THE ancient Mayans, a fervently religious people who believed that their destiny was predetermined by the heavens, may have been doomed by a 200-year cycle in the brightness of the Sun.
Scientists have found a link between a long-term solar pattern and a series of devastating droughts that buffeted Mayan cities and farms and led to the collapse of the civilisation in the ninth century. The Mayans were talented astronomers who designed their jungle pyramids and palaces in the Yucatan peninsula in present day Mexico to reflect the movement of the Sun, Moon and Venus. They were also keen calendar-makers who kept time with several cycles that incorporated the movements in the heavens.
A new study of lake sediments in the area suggests that they were particularly vulnerable to changes in the intensity of the Sun’s rays. Dr David Hodell, of the University of Florida, who reports the findings today in Science, said changes in the Sun’s energy output had a direct effect on the climate of the Yucatan causing the recurrence of drought, which influenced the Maya evolution.
He has previously argued that the collapse of the Mayan civilisation was influenced by a severe drought that lasted more than 150 years. The new findings come from a study of cores removed from the bottom of Lake Chichancanab in central America. The team found distinct layers of gypsum in the cores, formed when the lakes dried out during droughts. The layers appeared every 208 years.
The cycle is almost identical to a 206-year natural cycle in solar intensity, said Dr Hodell. His team found that the droughts took place during the most intense part of the cycle. The driest years also occurred at times when the Mayan culture was going through downturns, abandoning cities or slowing down the amount of building and carving. He said: “It is ironic that a culture so obsessed with keeping track of celestial movements may have met their demise because of a 206-year cycle.”
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