The Castillo step-pyramid, Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico. Photograph by Teobert Maler (1842-1917), courtesy of Wikipedia

By Annabel Roth

An ancient Central American civilization that collapsed amid deforestation, overpopulation, drought and conflict offers us a sobering lesson as we contemplate the future of our planet.

Consider these facts:

  • The world lost 129 million hectares of forest between 1990 and 2015, about the size of South Africa, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
  • The current world population is approximately 7.4 billion, and the United Nations predicts that by the end of this century it could top 11 billion.
  • Today, more than one billion people lack access to clean drinking water, and serious droughts are occurring on every continent.

Have we seen these trends before?

Around the 10th century, this famed civilization began to collapse.

The Mayan civilization thrived in the Yucatan peninsula as early as 2600 BC and built one of the most sophisticated and prosperous cultures of Mesoamerican agrarian civilizations.

The Mayans developed the only known written language in the pre-Colombian Americas and were known for their advanced knowledge of astronomy and math, rich traditions in the arts and monumental architecture.

Then, around the 10th century, this famed civilization that had existed for 12,000 years began to fall apart.


In his 2005 book “Collapse,” U.S. scientist Jared Diamond describes several hundred years of droughts and deforestation at the end of the first millennium, which led to overpopulation, disease and starvation, and fueled warfare. The Mayan population fell by 70 percent.

What happened?

Traditionally the Mayans depended on seasonal rains to refill their water supply so they could grow enough food for their rapidly increasing population. But starting around 820 AD, nearly a century of periodic droughts ravaged the Mayan homeland.

When the droughts hit, the Mayans were already in the midst of an overpopulation crisis. At the height of the civilization’s golden age in around 800 AD, the population reached an estimated 10 million, the densest population of any pre-industrial society in history.

Drought undercut crop production, leading to malnutrition and disease. The shortage of water and farmland sparked tribal warfare and undermined the power of the elite. There was social and political disorder in cities, and many Mayans died or abandoned their homes.

The Mayans offer us a cautionary tale.

Mayans burned large swathes of vegetation for agriculture and felled an abundance of trees for immense construction projects. They used wood to fuel fires to harden the plaster covering their large temples, pyramids and palaces.

An estimated 20 trees were used to build just one square meter of city. To accommodate the growing population’s demands for food and construction, the Mayans burned more and more trees. Studies show that by deforesting their land, the Mayans helped cause disastrous droughts.

In 2009, researchers at the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration simulated the deforestation that contributed to the Mayan droughts, offering data that supported Diamond’s “collapse” theory.

Modeling the worst case scenario where all trees were cut down, temperatures increased and average rainfall decreased by 20 to 30 percent. Lack of rain cut food production, prompting the Mayans to clear more land for farming — a vicious cycle of deforestation and drought.

Deforestation, drought and overpopulation — the Mayans offer us a cautionary tale.

Without strategies to address current environmental and population trends, we, too, could face disaster.

arothAnnabel Roth is in her first year of high school at Greens Farms Academy in Westport, Connecticut in the United States. Previously she lived in Shanghai, China, for five years and is fluent in Mandarin. She is a competitive swimmer, plays the drums and is passionate about current events and politics. She is also involved in a program at school that funds girls’ education in Rwanda.

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School PartnersGreens Farms AcademyThe Mayans collapsed. We could too.