Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, Department of


Date of this Version



Oglesby, R. J., T. L. Sever, W. Saturno, D. J. Erickson III, and J. Srikishen (2010), Collapse of the Maya: Could deforestation have contributed?, J. Geophys. Res., 115, D12106, doi:10.1029/2009JD011942.


Copyright 2010 by the American Geophysical Union.


The collapse of the Maya civilization during the ninth century A.D. is a major conundrum in the history of mankind. This civilization reached a spectacular peak but then almost completely collapsed in the space of a few decades. While numerous explanations have been put forth to explain this collapse, in recent years, drought has gained favor. This is because water resources were a key for the Maya, especially to ensure their survival during the lengthy dry season that occurs where they lived. Natural drought is a known, recurring feature of this region, as evidenced by observational data, reconstructions of past times, and global climate model output. Results from simulations with a regional climate model demonstrate that deforestation by the Maya also likely induced warmer, drier, drought‐like conditions. It is therefore hypothesized that the drought conditions devastating the Maya resulted from a combination of natural variability and human activities. Neither the natural drought or the human‐induced effects alone were sufficient to cause the collapse, but the combination created a situation the Maya could not recover from. These results may have sobering implications for the present and future state of climate and water resources in Mesoamerica as ongoing massive deforestation is again occurring.