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One of the Mayan mysteries (almost) solved thanks to the mud of the sea

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The reason for the destruction of the Mayan civilization is the subject of debate among historians, archaeologists and geoscientists. However, German researchers analyzed sand and mud deposited in Caribbean marine sinkholes and found that a series of extreme tropical storms could have triggered its demise.

The main theory suggests that the Mayans suffered severe and repeated droughts that ravaged the Yucatan Peninsula (Mexico) around the years 800-1100. Scientists thought that reduced freshwater availability and decreased agricultural activity could have precipitated the collapse of their society, but now another possible reason has taken hold: severe tropical storms.

The classical Mayan civilization, which once occupied most of the Yucatan Peninsula, began to decline in the late 800s. During the next century, large Mayan cities such as Copan (in what is now Honduras) and Tikal (in what is now Guatemala) were abandoned. Climate change is believed to be the main driver of this collapse

According to the study led by Dominik Schmitt of Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany, and published in the scientific journal EOS, the storms were weak and predictable until around 900, then they became more intense and unpredictable. The “stress” of dealing with storms, in addition to fighting droughts, may have pushed the Mayans “over the edge.”

“It is certainly possible that increasing hurricane frequency factored into the collapse of the Mayan empire, but the extent of that contribution is something we may never know conclusively,” Schmitt told EOS.

How did hurricanes contribute to the Mayan collapse?

The historical or instrumental records of hurricanes and tropical storms go back little more than a century; To look further back in time, scientists often study climate footprints by looking at “blue holes,” marine sinkholes into which sediments are continually deposited.

Sand and mud are the traces of the Mesa American climate. Schmitt and his team studied the climatic records of the Great Blue Hole (with sediments up to 8.5 meters long) in the Lighthouse Reef off the coast of Belize and were able to reconstruct storms dating back 2,000 years. 

What does the sand and mud at the bottom of the sea tell us?

Generally, the sediments in the deposition layers are smooth. But when a big storm happens, it rakes in and deposits coarse particles. Due to the structure of a blue hole, the material can settle but cannot come out, allowing the feature to act as a near-perfect record of ancient storms.

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