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Mayan collapse mystery solved? Deforestation exacerbated a drought

Mayan collapse: One new study blames the collapse of the Mayan empire on deforestation combined with drought. Environmental and trade problems caused the Mayan collapse, says another new study.

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The team, led by B.L. Turner, a social scientist at Arizona State University, concurs that by clearing the forest, the Mayans may have aggravated a natural drought, which spiked about the time the empire came to an end and population declined dramatically.

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But this is just one contributing factor to their demise, Turner and colleagues write, pointing out that the reconfiguration of the landscape may also have led to soil degradation. Other archaeological evidence points to a landscape under stress, for instance, the wood of the sapodilla tree, favored as construction beams, was no longer used at the Tikal and Calakmul sites beginning in A.D. 741. Larger mammals, such as white-tailed deer, appear to have declined at the end of empire.

Social and economic dynamics also contributed. Trade routes shifted from land transit across the Yucatán Peninsula to sea-born ships. This change may have weakened the city states, which were contending with environmental changes. Faced with mounting challenges, the ruling elites, a very small portion of the population, were no longer capable of delivering what was expected of them, and conflict increased.

"The old political and economic structure dominated by semidivine rulers decayed," the team writes. "Peasants, artisan – craftsmen, and others apparently abandoned their homes and cities to find better economic opportunities elsewhere in the Maya area."

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