The Great Blue Hole of the Belize Barrier Reef and the ancient Maya civilization seem to have little to do with one another aside from their locations. However, just as everything on our planet is linked in some way, scientists and historians came closer to figuring out why the advanced Maya culture declined and eventually disappeared, all thanks to the Blue Hole.
The Maya civilization flourished in Central America over a thousand years ago, building massive cities. The culture was known for their mathematical, scientific, and technological advancements, as well as their beautiful artwork. However, after about 800 C.E., the civilization began to shrink and decline, and finally ground to a final halt around 1100. Why, though, remained a mystery…until now.
Formed over tens of thousands of years, the Great Blue Hole (a huge circular cave in Belize’s Lighthouse Reef) was once above ground. However, it filled in when sea levels rose. Today, it’s a popular destination with cave divers and scientists alike. Recently, core samples were taken from the cave’s bottom layer, some 410 feet underwater. What they showed shed light on the mystery of the Maya.
The ancient Mayan civilization collapsed due to a century-long drought, new research suggests.
Minerals taken from Belize’s famous underwater cave, as well as lagoons nearby, show that an extreme drought occurred between A.D. 800 and A.D. 900, right when the Mayan civilization disintegrated. After the rains returned, the Mayans moved north — but they disappeared again a few centuries later, and that disappearance occurred at the same time as another dry spell, the sediments reveal.
The evidence for a drought has been growing in recent years: Since at least 1995, scientists have been looking more closely at the effects of drought. A 2012 study in the journal Science analyzed a 2,000-year-old stalagmite from a cave in southern Belize and found that sharp decreases in rainfall coincided with periods of decline in the culture. But that data came from just one cave, which meant it was difficult to make predictions for the area as a whole, Droxler said.
The main driver of this drought is thought to have been a shift in the intertropical convergence zone (ITCZ), a weather system that generally dumps water on tropical regions of the world while drying out the subtropics. During summers, the ITCZ pelts the Yucatan peninsula with rain, but the system travels farther south in the winter. Many scientists have suggested that during the Mayan decline, this monsoon system may have missed the Yucatan peninsula altogether.
To look for signs of drought, the team drilled cores from the sediments in the Blue Hole of Lighthouse lagoon, as well one in the Rhomboid reef. The lagoons surrounded on all sides by thick walls of coral reef.
During storms or wetter periods, excess water runs off from rivers and streams, overtops the retaining walls, and is deposited in a thin layer at the top of the lagoon. From there, all the sediments from these streams settle to the bottom of the lagoon, piling on top of each other and leaving a chronological record of the historical climate.
“It’s like a big bucket. It’s a sediment trap,” Droxler told Live Science.
Droxler and his colleagues analyzed the chemical composition of the cores, in particular the ratio of titanium to aluminum. When the rains fall, it eats away at the volcanic rocks of the region, which contain titanium. The free titanium then sweeps into streams that reach the ocean. So relatively low ratios of titanium to aluminum correspond to periods with less rainfall, Droxler said.
The team found that during the period between A.D. 800 and A.D. 1000, when the Maya civilization collapsed, there were just one or two tropical cyclones every two decades, as opposed to the usual five or six. After that, the Maya moved north, building at sites such as Chichen Itza, in what is now Mexico.
But the new results also found that between A.D. 1000 and A.D. 1100, during the height of the Little Ice Age, another major drought struck. This period coincides with the fall of Chichen Itza.
The findings strengthen the case that drought helped usher in the long decline of the Mayan culture.
“When you have major droughts, you start to get famines and unrest,” Droxler said.