$1.5 Million NSF Grant to Research Cause of Classic Period Socio-political Collapse in Western Mesoamerica 

Transdisciplinary team of scientists to study contrasting ecological subsystems in Oaxaca, Mexico and whether environmental change contributed to the demise. 

By Leslie L.J. Reilly

Arion Mayes and students

Left: Mayes explains findings in the outdoor field-lab in Oaxaca, Mexico (2013).
Right: Collecting dental samples at La Verbana Cemetery, with Fundación de Antropología Forense de Guatemala (FAFG) colleagues in Guatemala City, Guatemala (2017).

Why did the Classic-period Mesoamerican civilizations decline after 950 CE? What is the role of environmental change, its impact, and the human socio-environmental relationship? These are questions that hang heavy in the minds of a team of international scientists who wish to unearth the answers.

The period of dramatic social change involving the collapse of rulers and ruling institutions in addition to the depopulation of cities and entire regions took place between 700 and 1000CE.

Did anthropogenic changes to the landscape in addition to environmental change contribute to the collapse? With a five-year $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation's CNH2: Dynamics of Integrated Socio-Environmental Systems program, Arion Mayes, SDSU anthropology professor and five investigators will seek to find out. Mayes, a co-principal investigator, will research and share findings in the study titled: “CNH2-L: The Dynamics of Socio-Environmental Systems, Urban Depopulation, and Societal Stability .”

The project integrates archaeological, geoarchaeological, paleoecological, paleoclimatological, and bioarchaeological fieldwork and laboratory analyses designed to test hypotheses concerning the role of regional environmental change and human impact on the environment in societal collapse.

Professor Mayes answers a few questions about her co-PI role in the research study.

How will the research associated with environmental change during the Classic period impact the future?

One of the primary research questions of this project is to determine if the environment and the anthropogenic changes to landscape, mainly due to agriculture, drove the Classic-period collapse.  Questions of the relationship between environmental change, landscape change, domestic economy, population health, and their interrelatedness are particularly relevant in our current situation of global warming and rapidly changing environments.  We, as a society, often don’t consider the biofeedback between these systems and the long-term effects on economy, health, and culture.

What are three key findings you hope to discover?

As the director of bioarchaeology, my contribution to the project is to work directly with the burials and interpret data regarding burial practices, population health, individual life histories, and patterns of association between the biology and the culture. I am specifically interested in questions regarding environmental impact and its effect on the frequency and types of diseases; if anthropogenic (human) changes and environmental fluctuations influence population health; and if sociopolitical collapse would have an identifiable signature or pattern in biological markers of population health.

Why is this research important now?

This specific project focuses on two interrelated, yet environmentally different regions, lower Río Verde Valley in the semi-tropical lowlands and the Nochixtlán Valley in the temperate highlands of Oaxaca, Mexico, during the Classic period. Additionally, the research questions asked here will inform and be compared to data across several time periods. Understanding how people adapted to these changes, including both sociopolitical and biological consequences and successes, and their lived experiences, has the potential to inform studies on the population impact under current and evolving environmental conditions. Given the speed at which humans have impacted the environment during the last century alone, this project will further our understanding of societal upheaval, collapse, and climate change.

How does an international collaboration help expand research possibilities?

This transdisciplinary international project will be a first to examine the role of climate and anthropogenic change in the Classic period collapse in Western Mesoamerica. Working both across disciplines and with our Mexican colleagues alleviates blind spots that have taken place historically through “silo” research. Thus, providing more informed study, with a richer viewpoint, and an alternate lens by which we interpret data.  Having students participate in these research teams not only broadens their own personal and professional experiences, but ensures that the spirit of collaborative work becomes generational. By working together from the field-through-to-publication in international journals, we are able to disseminate our findings to a greater and more diverse audience and expanded network.

Anything else to add?

I look forward to returning to Oaxaca, Mexico, and working with my colleagues and students to advance our knowledge of the people and environment of the Oaxacan region.