Mass poisoning and new versions of the death of civilization: how our knowledge about the Maya changed

The mysterious Mayan civilization is still interesting to scientists and remains not fully understood. We regularly learn some new details about her life and hypotheses about the reasons for her complete disappearance. We will tell you how our knowledge about this mysterious civilization has changed recently.

Architecture and structure of the Mayan city

• Coastal parks

Archaeologists have isolated ecological DNA obtained from sediment samples at the site of ancient reservoirs of the Mayan civilization in the city of Tikal. The results of the research showed that the ponds were surrounded by green areas of wild plants, which served as a tool for local residents to combat soil erosion, as well as a resting place.

We are talking about a city located on the territory of modern Guatemala – this is Tikal. There were no rivers or lakes in its vicinity, therefore, to provide water for such a large number of the Maya population, a system of artificial reservoirs was built.

Recent studies have shown that problems with the availability of quality drinking water have spurred technological progress, and the Maya learned to use zeolites as natural absorbers.

This is especially important in the context of the fact that Tikal, apparently, was abandoned by the Indians due to water poisoning with mercury, phosphates and cyanobacterial waste products.

• Ritual and administrative center Nishtun-Chich

American anthropologists have established that the Mayan city of Nishtun Chich, discovered in 1995, had the status of a ritual and administrative center in the middle pre-classical era.

The layout of the city showed that the designers and builders proceeded from an ancient belief system based on the crocodile myth – the Maya believed that during the creation of the world, the gods sacrificed a crocodile, who returned from primitive waters to form the Earth.

• Ceremonial Center Aguada Phoenix

Archaeologists have discovered in the state of Tabasco in southern Mexico, a Mayan monumental complex dating from 1000-800 BC. This is the oldest such structure associated with the Mayan civilization.

According to radiocarbon analysis, Aguada Phoenix was built around 1000-800 BC: for comparison, one of the largest buildings in Mesoamerica – the Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacan – dates back to 200 AD.

The appearance of Aguada Phoenix suggests that early Mayan communities were egalitarian and lacked an influential ruling class, according to scientists at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

To create a three-dimensional map of the area on which Aguada Phoenix is ​​located, a group of researchers carried out aerial photography using lidar, a technology for obtaining and processing information about distant objects using active optical systems. In this way, they scanned the lands in the state of Tabasco – and found 21 rectangular plateaus on which the Maya, presumably, performed their rituals and ceremonies.

Salt as money

Archaeologist Heather McKillop concluded that salt may have been used as a payment instrument by the Maya in the classical era (AD 300-900). This product meets important requirements for commodity money such as utility, value, portability and divisibility.

McKillop argues convincingly that salt was a very valuable commodity in the Mayan civilization, and that those who knew how to mine it could use their skills to make a profit.

I think the ancient Maya who worked here were producers and sellers and they transported salt in canoes upriver. They produced a lot of salt, much more than they needed for their immediate family and their own needs. – Heather McKillop, Louisiana State University professor

Fully operating kitchens discovered by McKillop and her colleagues could produce enough salt to meet the needs of several thousand people every day.

At that time, salt was highly valued, primarily due to the fact that it could be used to store meat for longer. It was necessary for everyone, and therefore people could well use salty cakes, produced according to certain standards, as a form of money.

Filtration of water

Scientists at the University of Cincinnati (USA) have found that the ancient Maya were able to use relatively complex technologies to purify water. They made filters from natural materials.

Researchers have discovered a filter system in Tikal, in the Corriental Reservoir, an important source of drinking water for the ancient Maya in northern Guatemala. To make filters, the indigenous Mesoamericans used quartz and zeolite, which form a natural molecular sieve. Both minerals are still used in modern drinking water purification systems.

Scientists believe that the Maya built a multilayer filter at the entrance to the reservoir made of pieces of limestone, coarse cloth and a mixture of zeolites with quartz sand. This would explain the anomalous purity of the Corriental, which is low in both chemical pollutants and traces of blue-green algae blooms.

The last traces of the functioning of the zeolite filter belong to the late classical period (600-900 AD), after which the system was no longer restored, probably due to the loss of access to raw materials.

Reduction of civilization and death

• Impact of climate change

Scientists have found that part of the Mayan civilization has shrunk due to climate change. The Mayan population in the city of Itsan, in what is now Guatemala, has declined in response to climate change. Both droughts and floods led to significant population decline.

The researchers succeeded in mapping the main changes in the Mayan population in the area over a period that began in 3300 BC.

The results showed that Maya numbers in the area declined due to drought in three different periods. During the driest periods, water dropped 70% less than it should have.

But not only drought is to blame, the climate jumps were serious – the Mayan population also declined in the very humid period from 400 to 210 BC. Until now, the flood period has not received much attention.

The Maya had to adapt to changes in soil and loss of nutrients. Therefore, scientists suggest, they left their cities one by one, moving into more favorable conditions – into the jungle.

• Poisoning by drinking water

The water in some reservoirs of the Mayan city of Tikal in the 9th century AD contained so much mercury, phosphates and cyanobacterial waste products that it was hardly drinkable.

Chemists, microbiologists, archaeologists and specialists from other fields, led by David Lenz, studied the composition of sedimentary deposits at the bottom of four Tikal water reservoirs.

In material samples from different layers, palynologists analyzed the species composition and state of pollen, paleoethnic botanists searched for 16S ribosomal RNA of bacteria and archaea, as well as DNA of other organisms, geochemists determined the content of mercury and phosphates, which can be harmful to health in large quantities, using atomic absorption spectrometry and other methods. person.

In samples from two reservoirs closest to the main temple and palace, the mercury content exceeded the threshold value, after which the toxic effect begins to manifest itself. Apparently, the metal was most actively accumulated in containers in the late classical period of the Mayan civilization, 600-900 AD, that is, shortly before Tikal was empty.

DNA and RNA from reservoirs suggests that in the last centuries of Tikal’s life, there were a lot of cyanobacteria in drinking water.

• The reasons for the death of civilization

Hurricanes in the Caribbean became more frequent, and their strength changed markedly around the same time that classical Mayan culture in Central America was in its final decline.

Tropical cyclones in the Atlantic – hurricanes – pose a serious threat to the lives and property of local people in the Caribbean and neighboring regions in the southeastern United States.

It is possible that the increased impact of hurricanes on the Central American mainland, combined with extensive flooding of the Mayan lowlands and rain-induced erosion in the wetlands of the mountains in Belize (except for the already known periods of drought) influenced the death of civilization.






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