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The Great Maya Droughts in Cultural Context

Case Studies in Resilience and Vulnerability

Edited by Gyles Iannone

Publication Year: 2014

In The Great Maya Droughts in Cultural Context, contributors reject the popularized link between societal collapse and drought in Maya civilization, arguing that a series of periodic “collapses,” including the infamous Terminal Classic collapse (AD 750–1050), were not caused solely by climate change–related droughts but by a combination of other social, political, and environmental factors. New and senior scholars of archaeology and environmental science explore the timing and intensity of droughts and provide a nuanced understanding of socio-ecological dynamics, with specific reference to what makes communities resilient or vulnerable when faced with environmental change.Contributors recognize the existence of four droughts that correlate with periods of demographic and political decline and identify a variety of concurrent political and social issues. They argue that these primary underlying factors were exacerbated by drought conditions and ultimately led to societal transitions that were by no means uniform across various sites and subregions. They also deconstruct the concept of “collapse” itself—although the line of Maya kings ended with the Terminal Classic collapse, the Maya people and their civilization survived.

The Great Maya Droughts in Cultural Context offers new insights into the complicated series of events that impacted the decline of Maya civilization. This significant contribution to our increasingly comprehensive understanding of ancient Maya culture will be of interest to students and scholars of archaeology, anthropology, geography, and environmental studies.

Published by: University Press of Colorado


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Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-x


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pp. xi-xvi


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pp. xvii-xviii


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pp. xix-xxii

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1: Introduction

Gyles Iannone

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pp. 1-20

This volume examines the developmental trajectory of ancient Maya civilization, with particular emphasis on two themes: climate change, specifically droughts, and what are deemed to have been a series of periodic “collapses,” including the infamous Terminal Classic collapse...

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2: The Dynamics of Ancient Maya Developmental History

James Aimers and Gyles Iannone

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pp. 21-50

Recently, a growing number of environmental scientists and archaeologists have invoked droughts to explain what have long been considered to be the most famous episodes of demographic or political decline in ancient Maya history, including the Late Preclassic abandonments, a Middle Classic “hiatus,” a Terminal...

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3: Assessing the Great Maya Droughts

Gyles Iannone, Jason Yaeger, and David Hodell

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pp. 51-70

For over thirty years a case has been building to suggest that various “collapses” occurred in the Maya subarea in the past and that all of these cultural declines were the result of periodic and devastating “megadroughts”—a particular type of drought characterized by “extensive duration and magnitude” (Hunt and Elliott 2002:1). This “megadrought” model is founded on an array of...

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4: Agricultural Landscapes, Deforestation, and Drought Severity

Robert Griffin, Robert Oglesby, Thomas Sever, and Udaysankar Nair

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pp. 71-86

Widespread deforestation can adversely affect the habitability of a landscape. In fact, the removal of tree cover should be viewed on par with global climate patterns for determining the water cycle in a region, particularly in the central portion of the Maya Lowlands. This premise justifies a study of ancient Maya land...

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5: Climate Change in the Ancient Maya Forest

Anabel Ford and Ronald Nigh

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pp. 87-106

Mesoamerica and the Maya lowlands (Figure 5.1) have been home to humans since the first peopling of the Americas. Economic botanists, ecologists, and ethnologists have recognized this long and entwined relationship from the anthropogenic qualities of, and interactions with, the Maya forest (Atran 2003; Atran et al...

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6: The End of the Beginning

Nicholas Dunning, David Wahl, Timothy Beach, John Jones, Sheryl Luzzadder-Beach, and Carmen McCane

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pp. 107-126

The Classic Maya “collapse” (or the “transitions and transformations” of the Terminal Classic period) has generated endless discussion since it was first detected in the calendrical record of Maya inscriptions many decades ago. More recently, advances in Maya archaeology have illuminated earlier disruptions...

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7: A Tale of Three Cities

Bruce H. Dahlin and Arlen F. Chase

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pp. 127-156

Directly linking climate change and cultural change is difficult. However, it is occasionally possible to link extraordinary climatic events to the archaeological record. The AD 536 event is such an instance. Given its global reach, impact from the AD 536 event had to have been felt in the Maya area. The archaeological...

