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60-Second Earth

Maya Civilization Provides a Real Apocalyptic Lesson

Research shows that what laid low Mayan society was climate change, which brought prolonged drought. David Biello reports

You survived the Mayan apocalypse, or at least transitioned to the next baktun, number 14 according to the Mayan calendar. But what real lessons does this ancient culture hold?

First and foremost, the Maya are a case study in adaptation. Their complex civilization of powerful city-states collapsed, and the jungle retook those urban centers. But the Mayan people endured, today being the principle ethnic population of parts of Mexico, Guatemala and Belize.

European invaders did not end the era of the Mayan city-state. Although it was descendants of those Europeans who came up with this apocalypse mumbo-jumbo. 

Research shows that what laid low Mayan society was something more insidious: climate change. A subtle shift in weather patterns brought less rain and the Mayan civilization was simply unable to cope with a prolonged dry period punctuated by several severe droughts.

Given that our highly complex civilization is also facing climate change, it might make sense to look back to the Maya for a glimpse of our future. Today much of the former Mayan city-states are nature preserves, dotted by ruins. Will we do better when faced with crippling and long-lasting drought in this, the 14th baktun?

—David Biello

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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