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Published May 5, 2015 | Published + Supplemental Material
Journal Article Open

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


Paleoclimate records indicate a series of severe droughts was associated with societal collapse of the Classic Maya during the Terminal Classic period (∼800–950 C.E.). Evidence for drought largely derives from the drier, less populated northern Maya Lowlands but does not explain more pronounced and earlier societal disruption 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 C.E. to 500 C.E., during the Terminal Preclassic and Early Classic periods. Plant wax carbon isotope records indicate a decline in C_4 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.

Additional Information

© 2015 National Academy of Sciences. Edited by B. L. Turner, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ, and approved March 20, 2015 (received for review October 3, 2014). Published online before print April 20, 2015. Gerard Olack, Glendon Hunsinger, and Dominic Colosi provided assistance with compound-specific stable isotope measurements, and Daniel Montluçon, Li Xu, and Ann McNichol provided assistance with compound-specific radiocarbon measurements. Hagit Affek provided helpful comments on an earlier version of the manuscript, and two anonymous reviewers provided constructive commentary. This work was partially funded by the Italian Ministry of the Environment and by a US National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. Author contributions: P.M.J.D. and M.P. designed research; P.M.J.D. performed research; T.I.E. contributed new reagents/analytic tools; P.M.J.D., M.P., M.A.C., M.B., D.A.H., and J.H.C. analyzed data; and P.M.J.D., M.P., M.A.C., and M.B. wrote the paper. The authors declare no conflict of interest. This article is a PNAS Direct Submission. This article contains supporting information online at www.pnas.org/lookup/suppl/doi:10.1073/pnas.1419133112/-/DCSupplemental.

Attached Files

Published - PNAS-2015-Douglas-5607-12.pdf

Supplemental Material - pnas.201419133SI.pdf


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August 22, 2023
August 22, 2023