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8: Collapse without Drought

Matt O’Mansky

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pp. 157-176

The current focus by some researchers on drought as the causal factor in the transformation of Maya civilization in the Late and Terminal Classic periods has its origins in a lake core extracted from Lake Chichancanab, Mexico (Hodell, Curtis, and Brenner 1995). This was not the first time that climate change in general, or...

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9: The Classic Maya Collapse, Water, and Economic Change in Mesoamerica

Arthur A. Demarest

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pp. 177-206

Many previous discussions of the end of Classic period Maya civilization have failed to address the collapse issues in broader theoretical and culture historical perspectives. They also often have been unaware of the great variability in chronology and the layered nature of causality over the nearly three centuries of the process of termination of the Classic Maya political system...

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10: Water in the West

Andrew K. Scherer and Charles Golden

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pp. 207-230

This chapter is concerned with the problem of political collapse of the Classic period (ca. AD 250–900) Maya kingdoms of the western lowlands, a region that includes the extreme western edge of the Peten, Guatemala, northeastern Chiapas, Mexico, and much of Tabasco, Mexico. During the Classic period this area...

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11: Oxygen Isotopes from Maya Archaeological Deer Remains

Antoine Repussard, Henry P. Schwarcz, Kitty F. Emery, and Erin Kennedy Thornton

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pp. 231-254

An increasing number of studies support the concordance between dry episodes in the Circum-Caribbean Basin and the political disruption of Maya society at the end of the Terminal Classic, during the period often called the “Classic Collapse” (e.g., Haug et al. 2003; Hodell, Brenner, and Curtis 2007; Neff et al. 2006). However, the exact sequence of events and...

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12: The Prehistoric Maya of Northern Belize

Fred Valdez and Vernon Scarborough

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pp. 255-270

The environmental history of the Maya lowlands indicates that various drought episodes occurred during the course of Maya Civilization. The likely droughts have been discussed in detail elsewhere (Gill 2000; Webster 2002a), and serve as the basis for discussions concerning adaptations and developments among the prehistoric...

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13: An Archaeological Consideration of Long-Term Socioecological Dynamics on the Vaca Plateau, Belize

Gyles Iannone, Arlen F. Chase, Diane Z. Chase, Jaime Awe, Holley Moyes, George Brook, Jason Polk, James Webster, and James Conolly

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pp. 271-300

In recent years, a number of eminent scholars have urged archaeologists to focus more attention on the examination of long-term socioecological dynamics, particularly because they believe that such research will generate insights that will be crucial as contemporary society attempts to deal with issues such as declining resources...

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14: Tracking Climate Changein the Ancient Maya World through Zooarchaeological Habitat Analyses

Kitty F. Emery and Erin Kennedy Thornton

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pp. 301-332

Paleolimnological and paleoclimatological research has recently presented compelling arguments for alternating periods of dry and moist conditions throughout the history of occupation of Mesoamerica, and has effectively linked these to global climate phenomena. Certain periods of reduced precipitation have been suggested as correlating with (Brenner et al. 2002; Gill...

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15: Maya Drought and Niche Inheritance

David Webster

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pp. 333-358

Two brief anecdotes to begin. First, I’ve lately been afflicted by filmmakers wanting advice about the Classic Maya collapse, probably because the (supposedly) doomsday year 2012 looms on their radar. Most recently I was called by a London filmmaker who was doing a program about drought and the collapse. He asked me: “Which big Maya site should I focus on...


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pp. 359-450


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pp. 451-466

E-ISBN-13: 9781607322801
E-ISBN-10: 1607322803
Print-ISBN-13: 9781607322795
Print-ISBN-10: 160732279X

Page Count: 448
Illustrations: 85
Publication Year: 2014

OCLC Number: 873807557
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Great Maya Droughts in Cultural Context

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Environmental archaeology -- Central America.
  • Human beings -- Effect of climate on -- Central America.
  • Crops -- Effect of drougt on -- Central America.
  • Central America -- Antiquities.
  • Mayas -- Antiquities.
  • Indigenous people -- Ecology -- Central America.
  • Droughts -- Central America -- History.
  • Social archaeology -- Central America.
  • Mayas -- History.
  • Mayas -- Social conditions.
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