This week, our aspiring anthropologist, Zach Kagan, trekked down to 112th and Broadway to talk with climate scientist Benjamin Cook about his research on the real Mayan apocalypse, not the one purported to happen on December 21st, 2012.
Climate science tends to obsess with the far future. What will climate patterns be like in five, ten, fifty years from now? Will there be enough clean water for our grandchildren? Can we impede the rate of climate change or should we all just get used to the taste of nutritious Soylent Green?
While these questions are important, others like Columbia/NASA researcher Benjamin Cook and his collaborators are looking for answers from the past. Not the geologic past either, but specifically 1,300 years ago: the collapse of the Mayan civilization. The Classic Maya collapse has troubled generations of historians and archeologists. Why was it that, after centuries of expansion and increasing sophistication from 300 AD to 900 AD, the Mayans declined so rapidly? Cities were abandoned and people fragmented into smaller groups mainly along southern Mexico and Guatemala. There are dozens upon dozens of theories for this collapse, ranging from hostile invasions to revolts to disease. However, the most accepted one has recently been the drought theory.
The idea is that the Mayans suffered from a prolonged period of intense drought lasting for 200 years. Though it might not be as exciting as the climatic battle for Chichén Itzá, but water is crucial for producing food that sustains a society. After all, a society can only function as long as it produces enough food for everyone to eat, even if some people are rulers, priests, or merchants instead of farmers. A structured and heavily stratified society like the Mayans needed a large food surplus to exist. No water means no food surplus, which means no Mayan civilization. Evidence collected from tree rings, cave formations, and lakebeds seems to support this theory.