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Lessons From The Past: Deforestation Devastated Mayan Civilization

Aug 22, 2012 07:52 AM EDT

A new study has revealed that ancient Maya may have contributed to drought that led to their decline.

The new study published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters suggested that the Mayas may have played a significant role by indulging in deforestation, thus paving way for the drought to get worse.

Ancient Maya flourished for six centuries across southern Mexico and northern Central America, but their civilization started collapsing since A.D. 695. While earlier studies have attributed the decline in Maya population to drought in several cities, this new research adds more to it suggesting Maya people's contribution to the collapse.

"We're not saying deforestation explains the entire drought, but it does explain a substantial portion of the overall drying that is thought to have occurred," the study's lead author Benjamin Cook, a climate modeler at Columbia University, said in a statement.

Using computer simulations, the researchers compared the loss of rain forests in the Maya territory as their population grew. They analyzed what effect did the crops that replaced the forests had on climatic conditions. Researchers estimated that 60 percent of the drying conditions could have been caused by deforestation carried out by the Maya.

Maya people are said to have cut down trees to obtain large amounts of lime plaster for constructing their cities. According to researcher Thomas Sever from the University of Alabama, who co-authored a study titled "Collapse of the Maya" published in the journal of Geophysical Research Atmospheres in 2010, the Maya would have used at least 20 trees to produce a single square meter of cityscape.

They also grew corn crops replacing forests which might have contributed to the dry climate, said the experts. As corn replaced the forests, they reflected the sunlight back into the space. The ground absorbed less energy from the sun and less water vapor was absorbed in the air, thus reducing the formation of rain-making clouds.  This contributed to less rain and more drought conditions in the region.

Researchers pointed out that the study will help in understand the effects of cutting down of trees as some of the regions where once Maya civilization thrived, in particular Guatemala, are still facing rapid deforestation threat which may lead to a severe drought. 

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