Impacts of Climate Change on the Collapse of Lowland Maya Civilization

Peter M.J. Douglas, Arthur A. Demarest, Mark Brenner, Marcello A. Canuto

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

75 Scopus citations


Paleoclimatologists have discovered abundant evidence that droughts coincided with collapse of the Lowland Classic Maya civilization, and some argue that climate change contributed to societal disintegration. Many archaeologists, however, maintain that drought cannot explain the timing or complex nature of societal changes at the end of the Classic Period, between the eighth and eleventh centuries ce. This review presents a compilation of climate proxy data indicating that droughts in the ninth to eleventh century were the most severe and frequent in Maya prehistory. Comparison with recent archaeological evidence, however, indicates an earlier beginning for complex economic and political processes that led to the disintegration of states in the southern region of the Maya lowlands that precedes major droughts. Nonetheless, drought clearly contributed to the unusual severity of the Classic Maya collapse, and helped to inhibit the type of recovery seen in earlier periods of Maya prehistory. In the drier northern Maya Lowlands, a later political collapse at ca. 1000 ce appears to be related to ongoing extreme drought. Future interdisciplinary research should use more refined climatological and archaeological data to examine the relationship between climate and social processes throughout the entirety of Maya prehistory.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)613-645
Number of pages33
JournalAnnual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences
StatePublished - Jun 29 2016

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
Copyright © 2016 by Annual Reviews. All rights reserved.

Copyright 2017 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.


  • Archaeology
  • Holocene climate change
  • Mesoamerica
  • Paleoclimatology
  • Societal collapse

Continental Scientific Drilling Facility tags

  • GLAD9


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