How the Mayan People Survived for Thousands of Years

We have all heard at least some of the histories of the Mayan culture unless, of course, you’ve been living under a rock. From the 2012 Doomsday predictions to the way the Mayans sacrificed humans to their Gods, the Mayan people have an extremely infamous legacy following them to this day. And now, it appears that they may even have the answer to how to adapt to climate change, according to recent reports.

With the carbon dioxide concentrations in the air we breathe at higher levels than in human history, more than 3 million years in fact, at 415 parts per million, we as humans have to wonder how the Mayans did it. As humans who want to survive as a people, and preserve the Earth for our future generations, we have to wonder how we can replicate their methods so we can keep our civilization – and the planet — going.

First things first: Despite the fact that researchers believe the Mayan civilization collapsed, with their cities “abandoned” by 900 C.E., thousands of full-blooded Mayans still live in Guatemala, and what’s known as Mesoamerica – the term that describes Mexico and Central America, but only before the Spanish invaded with their conquests.

Even more of the Central and Latin American population can claim to be partially from Mayan ancestry as well. More than 5 million people are estimated to speak at least one of 70 Mayan languages to this day.

According to the Canadian Museum of history, the Mayan people are located in an area that includes parts of the Yucatan in Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and western El Salvador and Honduras. Although the Mayan people suffered through extreme drought conditions, which researchers know contributed to their decline, they somehow managed to survive to this day.

California State University’s Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Kenneth Seligson, writes that:

“…Based on my own research in the Northern Yucatan Peninsula and work by my colleagues throughout the broader Maya region, I believe Mays communities’ ability to adapt their resource conservation practices played a crucial role in allowing them to survive for as long as they did.”

He goes on to write that we as a society can learn from the Maya, and adapt their strategies so that we as a modern society can learn from what they did while considering “the effects of climate change today.” The Mayan civilization was apparently able to survive the extreme droughts they experienced over the years – as far back as 2,000 B.C.E., albeit with a smaller population.

Their civilization grew again around 250 C.E., according to Seligson. In fact, he writes, laser mapping has allowed researchers to see that the Mayan people had “sophisticated agricultural systems” that helped keep city-states alive that contained tens of thousands of people, all of which remained “relatively stable.”

How Did the Mayan Survive for so Long?

According to the report, the Mayan people excelled in:

“Maximizing water efficiency and storage, and timing the planting season correctly, were very important.”

The ancient Mayan people knew how to conserve, and how to build ecological systems that would keep them going. Additionally, the Mayan people relied on the water they’d stored during years of normal rainfall, so they could use it during the years that the rains didn’t fall as expected. But this stored water would only last a year – maybe two.

During the longer droughts, of which there were many, the Mayan people needed to learn to adapt to the changing situation.
How the Mayan People Adapted

While the changing weather adversely affected the Mayan peoples’ political hierarchy, they did learn to adapt. During their reign as the most powerful indigenous people at the time in the Americas, the Mayan people were able to design and implement a “more elaborate terrace and irrigation” method that not only protected the soil from erosion but also was able to create a storage system that allowed them to collect the rainwater that they used in the years of drought.

Additionally, according to Seligson, the Mayan people were also able to create fuel-efficient technology and manage their forests by monitoring the trees’ growth cycles. The monitoring of the growth cycles allowed the Mayan people to predict future droughts, which let them conserve their water and food accordingly.

As for the droughts, which from all historic records lasted from 3 to 20 years at a time, especially in the ninth and tenth centuries (C.E.), the Mayan people were affected differently depending on where they lived. As a result, the Mayan people moved to “new” places a lot, and evidence shows that the Mayans “adopted new resource conservation practices” in order to support larger populations, in spite of the declining rainfall.

The Mayan aren’t the only indigenous people to use irrigation systems. The Pueblo native American Indians and even the indigenous Cambodian people had similar – if not the same – irrigation and monitoring methods. These methods helped them get through the dry times so that they still survive this day.

Could we as a modern society learn from the Mayan people? Maybe.

The Mayan people dealt with climate issues during their reign and still do today. They’ve survived, “for centuries through waves of intense drought” – a drought that would kill American farming in modern times, and has. However, the droughts the Mayan people experienced was natural. It happened regardless of what they did. These days, as modern humans, what we do affects the climate more than the natural patterns in the weather. Learning to mitigate the damage done is only one way to fix it.

Learn more about the Mayan people and their culture here: