the disappearance of a remarkably advanced civilization, the Maya, has been a subject of many scientific debates. Over the course of time, scientists have come up with a great number of theories, ranging from internal conflict all the way to alien invasion. However, as the latest research suggests, numerous civilizations met their end due to the severe destruction of the environment. And so did the Mayas after a prolonged period of extreme drought caused by the unsustainable resource extraction.
Unfortunately, the examples of societies that were wiped out because of environmental causes are more numerous than those that lived for centuries in harmony with nature surrounding them. Perhaps it’s about the time we learned from the mistakes of our ancestors.
Continue reading to learn more about the sad end of the Mayas and three other similarly advanced civilizations.
Those who brought upon themselves a megadrought
The Maya are considered the most literate native American civilization. This society inhabited Central America from about 3,000 B.C. and kept prospering until it reached its absolute peak in the 8th century, when it suddenly started to fade away. Just over the span of one century, the Mayan population decreased by 70%. The latest research reveals a surprising conclusion about the reason this happened: The Mayans were themselves the cause of the doom of their majestic civilization! Their fabulous empire was severely affected by a period of anthropogenic climate change¹.
Historic climate records show that the region was hit by recurring periods of prolonged droughts, which culminated with the worst drought event – a megadrought in the 11th century. It was the most extreme climatic event that the region has experienced in 2,000 years². According to model simulation ran by the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, the Mayans altered the climate of the region by cutting down the rainforest to expand their cities and plant crops to feed their growing population³. Intensive deforestation led to significant changes in the local water cycle, due to the lack of water evaporation from tree canopy. Decreased evaporation in the region resulted in the reduction of cloud formation, and therefore, less rainfall throughout a season. The drought that ravaged the sophisticated Mayan cities was the outcome of a decline in precipitation between 10 to 20%, which might not seem so drastic to our judgement, but as we can see it had disastrous impact on the Mayan civilization⁴.
Those who caused endemic species extinction
The inhabitants of the Easter Island, also known as the Rapa Nui, have showed a great deal of resilience when they built the most advanced Polynesian civilization in the harsh conditions of one of the most remote places on Earth. However, even though the Rapa Nui developed a precise social structure, they were not able to prevent the extensive environmental damage caused by their desire to expand even more. This predetermined the collapse of their civilization.
The island was inhabited at first by a small group of Polynesians at around year 800, who found soon after settling there that they had all the necessary resources to prosper. While the population skyrocketed during the following centuries, natural resources on the island were becoming depleted just as fast, marking the end of the Rapa Nui prosperity forever. The key resource needed for nearly all activities of the Rapa Nui was the Easter Island Palm tree. This endemic tree not only provided wood for housing and boat construction, but its roots also protected the upper soil layer from erosion. However, by the end of the 15th century, all trees on the island were felled, and islanders realized that without their protection, they were not able to grow any crops because the climate on the island was too harsh and fertile soils were getting quickly washed away by strong seasonal rains, leaving behind only a barren volcanic landscape⁵.
As some of the recent scientific papers claim, there was one more equally alarming reason why all the trees disappeared from the island – rats. Polynesian rats most probably arrived to the island on the canoes together with the first settlers. And without natural predators, rats found a piece of paradise for their happy invasion. They soon demonstrated the destructive power of an invasive species on an ecosystem by feeding on palm seeds above the level of possible recovery, and therefore, contributing to its faster rate of extinction⁶.
And so the mighty civilization of the Rapa Nui disappeared together with all the island’s legendary trees, proving that “trees ARE life”.
Those who overconsumed their natural resources
“Ancient people” – the Chaco Anasazi, thrived in Chaco Canyon located in today’s New Mexico for five centuries. The period of time filled with the great social development and presentation of admirable skills, when constructing multiple story buildings that were the tallest built structures in North America until the first skyscrapers appeared in 1880s¹⁰. The area of New Mexico is extremely dry, and yet, the Anasazi used their knowledge combined with special features of the Chaco Canyon to retain high groundwater levels and successfully grow corn and beans. However, where population flourishes, natural resources and recovery capacity of the ecosystem often declines.
Like the previous mentioned examples, the Chaco Anasazi crossed the threshold of environmental sustainability. Heavily farmed soils got depleted of nutrients and failed to provide enough food; higher water demand put a severe strain on groundwater reservoirs; and already scarce wood had to be carried from ever longer distances. The problem got even bigger when the area was hit by series of grueling droughts starting at the beginning of the 12th century, which brought about great famine. The suffering society started to turn against itself, and at some point during the second half of the 12th century, after a period of internal violence, those who survived fled and the impressive settlements of Chaco Canyon were abandoned.
Those who were defeated by climate change
Sturdy Viking explorers, referred to as the Greenland Norse, arrived in Greenland during the time of the so called “Medieval Warm Period” in the 10th century, which offered them a unique window of opportunity to establish a new colony in an otherwise ruthless environment. Their window, however, lasted only for 400 years, until they realized that life on the island is too difficult to sustain due to the environmental problems combined with increasing difficulties of staying in touch with the rest of the Europe⁷.
While the first settlers set off to build their villages inspired by their Scandinavian tradition, the first environmental problems connected with this way of living appeared. Livestock overgrazing led to fast erosion of delicate soils. And similarly, like on Easter Island, a limited amount of timber on the island soon became a serious problem when it came to ship construction and reparation. The final blow, however, came with the beginning of unexpected climate change.
At the end of the 13th century, most likely due to the powerful eruption of Indonesian volcano on Lombok island, global climate started to cool off, setting off a period called “The Little Ice Age” that destroyed crops even in the most fertile parts of Europe. The Greenland Norse civilization, which up until then had lived off their livestock together with seal and walrus hunting, started to suffer greatly due to this sudden change. Pasture to feed their animals became scarcer, periods of extremely cold temperatures got longer, and hunting expeditions on the sea turned to perilous quests due to the storms, which made the island difficult to reach from the rest of Europe. This not only increased the social isolation of the people, but also interrupted possibilities of trading⁷,⁸.
The theories of why the Greenland Norse civilization collapsed vary, although, all theories confirm that climate change was one of the major factors which led to the deterioration of the quality of life in Greenland⁹. We should not forget that in the 13th century the climate changed due to the natural causes, and even this change brought an end to the civilization that already knew how to deal with one of the toughest climates on Earth. Therefore, we should not take lightly the effects of climate change that is currently happening on a global scale and is caused for the first time in the Earth’s lifetime by our activity. Because the fate that met the Greenland Norse civilization might eventually happen to all of us.