$78K Fed Study: Did 'Climate Change' Cause Decline of the Mayan Civilization?

August 7, 2013 - 11:43 AM

Mayan pyramid

Mayan temple at Tikal, Guatemala (Smithsonian)

(CNSNews.com) - The National Science Foundation (NSF) is giving nearly $78,000 of taxpayer funds to the Trustees of Boston University to study whether "climate change" was a primary cause for the decline of the Mayan civilization in Guatemala between 1000 BC and 900 AD.

According to the grant abstract, "the study will provide a detailed record of human occupation and environmental change" in the Maya Biosphere Reserve forest of northeastern Guatemala. This lowland area was where the Maya settled in pre-Columbian times. Researchers note that "climate change and environmental degradation have been proposed as the primary causes of extensive demographic decline" in the Maya population on two separate occasions.

Awarded on July 20, 2013, the $77,795 grant will conduct select excavations and a high-resolution analysis of fossils throughout the Holmul region. Pollen samples will be gathered to study agricultural activity, isotopes to study climatology, and soil samples to assess vegetation growth and water movement.

The principal investigator on the scientific team will be Dr. Francisco Estrada-Belli, who is a visiting assistant professor of archaeology at Boston University.

Estrada-Belli and two geographers "will contribute to an ongoing effort to create a network of high-resolution reconstructions of environmental change and land use practices based on multiple lines of evidence for bio-mass burning, climate change, vegetation change, and settlement history for the Maya Lowlands spanning several millennia."

In an email to CNSNews.com, Estrada-Belli said his personal history drove him to propose this project. "I am of Guatemalan origin. My specialty as an archaeologist is Maya civilization. There is so much to learn about the Maya," he said, adding that he is interested in any study of global warming.

"The Maya provide an especially interesting case because we have a record of their settlement going back 3,000 years. So, it can really provide insights on how climate change played a part in their history."

By studying both Mayan population collapses (one occurred around 200 A.D. and the other near 900 A.D.), Estrada-Belli and his team hope to "provide a detailed record of human-environment interactions in the history of Maya civilization," "fill in an important gap in our knowledge of landscape evolution and climate variability in an area....that supported human activities for millennia," and generate archaeological data on the Mayan settlements in the region.

When asked whether he considers funding for such projects a good use of American tax dollars, Estrada-Belli said that it was indeed a worthwhile endeavor.

"The Maya are part of the history of civilization on the American continent and should be studied," he said. He also told CNSNews.com that "this is a good case in which modern (U.S.) taxpayers benefit not only because we learn about an ancient culture, but also because we might learn about climate change and environmental change in relation to human activities."