Did the Mayans make their own climate change?

Satellite imagery suggests the severe droughts that plagued Mesoamerica's ancient civilization were self-inflicted

By Andrew Leonard
Published March 4, 2008 11:48PM (EST)

Most Mayan archaeologists agree: Severe drought contributed to the mysterious collapse of Mayan civilization. But now comes news, via National Geographic, that the drought may have been at least partially self-inflicted. Tom Sever, NASA's only in-house archaeologist, told the American Association for the Advancement of Science in January that satellite imagery of Central America shows evidence of unsustainable farming practices that may have caused localized climate change. (Thanks to Carbon Positive for the link.)

Slash-and-burn agriculture was one factor. But, writes Anne Minard:

The researchers think the Maya also exploited seasonal wetlands called bajos, which make up more than 40 percent of the Petén landscape that the ancient empire called home.

In most cases, Maya cities encircled the bajos, so archaeologists thought the culture made no use of them. But groundbreaking satellite images show that the bajos harbor ancient drainage canals and long-overgrown fields.

That ingenious method of agriculture may have backfired.

The satellite images come courtesy of SERVIR which NASA describes as a "a regional visualization and monitoring system for Mesoamerica that integrates satellite and other geospatial data for improved scientific knowledge and decision making by managers, researchers, students, and the general public."

A fascinating gallery of images from the project can be found here.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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