Researchers have long wondered what happened to the ancient Mayan civilization is believed to have begun to collapse around A.D. 900 before finally disappearing.
Now scientists from Rice University and Louisiana State University say they may have found an answer off the coast of Belize.
The Huffington Post reports the research team analyzed sediment samples from the Great Blue Hole, a massive sinkhole in the Caribbean Sea made famous by French explorer and filmmaker, Jacques Cousteau. Today it is considered one of the world’s top destinations for scuba diving enthusiasts.
The group presented its findings Dec. 16 at the American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting in San Francisco.
The study’s co-author, Andre Droxler, an Earth scientist at Rice University told Live Science the team drilled cores from the sediment in the Blue Hole. He explained that the hole can be thought of as a huge trap for the sediment that runs off the mainland. Droxler and his colleagues studied the sediment cores, noting the ratio of titanium to aluminum. Low ratios indicate periods of less rainfall, and that is exactly what the researchers found.
Droxler said the team determined that from A.D. 800 to A.D. 1000, the region only experienced one or two tropical cyclones every two decades as opposed to the more typical five or six. That is indicative of a drought, he said, and is likely what started the Mayan civilization’s decline.
It is not the first evidence suggesting a change in weather patterns led to the civilization’s disappearance.
A previous study, based on samples taken from a single cave, suggested a drought might have taken place on the Yucatan Peninsula where the Maya were known to have lived. But Droxler’s evidence is considered stronger because the data taken from the Blue Hole is thought to be more indicative of weather over the entire region rather than the data taken from a single cave.
The samples taken from the underwater sinkhole also suggest a second drought likely struck the region between A.D. 1000 and A.D. 1100, when it is believed the Maya were still living in what is now Mexico.
"When you have major droughts, you start to get famines and unrest," Droxler said, suggesting back-to-back, centuries-long droughts likely brought about the civilization’s end.