The question of how best to adapt to the extreme climate is a critical issue facing modern societies worldwide. The authors Claire Ebert, Julie Hoggarth, Jaime Awe, Brendan Culleton, and Douglas Kennett published in Current Anthropology ["The Role of Nutrition in Resistance and Vulnerability to Climate Change in Early Maya Lowland Agricultural Communities"]. Investigate the role of nutrition in the ability of the ancient Maya to survive periods of severe climatic stress. The authors noted that increasing preference of the Mayan elite for a corn-based diet could have made the population more vulnerable to drought and contributed to societal collapse.
"The growth of the population and the deterioration of the anthropogenic environment through the intensification of agriculture combined with socially conditioned food preferences have led to a less flexible and resilient system," writes Ebert. "Understanding the factors that enhance resilience in the past can help reduce the potential for similar sudden and dramatic shifts in our increasingly interconnected modern world."
The study was conducted using the remains of 50 human burials from the ancient Mayan community of Cahal Pech, Belize. Using AMS radio-carbon dating, Ebert and co-workers determined the age of human burials found in Cahal Pech, both from the center and surrounding settlements. These burials dated as early as the middle pre-classical period between 735 and 400 BC. And only in the final classic between 800 and 850 AD
. At the Penn State University's Human Paleoecology and Isotope Geochemistry Laboratory, Ebert was measured to be stable carbon and nitrogen isotope values of the bone collagen in the burials to determine the characteristics of each diet and their temporal change. Of particular interest was the increasing proportion of C4 plants in the diet, which includes Mayan staple corn.
For the pre-classical and early classical burials that represent the early inhabitants of Cahal Pech, Ebert's results suggest this. Both the elites and the citizens had a varied diet that included not only corn but also wild plants and animals that were procured by the hunt. Ebert suggests that this variety of food was a buffer, as a centuries-long drought plagued the lowlands between 300 and 1
took a turn at the time of the Terminal Classic between 750 and 900 AD, as growing social hierarchies and population growth led to an intensification of agricultural production and an increasing dependence on corn. During this period, Ebert found that people from nearby settlements in Cahal Pech had different carbon values than the center of the place where the elite class lived. "Our results show a pattern of severely limited stable nitrogen and carbon isotopes for elite individuals in Late and Terminal Classic, corresponding to a corn-based hyperspecialized diet that will last until the site is finally abandoned," Ebert writes. The population's demand for higher corn production and preference for this drought-tolerant crop was probably a factor contributing to the failure of Cahal Pech's socio-political system in the face of a renewed severe drought at the end of the year.
"The study addresses the importance of nutrition for the resilience and decline of ancient societies and contributes to our understanding of the vulnerability of modern traditional farming communities and industrial nations to climate change," writes Ebert.
Scientists measure the severity of the drought during the Mayan collapse
Claire E. Ebert et al., The role of nutrition in resilience and susceptibility to climate change in early Maya lowland agricultural communities, Current Anthropology (2019). DOI: 10.1086 / 704530
Corn-centered diet could have contributed to the collapse of the ancient Maya (2019, July 3)
retrieved on 3 July 2019
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