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New investigations provide alternative causes for fall of the Maya

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Posted: Sunday, December 12, 2021. 8:05 pm CST.

By Aaron Humes: The magazine Freethink reports that drought may not have been solely behind the fall of the Maya kingdoms in Central America, with scanning of the topography by LIDAR (light detection and ranging) revealing new evidence for other causes.

Teams led by Brandeis anthropologist Charles Golden and his colleague Andrew Scherer of Brown University found that some of the communities in the Western Maya Lowlands seemed to have had plenty of agricultural resources until the end, and that the region’s three main kingdoms were functioning very differently — signs suggesting a civilization-wide drought may not explain the collapse of the Maya.

“The Maya are often viewed as a cautionary tale about climate change — this great civilization collapses simply because of a drought,” Golden said. “Well, that’s not quite what happens. They probably didn’t collapse because of a drought. And even if drought were a significant problem, everybody was facing that climate change differently.”

LiDAR is the laser scanning technology that police use to nab speeders, which has recently revolutionized archeology. LiDAR bounces lasers off surfaces and calculates how long they take to return to the source. Armed with that information, LiDAR scanners can construct 3D images. When attached to an aircraft, like it was for Golden and Scherer’s research, LiDAR can create a detailed topographical map of a vast area.

The scan can be adjusted to wipe away the thick canopy of jungle vegetation, revealing previously unseen structures.

The researchers investigated three different valleys in the region, each home to an ancient Maya kingdom’s capital; today, we know them as Lacanja Tzeltal, La Mar, and Piedras Negras.

Aerial scans revealed that the largest city explored, Piedras Negras, did not have any agricultural infrastructure nearby — a sign that people weren’t fearing starvation, they write in the study. The telltale signs of Maya agriculture, like drainage channels and terraced hills, dotted the landscape around La Mar, however — possible evidence of a determined push to grow more food.

And with all of the hilltop forts they found strewn over the landscape, said activities may have included war with their neighboring kingdoms. All of it complicates the commonly accepted narrative of a civilization brought low by a fluke of climate change, and reveals the diversity of how the Maya lived in different regions. Cities in Belize can be ringed by terraced fields, while the Yucatan is piled with agricultural landscapes, nary a metropolis in sight.

“What we see is a story about variability,” Golden said. “The communities in this area were working and dealing with the challenges of drought, of warfare, of bad kings and good kings in very different ways. It shakes up our picture of who the Maya were.”

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