for a more detailed map of the Maya lands.

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The Great Mayan Droughts. Water, Life, and Death. R. B. Gill. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. 2000.
I suggest you start with chapters 12 & 13 where Gill summarises and assembles his evidence and presents his case, then return to the start. This book is a goldmine of information. [See also references in its end papers.]

The Maya. M. Coe. Thames and Hudson. 7th edition. 2005.
Michael Coe is an authority on the Maya and has periodically updated his classic introduction to what archaeology has discovered about the Maya culture and their history, since his book was first published. The 7th, and latest, edition of The Maya was revised in 2005 and is a good introduction to their world and to what is currently known.

Archaeological Mexico. A. Coe. Avalon Travel Publishing. 2001.

Mexico. From the Olmecs to the Aztecs. M. Coe & R. Koonts. Thames & Hudson. 2002.
Ancient Mexico: History and Culture of the Maya, Aztecs and Other Pre-Columbian Populations. M. Longhena. White Star. 2006.

The Fall Of The Ancient Maya. D.  Webster. Thames and Hudson. 2002.

Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World. L. Foster, P. Mathews. OUP. 2005.

The Long Summer. B. Fagan. Granta Books. 2004. The role climate played in human history during the Holocene. Chapter 12 is about the Maya abandonments. Chapter 11 about North American droughts, AD 01 to 1200. Fagan is an archaeologist with the gift of being able to communicate complex ideas and information clearly and entertainingly to the general reader and has breadth and depth of knowledge.

Floods, Famines and Emperors: El Nino And The Fate Of Civilisations. B. Fagan. Pimlico. 2000. Chapters 7, 8 & 9 are on the Peruvian  Moche, the Maya abandonments and the Medieval droughts in the American south west. Good chapters on both ENSO and the North Atlantic Oscillation.

El Nino, Catastrophism, and Culture Change in Ancient America. D. Sandweiss et al. Harvard University Press. 2009. Excellent chapter on the Maya droughts by Yager and Hodell. Otherwise orientated towards pre Columbian Peru and Chile and ENSO dynamics.

The Holocene. An Environmental History. N. Roberts. Blackwell. 2004. Textbook for the serious reader. Excellent sections on how materials can be dated using isotopes etc. This is a university undergraduate level book, but should be accessible by an informed general reader.

Catastrophe. D. Keys. Century. 1999. Interesting book about a little known period of worldwide climatic disturbance caused by a massive volcanic eruption in Indonesia, in around 535 - 536 AD. See Maya Hiatus above.

See also the list on the Historic El Nino Events page and on the Sources and reading matter page.

Papers, abstracts, articles etc.

Climate and History on the Yucatan peninsula. Dahlin. 1983.

Cored Sediments of Lake Chichancanab in Yucatan. D. Hodell et. al., 1993.

Climate Variability on the Yucatan Peninsula (Mexico) During the Past 3500 Years, And Implications For Maya Cultural Evolution. Curtis et. al., Quarternary Research 46. 1996.

Possible Role of Climate in Collapse of Classic Maya Civilisation. Hodell et. al., Nature. 1995.

Climate Variability on the Yucatan Peninsula (Mexico) during the Past 3500 Years, and Implications for Maya Cultural Evolution. D. Currtis et al. Quaternary Research. 1996.

Terminal Classic Drought in the Northern Maya Lowlands Inferred from multiple Sediment Cores in Lake Chichancanab (Mexico). Hoddel et al. Quaternary Science Reviews.  2005

Does Climate Make History? Climate and the Decay of the Maya Culture. Haug et al. Science. 2003.

Climate and the Collapse of Maya Civilization. Huag et.al., Science. 2003.

Climate change on the Yucatan Peninsula during the Little Ice Age. Hodell et al. Quaternary Research 2005.

Mexican Megadrought. B. Hunt. 2004. Climate Dynamics. 2004.

North American Droughts of the Last Millennium from a Gridded Network of Tree Ring Data. Herweijer et. al., Journal of Climate. 2006.

Climate Change in North Dakota. A. Ashworth.

Competitive And Co-operative Responses to Climatic Instability in Coastal Southern California. D. Kennett & J. Kennett. American Antiquity 65. 2000.

A comparison of speleothem and lake sediment core (O18) records from the north-central Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico. Hoddel et al. American Geophysical Union, Fall Meeting 2004, abstract.

Paleoclimatic Variation in the Valley of Guatemala during Pre Columbian Times. Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies.

Abrupt Climate Change and Pre Columbian Cultural Collapse. Brenner et al. Chapter 6 in: 'Interhemispheric climatic linkages' (V. Markgraf Ed) 2001.PDF: 3 MB download.

Terminal Classic Drought In The Northern Maya Lowlands Inferred From Multiple Sediment Cores In Lake Chichancanab. Hodell et al. Quaternary Science Reviews. Volume 24. 2005.

