Carbon dioxide concentrations in Earth’s atmosphere have reached 415 parts per million – a level that last occurred more than three million years ago, long before the evolution of humans. This news adds to growing concern that climate change will likely wreak serious damage on our planet in the coming decades.
While Earth has not been this warm in human history, we can learn about coping with climate change by looking to the Classic Maya civilization that thrived between A.D. 250-950 in Eastern Mesoamerica, the region that is now Guatemala, Belize, Eastern Mexico, and parts of El Salvador and Honduras.
Many people believe that the ancient Maya civilization ended when it mysteriously “collapsed.” And it is true that the Maya faced many climate change challenges, including extreme droughts that ultimately contributed to the breakdown of their large Classic Period city-states.
However, the Maya did not disappear: Over 6 million Maya people live mainly in Eastern Mesoamerica today. What’s more, based on my own research in the Northern Yucatan Peninsula and work by my colleagues throughout the broader Maya region, I believe Maya communities’ ability to adapt their resource conservation practices played a crucial role in allowing them to survive for as long as they did. Instead of focusing on the final stages of Classic Maya civilization, society can learn from the practices that enabled it to survive for nearly 700 years as we consider the effects of climate change today.
Adapting to dry conditions
The earliest villages in the Maya lowlands date as far back as 2000 B.C., with several large cities developing over the following 2,000 years. A combination of factors, including environmental changes, contributed to the breakdown of many of these large Preclassic centers after the start of the first millennium A.D.
Beginning around 250 A.D., populations once again began to grow steadily in the Maya lowlands. This was the Classic Period. Laser mapping has shown that by the eighth century A.D., sophisticated agricultural systems supported city-states of tens of thousands of people.
Available evidence suggests that although the climate remained relatively stable for much of the Classic Period, there were occasional periods of decreased precipitation. Additionally, each year was sharply divided between dry and rainy seasons. Maximizing water efficiency and storage, and timing the planting season correctly, were very important.
If the rains did not come as expected for a year or two, communities could rely on stored water. However, longer droughts stressed their political hierarchy and complex inter-regional trade networks. The overarching key to survival was learning to adapt to changing environmental conditions.
For example, the Maya developed ever more elaborate terrace and irrigation networks to protect against soil runoff and nutrient depletion. They engineered intricate drainage and storage systems that maximized the capture of rainwater.
They carefully managed forests by monitoring the growth cycles of particularly useful trees. And they developed fuel-efficient technologies, such as burnt lime pit-kilns, to sustain environmental resources.