The exact reason behind the downfall of the Maya has long been a mystery. A society of advanced intelligence, art, and architecture, the Maya were once an extremely prosperous people, but by the time the Spanish colonists arrived, there wasn't much left for them to conquer. A new study published in December by archaeologists from the US and the UK put together the data of the times when the northern Maya cities were active and when they went into decline. They determined that north's fall was linked to a time of drought.

There was a 70% decline in stone calendar inscriptions in the second half of the 9th Century. This same pattern of decline is also echoed in radiocarbon dates across the northern Maya region, which indicate that wooden construction also dwindled during the same time period. Importantly, this is the time that the droughts are believed to have caused the collapse of the Maya civilisation in the south – evidently the north didn’t come through these droughts unscathed after all.

The researchers believe that this waning of creative activity shows that political and societal collapse was underway in the north. The north certainly fared better than the south during the 9th Century, but these new findings suggest that the region nevertheless suffered a significant decline. This northern decline had previously escaped detection mostly due to the subtle nature of the evidence: a decline in construction, even one as large as this, is hard to spot without the comprehensive, region-wide analysis provided by the new study.

However, it was a second, more severe "megadrought" 200 or so years later that really secured the doom of the Maya.

But the second decline the team identified does change our understanding of the Maya’s story. After a short recovery during the 10th Century (which, interestingly, was coincident with an increase in rainfall), the researchers noticed another slump in construction at numerous sites across the northern Maya territory: stone carving and other building activity seems to have fallen by almost half between AD1000 and 1075. What’s more, just like the crisis 200 years earlier, the researchers discovered that this 11th Century Maya decline also took place against a backdrop of severe drought.

Head over to BBC to read the full article.

Feature image via Dennis JarvisDennis Jarvis