Climate Change and the Mayan Civilization

In Tikal and Yaxhá, the story I was told about the Mayas—as we walked through the lush green forest, wildlife sounds all around, and on the large paths and monuments taken over by the nature it was built on—was primarily about climate change.

The breathtaking view from the ruins at Yahxá.
Buried roads in the Tikal National Park.
The northern Guatemala topography is mainly forested flatland, so most ancient structures masquerade perfectly as hills and small mountains. The impressive Mayan constructions have taken archeologists years to uncover, with the now-visible ruins in constant threat of being taken over by sprouting shrubs and trees. Most of the labor and costs of maintaining these archeological sites are associated with keeping vegetation from growing, and roots from destroying, the ancient stone.

The well-kept Tikal National Park is one of the most visited touristic attractions in the Petén.
Ruins taken over by nature – and before archeological restoration – in Tikal.
Perhaps it is a sort of delayed retribution on nature’s behalf, given that the Mayans deforested large parts of the area to extract cal (calcium oxide) from limestone. This important compound was the basis of all Mayan construction, which was mixed with water, sand or gravel to create cement and mortar. To produce cal, temperatures greater than 1400°C (>2500°F) are needed, which translates to a lot of wood being cut and burned in specialized kilns around 900 C.E.

Trees and shrubs take over the ancient Mayan kilns that were used to produce cal.
One of many Mayan constructions found within Tikal and the whole Maya Biosphere Reserve.
The amount of deforestation shifted the microclimate of what is now the Maya Biosphere Reserve in the Petén, causing major environmental changes that affected wildlife habitats, rainfall patterns, soil composition and fertility—amongst other consequences—leading the Mayans to lose the seasonal predictability that they depended on for food and sustenance.

It is said that the Mayan calendar, which was meant to predict “the end of the world,” actually indicates the end of an erroneous way of thinking for the Mayas. Somehow realizing the consequences of their destructive behaviors towards the environment, legends and paleoenvironmental evidence say that the Mayans changed their ways and cultivated respect and harmony with the earth. Some of the research I have encountered theorize that the Mayans became master agro-foresters, strategically planting shrubs and trees for food, sustainably harvesting and conserving the forest resources they needed.

Farmer Zacarias Quixchan takes the time to speak to me and Dr. Anabel Ford near San José, Petén about forest gardening and the Milpa system – all of which are part of his Mayan agricultural heritage.
Sadly, the story ends in the same colonialist decimation of the people and culture, as fated to all of the Americas. In the Petén, the ancient ruins of this massive, long-lived civilization is present everywhere – buried beneath mountains, emerging from the ground when it is eroded by rain, or hidden at the bottom of a lake. But, the lesson may have been forgotten, and now it is occurring at a macro, global scale—a story of unsustainability and climate change, repeating itself.

More pottery and obsidian rock that abound in the streets of San Miguel, near Flores. The black volcanic rock is not native to the area, and was clearly imported in mass quantities from the Guatemalan highlands.
A water distorted piece of ancient Mayan pottery found beneath a crater lake in the Petén. What will they find as remnants of our civilization? Most likely plastic.


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