Stalagmite evidence from Belize indicating significant droughts at the time of Preclassic Abandonment, the Maya Hiatus, and the Classic Maya collapse

James W. Webster, George A. Brook, L. Bruce Railsback, Hai Cheng, R. Lawrence Edwards, Clark Alexander, Philip P. Reeder

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Paleoenvironmental data from a stalagmite from western Belize provide a 3300-year record of droughts that impacted the Maya civilization at least four times across a span of 1500 years, and the most sustained period of drought coincided with the collapse of Classic Maya civilization. The stalagmite, which comes from Macal Chasm in the Vaca Plateau, provides reliably dated reflectance, color, luminescence, and C and O stable isotope records for the period from 1225 B.C. to the present. The record thus encompasses the Maya Preclassic, Classic, and Postclassic periods. The Maya civilization peaked in population density and socioeconomic complexity during the Classic period extending from A.D. 25 to 900, but it declined abruptly over the years from A.D. 750 and 900. The stalagmite record indicates that a series of droughts, which collectively form the most prolonged dry interval in the 3300-year record, lasted from A.D. 700 to 1135 and thus coincided with the collapse of the Maya civilization. In addition, two earlier droughts evident in the stalagmite record coincided with the Preclassic Abandonment and the Maya Hiatus, two earlier declines in Maya civilization. A drought in the mid-1400s recorded in post-Classic documents is also evident in the stalagmite record. Collectively, these findings illustrate the dependence of Mayan civilization on water supplies and the impact of declining water resources on a vibrant civilization.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1-17
Number of pages17
JournalPalaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology
Issue number1-4
StatePublished - Jun 25 2007

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank Drs. Jaime Awe, John Morris, and Alan Moore of the Belize Institute of Archaeology for supporting our permit applications, and also Mr. William Reynolds, of the Lower Dover Field Station, and other members of the Northern Vaca Plateau Geoarchaeological Project (NVPGP) for field assistance and material support. This research was supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF 9628765 and 9908415), the Geological Society of America, and the NVPGP. We thank Randy Culp of the CAIS at the University of Georgia for his assistance in calculating the percentage of old carbon in samples that were dated by the radiocarbon method.


  • Belize
  • Caves
  • Classic Maya collapse
  • Drought
  • Paleoclimates
  • Stalagmites


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