Mayan settlements

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May 28, 2014 – 08:31 am
Later Mayan settlements

Centuries before Europeans arrived, an advanced civilization flourished in Mesoamerica, a region extending from southern Mexico through Central America. The Maya mastered astronomy, developed an elaborate written language, built towering monuments, and left behind exquisite artifacts.

According to NASA archaeologist Tom Sever, the Mayan civilization in Mesoamerica was one of the densest populations in human history. Around 800 A.D., after two millennia of steady growth, the Mayan population reached an all-time high. Population density ranged from 500 to 700 people per square mile in the rural areas, and from 1, 800 to 2, 600 people per square mile near the center of the Mayan Empire (in what is now northern Guatemala). In comparison, Los Angeles County averaged 2, 345 people per square mile in 2000. Yet by studying remains of Mayan settlements, Sever found that by 950 A.D., the population had crashed. “Perhaps as many as 90 to 95 percent of the Maya died, ” he said.

Title graphic image: The Rain God Chac appeared in one of the few Mayan texts to escape burning by the Spanish. (Image adapted from the Madrid Codex appearing on the NOAA Paleoclimatology Mirror Site, photo by David A. Hodell.)

For Sever, figuring out how the Maya flourished—but ultimately failed—in Mesoamerica is about more than simply solving a 1, 200-year-old mystery. Since the 1980s, he has tried to understand the history of the Maya and their natural environment, a story that may hold important lessons for people living there today. Using satellite data and climate models, Sever and his colleagues hope to help governments and citizens throughout Mesoamerica ensure that the region can continue to support the people who live there. By learning from the Maya, modern humans may avoid sharing their fate.

Mayan Deforestation

Before its collapse, the Mayan empire stretched out from its center in northern Guatemala’s Petén region across the lowlands of the Yucatán Peninsula. Pollen samples collected from columns of soil that archeologists have excavated across the region provide evidence of widespread deforestation approximately 1, 200 years ago, when weed pollen almost completely replaced...

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