These Four Natural Disasters Wiped Out Entire Cities and Civilizations


4. The Collapse of Mayan Civilization

The Mayan empire found in Central American and southern Mexico was once one of the largest and most advanced civilizations in the world. At its peak, Mayan cities and cultural achievements rivaled those found in medieval Europe and Asia. During the 9th century AD, however, the Mayan civilization suffered a major collapse, and many of its major cities were quickly abandoned.

The reason for the Mayan collapse remains highly debatable, but one of the leading theories is that a major drought struck the region. In many areas of the Mayan empire, including the Yucatan, there are few to no major rivers. There are also few lakes and other surface water sources. Instead, rainfall and groundwater is the primary source of water.

This makes these regions especially vulnerable to droughts as accessible water resources can be quickly used up. Theorists have found evidence of a mega drought that lasted from 800 AD to 1,000 AD. Meanwhile, Mayan civilization began to collapse in the 800’s, suggest that the drought may have caused the collapse.

Other theorists who believe that a drought was the primary driver of the Mayan collapse, believe that the drought may have been much less dramatic, with precipitation dropping by only 25 to 40%. As Mayans were highly dependent on rainfall for water, even slight declines could have fueled a collapse.

At the same time, as the Mayan population grew, there was less room for error. More people require more water, and as Mayan civilization neared its peak, population-wise, most water was already being consumed. If precipitation declined by even a small amount, it may have pushed the Mayan civilization past a tipping point, causing a massive collapse and the abandonment of cities.

While much of the southern portion of the Mayan empire did collapse in the 9th century, Mayan culture further north in Mexico did continue to flourish. Regardless, Mayan civilization as a whole never fully recovered.