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"Weather Beaten" -- The Discovery Files

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Decades of extreme weather crippled, and ultimately decimated, first the political culture and later the human population of the ancient Maya, according to a study by an interdisciplinary team of researchers from UC Davis, Penn State and Switzerland.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

(Sound effect: dry wind) Weather Beaten.

I'm Bob Karson with the discovery files--new advances in science and engineering from the National Science Foundation.

(Sound effect: thunder) The next time the weather cancels your golf game, be thankful it doesn't cancel your civilization. A new study from the University of California, Davis, Penn State, and Switzerland says extreme weather conditions helped lead to the collapse of the extraordinary Mayan civilization--which completely fell apart in a space of about 80 years.

To see what was going on during those years, the team accessed the Maya hieroglyphic database project, which catalogs the monuments the Mayans had a penchant for building. Inscribed with births, deaths, rulers' rise to power, major battles--no mention, though, of climatic events or how the crops were doing.

(Sound effect: cave sounds) To get climate information, the researchers studied a stalagmite from a cave in Belize, close to Mayan cities. Using oxygen isotope dating, they uncovered a record of local rainfall over the past 2,000 years.

By combining the information, the team was able to link precipitation with the civilization: Rainy with the rise, drying with the demise. The drying trend triggered political competition, more warfare and instability, and breakdown. A severe 80-year drought sealed their fate. A highly advanced society brought down by one thing they couldn't control: (Sound effect: thunderclap) The weather.

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