During the Easter I had a long debate with a fellow Mayanist on facebook regarding the mega-drought hypothesis and the Maya collapse. We disagree on several issues but in general we agree that the drought(s) affected the Maya communities in negative ways. Where we primarily differ, as I see it, is how we interpret the archaeological record. I will here focus on an issue that we never discussed. My fellow Mayanist argues that almost all people died from the drought(s) and therefore the sites were abandoned. An underlying assumption in this argument seems to be that there is no reason to search for alternative explanations of why sites were abandoned because the drought is the only large scale phenomenon that would affect many sites at the same time.
What we do have are abandoned sites that sometimes have Postclassic and Colonial settlement as well, but there is at least a hiatus of various durations. Abandoned sites are, however, not evidence that almost all inhabitants died even if this event occurred during a drought (which no longer is seen as severe but far milder according to a recent study). Numerous bodies of dead people should be found at the sites. Now, the remains of most people that have ever existed are not preserved. Most commoners of the Maya area, the majority of the population that presumably died, are underrepresented in the burial record even during periods without droughts.
Still, the death rate increases at an alarming speed during a drought and a famine. If this is what happened just before the abandonment of a site there should be an increase of burials and even mass burials at this time, even among the elite stratum whose burials are better preserved. I am not talking about a little decrease here but one of several hundred percent. Millions of people should have died (according to Gill who bases these figures on demographic calculations). The drought did not occur at an instant and left all dead people lying scattered on the ground to be eaten by vultures, etc. People buried the dead ones and remained in place, at least in the beginning of the drought before they realized the magnitude of it. Colonial records indicate that most people died in the first two years of a drought and these durations of droughts are common and I would suspect people stayed in place for at least that long. Only at a later time, after the second year or so, they would probably leave if they had no other option. Those people who left and presumably died in the forests or rather in the deforested areas in-between sites may not have been buried so their remains may not be preserved. The elite could potentially afford to leave an affected area but since the elite stratum was the one often in conflict with other elites in neighboring polities they would probably be the ones that had least option to move away to or through a hostile territory. Therefore, if the elite remained in place there would be a significant increase of burials just before the abandonment. This is not the case. Even if the drought was so severe that almost all died within a few months (it takes some time for water to evaporate or to be consumed), the number of burials would still be great, particularly since in most cases no large scale settlement followed the abandonment that could disturb the remains.
There would still be plenty of remains of commoners as well. If we take Cancuén as an example, we have evidence of a mass burial of executed elite people located inside a cistern. Despite the poor treatment of these people, their remains are still preserved so why would not the remains of millions of commoners that died from famine or drought during a few years be preserved even if they were placed in shallow burials? Did they cremate the bodies further away from the settlement? No, the forest had largely been deforested and the remaining parts were needed for agricultural purposes. Burnt bones would have been encountered during extensive settlement surveys but are unknown as far as I know. We have no evidence that the Maya practiced something similar to Tibetan “sky burials” so we can leave that option. So, if one cannot point out a dramatic rise in the amount of burials or dead bodies at the time of the abandonment one has no case for the argument that a drought killed most of the inhabitants. Bring out your dead.