Changing Climate and the Maya

Changing Climate and the Maya

New data suggests climate—specifically, severe drought—played a key role in the collapse of ancient Maya civilization.


5 - 12+


Anthropology, Biology, Earth Science, Geography, Human Geography, Physical Geography, Social Studies, World History

Ancient Maya civilization thrived thousands of years ago in present-day Central America. Anthropologists and archaeologists thought Maya culture originated in the northern reaches of what is now Guatemala about 600 B.C.E., and migrated north to the Yucatan Peninsula beginning around 700 C.E.

Throughout the film Quest for the Lost Maya, a team of anthropologists led by Dr. George Bey discovers the Maya may have been in the Yucatan as far back as 500 B.C.E. This new evidence indicates the Maya of the Yucatan had a very complex social structure, distinctive religious practices, and unique technological innovations that made civilization possible in the harsh jungle.

Archaeologists have long puzzled over the collapse of Mayan civilization. What led to the massive depopulation of major Maya cities in the 900s? Scientists have considered war and political factors, but this segment of Quest for the Lost Maya suggests another explanation.

In a University of Florida lab, Dr. Mark Brenner evaluates sediment cores that have produced new data that suggests climate—specifically, severe drought—played a key role in the decline of ancient Maya civilization. This segment of Quest for the Lost Maya outlines how scientists use snail shells and sediment layers from the bottom of a lake to create a picture of climate conditions at various periods in the ancient past.

Although climate was likely a major factor of the Mayan collapse, it's not the only one. Civilizations carefully balance a host of factors—political, environmental, military, and cultural. Troubles in one area often lead to problems in other areas.

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Hannah Herrero
National Geographic Society
Anne Haywood, National Geographic Society
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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