Temple of the God Wind, Tulum, Quintana Roo, Mexico. Courtesy Photo.
Temple of the God Wind, Tulum, Quintana Roo, Mexico. Courtesy Photo.

Despite the ongoing flooding faced by specific areas of Texas, 50 people gathered at St. Mary’s University on Tuesday evening to learn about the Maya drought.

Richardson B. Gill, author of The Great Maya Droughts: Water, Life, and Death, shared his original theory that recurring droughts killed off the Maya civilization.

Richardson B. Gill points at a rendering of a Mayan reservoir. Photo by Don Mathis.

Too much rain can wreak devastation but sunny days usually don’t kill people. “But when people run out of food and water, they die,” Gill said.

Gill, a native of San Antonio, knows a thing or two about drought.

“When I was 12, back in 1955, my father took me to the hill country,” he said. “I remember seeing deer that were walking skeletons. The Maya hieroglyphic for serious drought is ‘When the deer die,’” he said. “The hieroglyph is written in syllables, ‘Year of much sun.’”

Gill’s postulation on the demise of a culture was controversial at one time but is more accepted now. The BBC program, The Fall of the Mayan Civilisation, quotes him extensively.

“The received knowledge was that climate had no effect on civilization,” he said.

There was a second presumption to the received knowledge; there are no easy answers.

“I came along to say, ‘Wake up!’ The Mayas ran out of food and water and they died,” Gill said.

The Maya people had a rich and resplendent domain. Fifteen million people lived on the northern Yucatan peninsula down to the border of present day Honduras.

“Tikal is a beautiful city,” Gill said. “Howler monkeys climb the trees and parrots and birds call. El Castillo at Chichen Itza was built around 890.”

The observatory, El Caracol, attests to the intellect of this pre-Columbian civilization.

“Obviously, they were better mathematicians than any in Europe,” Gill said.

The ancient Mayas had very few sources of water. “Cenotes are collapsed sinkholes. It is a Maya word,” he said. “The Usamacinta is the only river in the Yucatan. Its flow can fluctuate as much as 95%,” he said.

The Temple of the Sun at Palenque as seen from the Temple of the Cross. Courtesy Photo.
The Temple of the Sun at Palenque as seen from the Temple of the Cross. Courtesy Photo.

More than 90% of Maya culture depended on a surface water reservoir system or an aguada. “They grew water lilies in an attempt to control evaporation in reservoirs,” he said. “Their hydraulic engineers were really very advanced.”

But it all came crashing down after several cycles of 50-year droughts. “The Maya drought hit the central region beginning in 760, the west in 810 and the southeast in 860. The final collapse was in 910,” he said.

Gill compared the Maya’s 50-year cycles of drought to the 20-year cycles in Texas. “North Texas and Oklahoma suffered drought in the ’30s. This is known as the Dust Bowl,” he said. “Central Texas suffered drought in the ’50s. We skipped the ’70s and had another drought in the ’90s.”

“I lived through the drought of the ’50s,” he said, “and I know the murderous power of drought. The Mayas lived with this.”

And they died with it.

Gill studied Spanish records of the 1500s through the 1800s and noted a correlation between volcanic activity and scarcity of food. “Famine was reported within two years after tropical eruptions,” he said. “Thirteen recorded famines followed tropical eruptions in Maya lowlands.”

Volcanic activity can influence the North Atlantic High, Gill said. “The North Atlantic High can precipitate cooler weather,” he said. “And cooler weather usually means less rainfall.”

The Maya culture thrived for nearly 2,000 years. Then, according to Gill, it was undone by drought. Today, Texas is praying for an end to rain. But, like the Mayas, it won’t be long until we are praying for an end to another drought.

Featured/top image: Temple of the God Wind, Tulum, Quintana Roo, Mexico. Courtesy Photo. 

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Don Mathis

Don’s life revolves around the many poetry circles in San Antonio. His poems have been published in many anthologies and periodicals and broadcasted on local TV and national radio. In addition to poetry,...