Posted by: Johan Normark | September 29, 2011

Palaeoclimate change, ancient cave use, and contemporary resilience

Earlier this week I sent in the electronic report to one of the funds (The Swedish Research Council or Vetenskapsrådet) that has supported my “cave and climate” project. The project is not finished yet since I do have additional funds to be spent next year. This is a shortened version of the report.


Palaeoclimatic models for the Maya area in southern Mexico suggest that a series of severe mega droughts coincided with the Maya collapse (AD 750-1000). Some archaeologists focusing on resilience suggest that the Maya collapse and similar “collapses” can teach us something about how we should solve current environmental problems.

The overarching questions the project has aimed to answer are: (1) can archaeological research contribute to the problems of contemporary sustainable development related to climate change as has been suggested by some archaeologists? (2) to what extent is the mega drought hypothesis for the Maya collapse in southern Mexico dependent on analogies with modern and historically documented problems with sustainability?

The main objective of the project was therefore to elucidate the problems inherent in generalized long-term climatological studies that neglect specific historical data. In order to answer these questions I investigated the Spanish colonial impact on indigenous settlement strategies during climate changes in the Cochuah region and I compared them to the Prehispanic settlement patterns of the same area.


Palaeoclimatological data has been established from a number of contexts in the Maya lowlands. However, a critical reading of the proponents for the mega drought hypothesis shows that these researchers to a significant degree have used direct historical analogies from the Spanish Colonial and modern periods in order to find correlates to how droughts affected Prehispanic communities. This correlation neglects the changes that the Spaniards brought to the Cochuah region.

Archaeological survey of nearly 80 sites and test-pit excavations of two dozen sites during eight field seasons in the Cochuah region (2000-2010) show that settlement changes related to droughts differ during the Colonial and Prehispanic periods. The environmental record used for the study has been retrieved by palaeoclimatologists at Lake Chichancanab only 7-30 km from the project’s area of research.

The Colonial settlements relied more on centralized permanent water sources than the Prehispanic ones did. Because of this the Spanish-controlled area largely coincided with the extent of the Chicxulub fracture zone where sinkholes are prevalent. Karstic features, like caves, formed within the fracture zone were important attractors in the Prehispanic settlement expansions during droughts but these locations were not settled during the Colonial droughts because of Spanish congregation politics and the doctrines of the Catholic Church. The Colonial system made the droughts worse since it discouraged the dispersion of settlements during droughts which had occurred during Prehispanic times.

We can therefore learn little from the Maya collapse for future sustainability in the region since current models are based on a mixture of Colonial analogies, palaeoclimatological data and reductionist analyses of the archaeological record. A better comprehension of local and regional historical processes that have formed the settlements since the Maya collapse is therefore suggested.



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