Posted by: Johan Normark | April 19, 2009

Climate and the “Maya collapse” pt 1

My current research deals with the issue of climate change in the Maya area. One can say that I basically criticize the all too linear and reductive palaeoclimatic models for the so-called “Maya collapse”. I intend not to discuss whether there is a global warming today that is anthropogenic or “natural” (although Tainter [2008] recently has argued that even archaeologists views are taken into account in current sustainable development analyses). All I do is to look at the actual evidence that exist and how researchers build up their arguments to argue for their own cause (including myself of course). On the surface it may seem that I join the climate skeptics, but I am mainly concerned with the lack of studies on how social, political, economic and religious changes may undermine strategies to cope with climate changes. There are plenty of blogs belonging to the climate skeptical branch of this debate, some of them are the most popular of blogs often with a political agenda (The Climate Scam, Klimatbluffen, Klimatsvammel, Climate Change Fraud, Climate Sceptic, etc).

I suggest that palaeoclimatic models need to take into account settlement changes that have occurred for reasons other than the climate. Such changes were, for example, caused by politics and religious doctrines introduced by the Spaniards. These changes affected the way water resources were conserved and utilized. This is a situation that remains today. Despite long lasting and devastating droughts during Prehispanic times (Gill 2000; Gill and Keating 2002; Gill et al. 2007; Haug et al. 2003; Hodell et al. 2001; Hodell et al. 1995; Hodell et al. 2007), people dealt with these water shortages in ways that the Colonial power made impossible to continue. However, some of these recent explanations for the “Maya collapse” emphasize ecological and climate related causes or catastrophes and the “collapse” has been seen as a warning example of how fragile both environment and society are. Other recent perspectives have made similar general analyzes in different parts of the world, sometimes referring to the Maya area as an illustrative example (Chew 2007; Fagan 2004, 2008).

Thus, climate has once again become an explanation for sociopolitical changes in the past, often with an underlying catastrophism (Demarest 2001; Webster 2002). In light of the contemporary climate debate in society, partially popularized by former US vice-president Al Gore and his documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” (Gore and Guggenheim 2006) it is important to show that from a historical/ archaeological context this catastrophism is highly problematic, particularly for the Cochuah region. We face grand problems today but once we project contemporary ecological factors and problems backward in time, other factors that may have affected settlements and our analyzes of these patterns tend to be ignored. Not all palaeoclimatologists agree with the message of “An Inconvenient Truth”: that we are facing a disaster today. Some see the emergence of the industrialization and increasing global warming as positive, stopping an otherwise inevitable ice age (Franzén 2001).

Although there is evidence that drier periods have occurred, the palaeoclimatic models on a “Maya collapse” have substantial flaws and some of them are the lack of sociopolitical and religious perspectives of past societies (Normark 2006). Since the effects of climate changes on society in the Maya area largely are based on modern and Colonial analogies, it must be noted that the Spaniards had a serious impact on the water conservation and settlement strategies in the Maya area.

Last year we (the CRAS project) surveyed what was a border area during the Colonial period (1544-1821), the early Mexican independence (1821-1847) and the Caste War and its aftermath (1847-1901). From the indigenous perspective, this border appears to have been fluid, but less so for the Spaniards or at least for their political system that was tied to the agricultural and sociopolitical strategies they brought over from Europe. As mentioned in an earlier post, this situation was partly affected by the Chicxulub fracture zone, created from an asteroid impact 65 million years ago (Campos-Enríquez et al. 2004; Connors et al. 1996; Corrigan 1998; Lefticariu 2004; Morgan and Warner 1997; Pope et al. 1993; Sharpton et al. 1993). I argue that karst features within the Chicxulub fracture zone were important attractors in the Prehispanic settlement expansions during droughts and there is compelling evidence that these locations were not settled during the Colonial droughts. All the karst features within the fracture zone were not formed by the effects from this impact, but at least the deeper features, such as cenotes (sinkholes with water) may have their origin in the morphology caused by the impact. There are also karst features outside the fracture zone but they are less frequent within the research area.

Settlement near karst features, apart from cenotes, is without exception Prehispanic and not Colonial. The result of last year’s survey shows the importance of the fracture zone for the Spanish politics and its transparent nature for the indigenous population (in both Prehispanic and Colonial times). This has implications for the palaeoclimatic models since they partly work from how climate affect people today rather than taking into account past sociopolitical and economic changes that have created the contemporary situation.



  1. Johan is full of shit. He has no idea what he is talking about. Seems to me as he “makes’ himsefl up and in real life he is nothing…fake. I do not think he is an archeologist at all. He maybe went to Yucatan, but I do not belive he is ever excavated, sounds like he rests on theories not practice and everuone else work, not his.


  2. Ha ha ha… It is pretty easy to check up who I am, if you know how to handle a computer. Where do all these crazy people come from? Yet another misinformed 2012er?


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