Many ancient cultures worshiped volcanoes and many believed them to be actual living creatures. Volcanoes have played a big part in human history and one of those places where this was so was in the ancient lands of the Maya. But volcanoes have played another role in human history as well and that role is than of being a cause and in some cases a major cause for large scale cultural changes
Back in February of 2017 a research team released their findings and their study suggested that ancient ash links the El Chichon eruption to a time of significant cultural upheaval in the land of the Maya!
The El Chichon eruption was a major eruption occurring in AD 540 and what is odd is that prior to this El Chichon was a small and insignificant volcano. However, after its eruption it plunged Mayan civilization into a period of darkness and chaos. During this time period the Maya were one of the most sophisticated cultures on Earth but after this eruption the Maya were plunged into a century long “dark age.” All that was sophisticated and remarkable in Mayan civilization was lost.
The Maya had an advanced civilization for the time and most researchers believe they thrived between AD 250-900. They had developed a writing system, precise calendars, mathematics and beautiful cities, pyramids, and temples made of cut stone many of which still stand today. Researching these sites archaeologists began to notice something odd about the Maya in 1938. That’s when an archaeologist noticed that there was a strange gap in the dated Maya monuments! That is, it appeared that for more than 100 years the Maya stopped building new buildings and pyramids and some even abandoned areas they’d long-lived in while others grew more warlike for no apparent reason. Archaeologists were at a loss to explain this although, as always, they had many hypotheses. Earthquakes were suspected or hurricanes while others thought trade routes collapsed. Whatever happened one thing was for sure and that is Mayan society during this gap period showed a degeneration of Mayan society and culture.
Some researchers did not agree with any of these causes as they began to suspect that a major volcanic eruption was the cause of this gap. One of the earliest clues was fond in Greenland and Antarctica. The evidence suggested that a volcanic eruption during this time blasted large amounts of sulfur particles into the stratosphere and then they spread across the planet. Over the polar regions these particles attached themselves to snow crystals and became trapped in the ice sheets below and this provided a rather precise record for researchers that came along long after the eruption.
Using this geologic record Michael Sigl, a chemist, and Paul Scherrer from the Institute of Switzerland determined that a massive eruption took place somewhere on the planet around AD 540 which, significantly, coincided with the beginning of the 100 year Maya “dark age.” Studies of tree rings provided evidence that sunlight reflecting sulfur particles high in the atmosphere caused global temps to plunge by 1.5–2 degrees Celsius at the time! Clearly a major eruption had happened somewhere at this time but where?
A doctoral student named Kees Nooren from Utrecht University in the Netherlands became acquainted with Sigl. Nooren had been studying lake sediments in a delta west of the Terminos Lagoon along the Gulf of Mexico near the Yucatan Peninsula. He told Sigl that during his digging he’d encountered some shiny layers of volcanic ash and when he analyzed some of the shards of volcanic glass in the sediments he traced them back to El Chichon! Further, he told Sigl that he’d used carbon dating which generated a date of around AD 540 +/- 16 years. And to make a long story short, putting all of this information together the eruption was identified as El Chicon in the land of the Maya.
This all said, researchers are NOT in agreement as to the impact that the El Chicon eruption had on Mayan society and even today there is still much debate. The evidence shows that sulfur particles from this eruption were blown high into the atmosphere halfway across the planet and this would have caused cooling and winters to become more harsh which, by the way, is shown in the tree rings studied. It would have also caused regional droughts which is what many researchers believe brought about this 100 year “dark age” of the Maya.
Tikal was a major Mayan city at the time and very powerful and this city was especially devastated by drought. Additionally, other Maya launched major attacks against it and this caused the city to collapse, temporarily. At this time and in other parts of the world we also find evidence of droughts such as in northern China during the reign of the Wei Dynasty and in Teotihuacan in Mexico. Drought would have meant poor crop harvest and many an ancient civilization easily revolted during their leaders when crops failed!
There is a possibility that the eruption of El Chichon had a global impact but there it also could have had a simple regional impact. In the case that it did not have a global impact then this brings up another mystery because some as yet unknown calamity did have a global impact. There could have been another and as yet unknown eruption of another volcano at or near the same time. Attempts have been made to link other volcanic eruptions to the spike in sulfur but the dates that have been generated are uncertain. The “smoking gun” would be to find ash in ice core samples along with detectable sulfur as this would allow us to trace the ash to a specific volcanic eruption.
In my mind the AD 540 eruption of El Chichon must have had some kind of impact on the Maya combined with the impending drought and crop failures along with harsh winters. I think it most likely this combination of cause-effect is what brought about the 100 year Mayan Dark Age. On the other side of the coin some scientists think that this eruption may have been beneficial to the Maya! Those who survived simply dusted themselves off and moved forwards. Humans seem to have a real ability for doing that. We often get knocked down but not knocked out.
Some areas may have been deserted after the eruption and perhaps the Maya moved closer to the volcanic ash fields and used small amounts of it for fertilizer, postulates one theory of many. And, then, maybe they came to depend on the ash so much so that when it became scarce their whole civilization collapsed in the 8th century AD. And, if so, we have yet another mystery with few answers.
The Maya were an intelligent, sophisticated, and resilient people. They adapted to changing conditions more than once and the eruption of this volcano did NOT end their civilization but caused them to only take a 100 year “recess.” And after that “recess” they dusted themselves off and continued with their civilization until about AD 900, or to put it another way, for another 400 years.
This is one of the many mysteries of the past that remain unsolved. But with more research perhaps one day we will solve it and come to know just what caused the Maya to go into hiatus for 100 years of a “dark age.”