A 4000-Year Lacustrine Record of Environmental Change in the Southern Maya Lowlands, Peten, Guatemala. M. Rosenmeier et al. Quaternary Research 57. 2002.

Holocene Environmental Change in the Zacapu Basin, Mexico: a diatom-based record. S. Metcalf.  The Holocene, Vol. 5. 2. 1995.

Records of Late Pleistocene–Holocene climatic change in Mexico. S. Metcalfe et al. Quaternary Science Reviews. Vol 19. 2000.)
“A period of marked aridity is recorded in the
Yucatan and central Mexico about 1000 yr BP.”
The 8th Century Megadrought Across North America. D. Stahl et al. American Geophysical Union, Fall Meeting. 2002.

A Landscape Analysis Of The Candelaria Watershed In Mexico: Insights Into Paleoclimates Affecting Upland Horticulture In The Southern Yucatan Peninsula Semi-Karst. J. Gunn et al. Geoarchaeology. Volume 10. 2007.

Climate and Prehistory on the Yucatan Peninsula. B. Dahlin. Climatic Change.  1983.


Pre-Classic 150-200 Drought. B. Dahlin. Climatic Change. 1993.


Paelolimnology of Laguna de Cocos, Albion Island, Rio Hondo, Belieze. Ancient Maya Wetland Agriculture: In: Excavations on Albion Island N. Belize. Ed M. DeLand. Westview Press. 1990.


Guatemalan Forest Synthesis after Pleistocene Aridity. B. Layden. PNAS. 1982.


Late Quarternary Aridity & Holocene Moisture Fluctuations in lake Valencia Basin, Venezuela. Ecology. B. Layden. 1985.


Cultural and Climatic History of Coba, a lowland Maya City in Quinta Roo. Mexico. B. Layden. Quaternary Review. 1998.


A Record of Long and Short Term Climatic Variation in NW Yucatan; Cenote Jose Chulchaca: B. Layden. In: The Managed Mosaic. Ancient Maya Agriculture and Resource Use. Ed. S. Feedick. University of Utah Press. 1996.

A 1000-Year Record Of Winter Precipitation From Northwestern New Mexico, USA: A Reconstruction From Tree-Rings And Its Relation To El Niño And The Southern Oscillation. R. D'Arrigo et al. The Holocene, Vol. 1, No. 2. 1991.

Historical Droughts in Central Mexico and Their Relation with El Nino. B. Mendoza et al. Journal of Applied Meteorology. American Meteorological Society. 2005.

Frequency and duration of Historical Droughts from the 16th to the 19th Centuries in the Mexican Maya Lands, Yucatan Peninsula.  B. Mendoza et al. Climatic Change. 2007.

Cultural Responses to Climate Change During the Late Holocene. P. DeMenocal, Science. 2001.

Societal and Environmental Factors in the Classic Maya Collapse. W. Folan et al. (Chapter one in: 'Population, Development and Environment on the Yucatan Peninsula.) International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis. 2000.

Adaptation to Drought in Mexico. D. Liverman. (Chapter 31 in 'Drought, a Global Assessment. Vol II'.) Routledge. 2000.

Online articles:

Geotimes: Paleoarchaeology ~ Mayan drought

Weathering a Maya mystery


NOAA Paleoclimatology, education and outreach.

Also related:

Tiwanaku and its Hinterland: Archaeology and Paleoecology of an Andean Civilisation. Smithsonian Institution Press. 1996.

Cultural Impacts of Severe Drought in the Prehistoric Andes; Application of a 1,500 year ice core precipitation record. L. Thompson et al. Archaeology and Arid Environments. 1991.

Climate Variation and the Rise and Fall of an Andean Civilisation. Binford et. al. Quaternary Research. 1997.

Tropical and Subtropical Ice Core Climate records of the Last Two Millennia. Thompson et. al., 2006. A.U.G.

Extreme and Persistent Drought in California and Patagonia During Medieval Time. S. Stine. Letter to Nature. 1994.

Lake Sediments Record Large Scale Shifts In Moisture Regimes Across The Northern Prairies During The Past two Millennia. Laird et. al., PNAS. 2003.

North American Drought: Reconstructions, Causes, and Consequences. E.Cook, R. Seager, M. Cane, D.Stahle 2004.

The 8th Century Megadrought Across North America. D. Stahle. A.G.U. Fall meeting. 2002.

The characteristics and likely causes of the Medieval megadroughts in North America. R. Seger. The Earth Institute Columbia Univesity.

North American Drought: reconstructions, causes and consequences. E. Cook et al. Earth Science Reviews. 2007. PDF: 5 MB download.

Persistent Drought in North America. R. Seager. 2005.

The Great Droughts of Y1K. S. Stine. Article. Sierra Nature Notes, Volume 1, May 2001.

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