Climate Change and Drought

A major factor in the decline of Maya civilization

Land bridge between reservoirs. Tikal, Guatemala

In the Late Classic period (A.D. 500-900) this path separated two immense reservoirs in Tikal’s city center. When I was there in 2008 it was overgrown and difficult to see the bottom on either side. I estimated them to be about as deep as an eight-to-ten-story building.  

Maya farmers are still around today; kings, however, disappeared 1,000 years ago. There is a lesson here on how people and water managers respond to long-term climate change, something our own society faces at present.

Lisa J. Lucero, Anthropologist

There were a series of long droughts in the Southern lowland jungles during the latter part of the Classic period. Isotope analysis shows that there were at least eight in Northwestern Yucatan between A.D 800-950 that lasted from three to eighteen years. These impacted different centers differently depending on social, environmental and political circumstances, which helps to explain why the “collapse” extended over 100 years in the southern lowlands.

In response to droughts, kings performed ceremonies to the god of rain, Chaak, royal ancestors and other supernaturals to ensure adequate rainfall and maintain clean water supplies. Generally, they maintained control by exacting tribute and labor, managing the times for planting and harvesting, allocating water, constructing and repairing reservoirs and designing plazas and buildings to direct as much rainwater into them as possible. It’s been estimated that the six central reservoirs at Tikal could easily have provided water for 45,000 to 62,000 people over six months, but because rainfall was the only source of water in the lowlands, changes in its amount and timing had major consequences for sustainability. 

To keep the water potable through the dry season, the Maya incorporated plants such as pondweeds and other small plants—and their associated bacteria and algae—which filter the water, feed on the spores of parasites and absorb nitrogen and phosphorus that builds up in standing water. In today’s terms, they transformed artificial reservoirs into wetland biospheres.

In response to droughts, kings were able to reassure their people through daykeepers—managers of the sacred calendar—who, because the nature of reality was believed to be cyclical, predicted the return of rain according to patterns in the past. In some places the kings intensified their building programs, temples especially, to appease the gods. And they increased the frequency and spectacle of ceremonies and sacrifices. When the rains came, people believed in the power of the rulers. When it didn’t, they lost faith in their ability to deal with the gods and many people left. Loosing power, along with warfare and dwindling populations, the kings and their courts began to disappear by the early 900’s. 

Nonetheless, although populations decreased, some farmers adapted. Freed from tribute and labor demands, they generally migrated north to where there were lakes, rivers and cenoté’s. No longer dependent on the court and its restrictions, they learned how to manage the environment and diversified their subsistence to include hunting, fishing and planting fruit trees. In some areas, well-adapted farmers persevered until the present.

An aguada (catchment pond) at Tikal in 2008. The guide said they sometimes covered them with thatch to prevent evaporation.

Maya kings used the same rituals that had served them in the past in the hope that conditions would change; they did not. The same is true for global climate change. We know global climate change will not end anytime soon, so it is up to individuals, families and communities to act now and not wait for conditions to change. The only viable long-term solution is adaptation… It is the people, not politicians, who in the end resolve problems.

 Lisa J. Lucero, author, Climate Change and Classic Maya Water Management by Lisa J. Lucero, Joel D. Gunn and Vernon L. Scarborough, published in Volume 3 of the journal, Water. 2011.

Along The Reservoir Trail At Tikal

Excerpt From Jaguar Wind And Waves (p. 59 )

APPARENTLY MY HUSBAND HAD BEEN COUNTING THE DAYS of my grieving because, early on the fifth day, servants with muscles like stone haulers came to move my belongings into the chamber next to his. I didn’t want any part of it, so Honey and I went for a walk between the reservoirs. The water levels were still high and the ducks made us laugh, splashing and upending their tails.

      Whenever I walked the reservoir trail I remembered what my father said on the morning of his accession. Standing before thousands he’d said, “I come to the Mat not just to rule; I come to contribute.” The children heard this many times, but I couldn’t resist saying it again when Honey asked if I was still hoping to make a contribution beyond my duties as mistress of the palace and residence. Not having an answer, her question stayed with me.

      Later in the day, alone with my thoughts, I sought an answer. Considering what has happened, is there anything I can do to contribute to Tikal? Was my grand contribution the fulfillment of Father’s alliance? Or is there something I can do now?

Excerpt From Jaguar Wind And Waves (p. 141 )

Because it held so many memories of my family, the reservoir trail had become my favorite place to walk and think. Early the next morning, with a thin blanket of fog resting on the water on both sides, I sat alone on the stump of a tree intending to speak to my ch’ulel about the vases when a tall, strikingly handsome young man with a severe, cob-shaped head approached. At first I thought he was carrying a staff, but it turned out to be a walking stick painted yellow. Judging from the tonsured hair that hung below his waist in back, his cotton loincloth, and high leather sandals, I judged him to be the son of a nobleman, perhaps an apprentice to a holy man, but he bore neither scars nor tattoos and his only jewels were jade florets in his ears. Unmarried men and warriors wore black body paint, yet his flesh was unpainted and fair beyond any I’d seen. Almost pink, like the inside of a shell.

Excerpt From Jaguar Wind And Waves (p. 163-164 )

Leaving them where the reservoir trail met the causeway, Gray Mouse and I continued around the elbow of the reservoir to see if we might reach the stone by going down the steps. Several women were down there getting water, so we knew the clay was solid enough to walk on. But there was vegetation growing high on mounds that blocked our view of the place where we saw the stone.

      Gray Mouse and I spent the next day talking about what, if anything, could be done about it. First of all, I needed to get close to the stone. Given its size and shape, it was either a small monument, a piece of one, or not one of the monuments from Precious Forest. No matter, the possibility that it could have a foot carved into it gave me hope. I knew the palace reservoir had been the first to be dug at Tikal and lined with clay—long long ago. So in all that time any stone could have fallen into it—or been dumped there.

      Gray Mouse suggested that I approach the stone haulers and compensate them to take a closer look and tell us what they found. I started on that course, but the thought of their seeing the stone before me changed my mind.

AT FIRST LIGHT, WITH FOG RISING FROM THE RESERVOIR, now looking like an enormous muddy canyon with trees and bushes growing out of mounds, Gray Mouse and I met  Knotted Bee and his sons, Nakal and Nakoh, at the top of the steps. With cords on their shoulders and carrying slashers to cut through the vegetation, we descended the long wooden steps to the bottom where just a few strides away, women were filling their water jars. Had a guard or sentry seen me walking with sandals, wearing a bark-cloth sarong with no jewels, they would never have believed that I was the wife of the Great Prophet of Tollan. The black clay was hard along the wall, so we had no trouble getting over to the cliff face.


For a brief description of The Path Of The Jaguar novels: Go to the Home Page—Novels

Links To for paperback books and Kindle Editions.

Jaguar Rising: A novel of the Preclassic Maya 

Jaguar Wind And Waves: A novel of the Early Classic Maya

Jaguar Sun: The Journey of an Ancient Maya Storyteller

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