Investigating The Relationship Between Climate Change And Social Organization In A Small Scale Society

Project: Research project

Project Details


One of the most pressing issues in modern times is the effect that climate change will have on populations. Archaeological studies are critical for understanding these issues, as they offer important time depth to understand how societies respond and adapt to environmental stress. This study examines the relationship between 'collapse', including the breakdown of political systems and the abandonment of urban centers, with climate change in the Maya Lowlands. Previous research has documented climatic drying from AD 660-1100, with intervals of severe multi-decadal drought identified in the ninth through eleventh centuries. This timeframe generally correlates with the 'Classic Maya collapse' between AD 750-1000. It is thought that extended episodes of low precipitation caused crop failures that undermined economic and political systems throughout the region. However, current archaeological studies are based on ceramic chronologies that often span hundreds of years and hinder clear identification of temporal relationships. The researchers will develop a high-resolution radiocarbon chronology to identify chronological correlations between periods of collapse and drought or lack thereof. Within the broader context, this project will help to understand the interactions between demography, the disintegration of political systems in the Maya lowlands, and climate change. The research will contribute to training undergraduates, graduate students, and postdoctoral researchers, in addition to offering educational opportunities for local Maya communities in Belize.

This project will help to answer several important questions. Does political collapse and abandonment at the end of the Classic period correlate with extended drought episodes? Did some centers persist longer during droughts than others? What environmental or cultural adaptations may have helped populations to adapt to increasing aridity? Excavations at two archaeological sites in the central Maya Lowlands will focus on expanding the existing sample of burial and animal bone samples for dating. Results from the radiocarbon dates will be compared with a precisely dated speleothem record from southern Belize to test for temporal relationships between drought and collapse. Osteological data from burials will also be compared with these patterns to identify increased nutritional deficiencies that may have been caused by famine from agricultural shortages. Together, this interdisciplinary scientific work will examine whether multi-decadal droughts contributed to agricultural failure, the breakdown of political systems, and the abandonment of Classic Maya urban centers.

Effective start/end date3/1/152/28/17


  • National Science Foundation: $103,058.00


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