Background Info

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 BCE, and migrated north to the Yucatan Peninsula beginning around 700 CE.

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 BCE. 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 Mayan 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 which have produced new data that suggests climate—specifically, severe drought—played a key role in the decline of 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.

Questions

1. 

What do different bands of color in the core sediment samples represent?

Show Answer

Brown bands represent organic material, whereas white bands represent gypsum (a type of salt).

2. 

How does the gypsum found in the core sediment samples form? What does this formation indicate?

Show Answer

The gypsum sediment layer formed as water evaporated. Salt in the water did not evaporate, and settled in layers at the bottom of the lake. This evaporation process indicates a period of drought.

3. 

How did scientists determine the age of the gypsum? With what did these dates coincide?

Show Answer

Scientists performed radio-carbon dating to find that the gypsum layers dated from the same time period as the collapse of Mayan civilization.

4. 

How have snail shells helped climatologists determine aspects of the ancient environment of the Stairway site?

Show Answer

Snail shells contain two distinct oxygen isotopes, one of which occurs much more strongly in a drought environment. Analysis of shells obtained from sediment cores at the Mayan archaeological site indicates droughts of the highest magnitude during the last 7,000 years.

5. 

How many serious droughts were recorded in the sediment core, and how long did they last? What were their impacts?

Show Answer

Climatologists determined there were a series of eight droughts lasting three to twenty years. These droughts likely forced the people living at the Stairway site to evacuate the area.

For Further Exploration

Vocabulary

Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry

anthropology

Noun

science of the origin, development, and culture of human beings.

Encyclopedic Entry: anthropology

archaeologist

Noun

person who studies artifacts and lifestyles of ancient cultures.

chemist

Noun

person who studies the theory and application of atoms and molecules, and their relationships and interactions.

civilization

Noun

complex way of life that developed as humans began to develop urban settlements.

Encyclopedic Entry: civilization

climate

Noun

all weather conditions for a given location over a period of time.

Encyclopedic Entry: climate

climatologist

Noun

person who studies long-term patterns in weather.

data

Plural Noun

(singular: datum) information collected during a scientific study.

deforestation

Noun

destruction or removal of forests and their undergrowth.

dendrochronology

Noun

study of tree rings and how they can identify and date weather events and changes in the atmosphere.

drought

Noun

period of greatly reduced precipitation.

Encyclopedic Entry: drought

erosion

Noun

act in which earth is worn away, often by water, wind, or ice.

Encyclopedic Entry: erosion

evidence

Noun

data that can be measured, observed, examined, and analyzed to support a conclusion.

geologist

Noun

person who studies the physical formations of the Earth.

ice core

Noun

sample of ice taken to demonstrate changes in climate over many years.

isotope

Noun

atom with an unbalanced number of neutrons in its nucleus, giving it a different atomic weight than other atoms of the same element.

jungle

Noun

tropical ecosystem filled with trees and underbrush.

lake

Noun

body of water surrounded by land.

landscape

Noun

the geographic features of a region.

Encyclopedic Entry: landscape

Maya

Noun

people and culture native to southeastern Mexico and Central America.

migration route

Noun

path followed by birds or other animals that migrate regularly.

pollen

Noun

powdery material produced by plants.

sea level

Noun

base level for measuring elevations. Sea level is determined by measurements taken over a 19-year cycle.

Encyclopedic Entry: sea level

sediment

Noun

solid material transported and deposited by water, ice, and wind.

Encyclopedic Entry: sediment

speleothem

Noun

rock or mineral formations, such as stalactites and stalagmites, created in a cave environment. Also called a cave formation.

stalactite

Noun

rock formed by mineral-rich water dripping from the roof of a cave. The water drips, but the mineral remains like an icicle.

stalagmite

Noun

mineral deposit formed on a cave floor, usually by water dripping from above.

urban area

Noun

developed, densely populated area where most inhabitants have nonagricultural jobs.

Encyclopedic Entry: urban area

volcanic eruption

Noun

activity that includes a discharge of gas, ash, or lava from a volcano.

Credits

Media Credits

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Writer

Hannah Herrero

Editor

Caryl-Sue, National Geographic Society
Anne Haywood, National Geographic Society

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