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Prolonged drought led to social tensions and the collapse of Mayapan

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Gaston de Persigny
Gaston de Persigny
Gaston de Persigny - Reporter at The European Times News

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Scientists conducted an interdisciplinary study of materials from the city of Mayapan, the largest political capital of the Maya of the postclassic period. They found that as long as rainfall in the region remained at a sufficient level, the population of the city continued to grow. But prolonged droughts have led to increased social tensions and violence. Mayapan was eventually abandoned in the middle of the 15th century. It is noteworthy that, it seems, the researchers managed to find a collective burial of representatives of the Kokom dynasty, who were killed as a result of an uprising around 1441. This is reported in an article published in the journal Nature Communications.

At the turn of the 1st and 2nd millennia of our era, the crisis of the classical Mayan society occurred. Many territories were practically depopulated, state associations collapsed, many cities disappeared, and the social structure and economy collapsed. A number of scientists see climate change as the cause of this process, while others defend the idea that internal structural problems in Mayan society were to blame. At the initial stage of the postclassic period, around the second half of the 10th – mid-11th centuries, the city of Chichen Itza flourished, which controlled most of the northern Yucatan. However, soon he and several other cities fall into decay, and Mayapan establishes dominance over the peninsula at the end of the 12th century.

Mayapan is the largest political capital of the Maya of the postclassic period. It was inhabited from about 1100 to 1450 and exceeded the size of any city located in the lowlands of the Maya of Belize, Guatemala and Mexico, acting as the center of political, economic and religious life. Since the second half of the 13th century, Mayapan was ruled by the Kokom dynasty, whose power was largely based on control over trade with other regions. However, in 1441, the Kokoms were overthrown as a result of an uprising led by the Shiu dynasty, and Yucatan, as a result, was divided into a dozen and a half states that were at war with each other, but were closely connected by trade. Today Mayapan is the ruins of an ancient city. Archaeologists have discovered in it the remains of a city wall, several thousand buildings, including monumental temples, a sacred cenote (natural well), numerous art objects, burials and other things associated with the Mayan civilization.

Douglas Kennett of the University of California at Santa Barbara, together with colleagues from Australia, the UK, Germany, Canada, Mexico and the US, combined archaeological, historical, osteological and paleoclimatic data to test the link between climate change, civil conflict and political collapse. Mayapana in the XIV-XV centuries. Scientists also conducted radiocarbon analysis of the remains of 205 people to confirm or refute the information from written sources about a number of significant events in the history of the Mayapan, recorded using the Mayan calendar: from the period of “terror and war” (1302-1323) to the murder of representatives of the Kokom dynasty ( 1440-1461), as well as the political decline and abandonment of the city (after 1450).

To find out the climatic conditions in which the Maya lived during the studied period, scientists conducted an analysis of stable oxygen isotopes in speleothems, and also studied changes in the salinity level of water in a small lake located about 27 kilometers from Mayapan. As a result of this work, scientists found that around 1100–1340, a sufficient amount of precipitation fell in the region. This was accompanied by an increase in population that peaked around 1200–1350, after which the population began to decline, reaching a trough around 1450. This conclusion is confirmed by written sources.

Radiocarbon analysis of the remains from a collective burial excavated near the temple showed that 25 individuals died around 1302-1362. In three of them, scientists found post-mortem traumatic brain injuries, cuts on the bones, indicating dismemberment and deliberate desecration.

According to the researchers, this burial may correspond to historical evidence of conflicts in the Yucatan (possibly, these are sacrificed prisoners of war). Another type of collective burials are two objects from 1360-1400, excavated near ceremonial structures, which contained desecrated human remains with ritual pottery. A number of remains demonstrate that people died a violent death (wounds with stone knives in different parts of the skeleton), in addition, some of the remains were dismembered and burned. According to scientists, this is consistent with historical data on the struggle within the ruling factions. Notably, this event coincided with a major drought in Central Mexico. Historical evidence of Mayapan massacres is also consistent with evidence of population decline and architectural construction.

Another collective burial was found near the temple of Kukulkan. Scientists have suggested that it may correspond to the burial of representatives of the Kokom dynasty, who were killed by Shiu. The skulls and bones of the postcranial skeleton belonged to at least nine individuals, seven of whom were children. Scientists found traces of stab wounds in two people. Based on radiocarbon analysis, this event occurred between 1440–1460. Moreover, paleogenetic analysis confirmed that the buried were genetically close to each other on the maternal line.

The researchers concluded that Mayapan’s population decline coincided with a period of extreme drought (around 1350-1430). As a result, famine followed, trade was disrupted, and Mayapan was eventually abandoned, and its inhabitants founded many small states throughout the Yucatan. The scientists also concluded that the prolonged hardship caused by climate change led to social tensions fueled by politicians. This eventually led to more and more violence. In addition, they confirmed the written data about the decline of this city between 1441-1461.

Photo: Location of the city of Mayapan on the map and the plan of this monument. The letters MB indicate the places where collective burials were discovered.

Douglas Kennett et al. / Nature Communications, 2022

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