Archeological and environmental lessons for the Anthropocene from the Classic Maya collapse

Douglas J. Kennett, Timothy P. Beach

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

47 Scopus citations


The original formulation of the "Anthropocene" emphasized the global environmental change resulting from expanding human populations and fossil fuel burning since the industrial revolution of the late 18th century. Politically, the message is that scientists and engineers should work toward an internationally accepted sustainable future. This assumes, and is dependent upon, maintaining the integrity of our increasingly interconnected social, economic, and political systems worldwide. Anthropogenic environmental change and degradation (e.g., global warming, sea-level rise, erosion) within the context of the Anthropocene has the potential to displace populations, undermine food security and human health, stimulate conflict, and destabilize social, economic and political systems. Ultimately, we do not know if our political systems could withstand these forces or whether degradation would lead to increased war and further environmental degradation. We can, however, study the complex processes of political collapse retrospectively in the archeological and historical records. In this paper, we examine one such predecessor in world history, the widespread collapse of Classic Maya polities within the context of anthropogenic and climate-driven environmental change between AD 600 and 1000. We conclude that the staggered collapse of inter-connected and rigidly organized political centers ultimately resulted from multiple drivers including anthropogenic and climate-driven environmental change. Any way one looks at Maya history suggests a precursor toward the Anthropocene: greatly changed forests and soils, water management and food production, population increase and aggregation, and even alteration of local hydrology and climate caused by deforestation and wetland manipulation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)88-100
Number of pages13
StatePublished - Dec 2013

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Ecology
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)


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