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Hurricanes Did Not Doom Mayan Civilization

Nov 10, 2014 06:36 PM EST
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Persistent drought, along with disease, warfare and worn-out soils, caused the collapse of the Mayan civilization. But it was always thought that hurricanes were the driving factor, fueling the lack of rain; that is, until new research showed that these storms did not in fact doom these ancient people.

Published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, scientists from Skidmore College explain how an ancient stalagmite found in a cave in the northern Yucatán Peninsula provides evidence that hurricane activity during the last years of the Mayans was not much different from earlier or later centuries.

Supposedly a prolonged drop in hurricane activity helped push the region into drought from 800 to 950 AD, when the Mayan civilization collapsed, but mud layers within the stalagmite suggest otherwise.

According to the study, seasonal rainfall - partly from tropical storms and hurricanes - was of great importance to the Mayans, who lived on the Yucatán Peninsula in present-day Mexico, Guatemala and Belize. When a big hurricane roared into the region, the cave in which the stalagmite was found would flood for days, leaving a coating of mud behind - including on the stalagmite.

Stalagmites are rock formations that form on cave floors, created from the accumulation of mineral deposits from the ceiling, USA Today reports. By counting the annual layers within the stalagmite and seeing which years contained mud layers, the researchers were able to estimate year-to-year hurricane activity.

"The stalagmite is a 2,200-year record of climate in the region," said geophysicist and lead author Amy Benoit Frappier. "It left annual mud layers like a tree ring."

As it turns out there was plenty of mud left behind, indicating that the cave frequently flooded and hurricanes were plentiful right before the Mayans collapsed. Unfortunately for their civilization, that means they were not only dealing with severe drought, but hurricanes as well.

"They had too much water during the storms and too little the rest of the time," Frappier added.

So hurricanes did not in fact doom the Mayan civilization, but the severe droughts they experienced the rest of the time ultimately led to their collapse.

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