Mexican scientists finger volcanoes as a cause of Mayas’ collapse

Richard Thornton, Architecture & Design Examiner
December 18, 2011

A just completed six year long study of the Maya city of Palenque found evidence that the city may have been destroyed by superheated volcanic gases and covered with ash. Acid rain caused by volcanoes and volcanic ash continue to severely damage the ruins.

MEXICO CITY, DF – Mexico’s government issued a report on December 17, 2011 that continued a volcanic eruption alert for Mexico City. The massive volcano, Popocatépetl, has awakened. While people around the world debate the meaning of the Maya calendar’s end in December of 2012, Mexican government leaders and scientists must face a far more definite threat – massive casualties and property damage from a volcanic eruption near one of its major cities. Mexico City is ringed by active, dormant and hopefully, extinct volcanoes. Its metropolitan area of 21.2 million inhabitants, sits in the shadow of Popocatépetl, which is one of the most violent volcanoes in Mexico. It is 18,491 ft (5,636 m) high.

Government officials are concerned that a sudden, explosive eruption of Popocatépetl or one of the other volcanoes within the metropolitan area could cause several million casualties. It would be impossible to evacuate a substantial percentage of the mega-city’s population on short notice. There is also the ever present danger that a new volcano will suddenly push through the soil in a densely populated area. It has happened before in Mexico. There is almost nothing an architect can do to prevent catastrophe when a building is subjected to direct contact with molten lava. The structure either burns or melts.

Around 150 AD the Xitle volcano in the suburbs of present day Mexico City erupted, causing the abandonment of two cities, Cuicuilco and Copilco. They were later covered by lava. Around 930 AD the Xocoteptl volcano in the northwest suburbs of Mexico City exploded with a force equal to or greater than Krakatoa (Indonesia) in 1883. Had that explosion occurred today, perhaps five million people would have been killed.

The Centro Nacional de Prevención de Desastres (National Center for the Prevention of Disasters) has decided to continue a 12 km (7.5 mile) security corridor around Popocatépetl, with vehicular traffic being limited on all roads crossing the immediate danger zone. The volcano’s current activity shows no sign of abating, which may mean it will get worse. Citizens living at the volcano’s base have been relocated.

Mexico and neighboring Central American nations are located in one of the most active geological zones in the world. These countries are located in the infamous “Pacific Ring of Fire.” In addition to the ever present danger of earthquakes, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras Costa Rica, El Salvador and Panama contain several dozen active and dormant volcanoes, many of which are some of the largest and most dangerous in the world.

Debate over Maya civilization’s collapse

The Maya city-states of southern Mexico and the nations of Guatemala, Belize and Honduras, thrived from about 500 BC until the 800s AD. Within relatively few decades most of the Maya cities were abandoned in the central and southern parts of their territory. The productive farming regions in the Maya Highlands in Chiapas State, Guatemala and Honduras were almost completely depopulated for a couple of centuries.

For over a century, scholars and archaeologists have debated the cause or causes of the collapse of Classic Maya civilization. Currently, the most popular theory among archaeologists based in the United States is that long term drought combined with deforestation and chronic wars was the primary culprit. They believe that the region’s population became very dense just as destructive agricultural practices, drought and wars between city states drastically reduced the production of food products. The lethal mix then theoretically caused massive deaths throughout the region. Much of the theory is based on the presumption that the Maya culture was based on primitive agricultural practices.

While Mexican archaeologists and scientists acknowledge the evidence of several droughts between 800 AD and 915 AD, they also point out several flaws in the “mega-drought” theory. In 800 AD Maya farmers were the most sophisticated in the world. They used such advanced technologies as fertilizer, irrigation, crop rotation, raised beds and terrace farming to obtain very high productivity. The region that disproportionately lost population was in the agricultural highlands and southern lowlands, which was rural land with many natural lakes, abundant rain and fertile soil.

The only region in which large cities continued to exist was in the northern tip of Yucatan, which has shallow soils, no streams or lakes whatsoever; and is frequently bombarded by hurricanes. Why would a region that is the most vulnerable to droughts continue to thrive, while those with many natural resources be abandoned? Scientists at the National Autonomous University of Mexico may have the answer.

Disaster in Chiapas State raises awareness of past

In 1982, El Chichon Volcano in the Mexican State of Chiapas suddenly erupted and killed at least 2,000 persons. Mexican geologists had assumed that the volcano was extinct. Local authorities took few precautions, when the mountain began to rumble. It eventually exploded and opened a caldera (lava basin) that was a kilometer (.6 mile) wide.. Residents in nearby villages and towns had no time to escape once the volcano began actively erupting. The Centro Nacional de Prevención de Desastres was created four years later to reduce the likelihood of such tragedies happening again.

In southeastern Chiapas and adjacent Guatemala is a chain of volcanoes that are know to have been active during the past 2,000 years. Some are currently erupting. Almost every year they cause casualties and loss of life. Farm families continue to live near the volcanoes because volcanic soils are fertile.

Mexican scientists now believe that the amount of volcanic particles emitted into the air by many past eruptions caused volcanic winters and subsequent droughts. One Mexican civilization is known to have been completely destroyed by an eruption. Catastrophic damage from volcanoes could happen again in Mexico, at any time.

Recent studies of historic volcanic activity by Dr. Martin el Pozzo at the university’s Institute of Geophisics suggest that catastrophic volcanic eruptions may have been primary causes of the collapse of several of Mexico’s civilizations including a massive drop in the Maya population between 830 AD and 915 AD. Although located in Mayan territory, El Chichon volcano was ignored in the past by archaeologists because it was thought to have been dormant for several thousand years.

Pozzo’s studies in 2008 found that volcanic teffra (ash) had on several occasions covered the southern Maya region. In particular, eruptions around 539 AD and 900 AD seemed to have been particularly traumatic. The 539 AD eruption apparently affected the climate of a region extending northward into the Southeastern United States, Many indigenous communities, both in the Maya lands and the Southeast were abandoned. The Hopewell Culture in the Ohio Valley suddenly collapsed about this time. The impact of Chichon’s eruption was even greater on the atmosphere because another large volcano, Ilopango in El Salvador, had erupted in 536 AD.

Pozzo has theorized that El Chichon’s eruption combined with a massive eruption of the Ceboruco volcano in western Mexico altered the climate of much of North America, causing year-round winter temperatures and droughts. These are natural events over which man has no control . . . and they will probably happen again.

Study of Palenque confirms volcanic devastation

The Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies (FAMSI) completed the five year long Palenque Hydro-Archaeological Project in December of 2011. Palenque was located on the edge of the Chiapas Highlands. It was one of the most sophisticated and prosperous Maya cities. Rather than coping with water shortages, its architects and planners had to deal with an over-abundance of clean, mountain streams running through the town’s center. Inexplicably, Palenque was one of the first Maya cities to collapse.

The geologists and archaeologists working on the Palenque project found little evidence of a severe drought near the time of the city’s collapse. What they did find was a heavy layer of volcanic ash and evidence of mass destruction caused by high heat dating from around 800 AD. The abandonment of Palenque appears to have preceded the occurrence of a major drought elsewhere in the Maya realm. Geologists and meteorologists next plan to study the relationship between volcanic eruptions in Mesoamerica and known periods of drought.

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