Regional response to drought during the formation and decline of Preclassic Maya societies

Claire E. Ebert, Nancy Peniche May, Brendan J. Culleton, Jaime J. Awe, Douglas J. Kennett

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

46 Scopus citations


The earliest complex societies and a distinctive set of pan-regional social, political, and economic institutions appeared in the southern Maya lowlands during the Preclassic period (ca. 1200/1100 cal BCE–cal 300 CE). The timing of these cultural changes was variably influenced by local developments, interaction with other regions of Mesoamerica, and climate change. We present a high-resolution radiocarbon chronology for the growth of the early polity of Cahal Pech, Belize, one of the first permanent settlements in the southern Maya lowlands. We compare our results to a database containing over 1190 radiocarbon dates from cultural contexts reported from five major regions of the southern lowlands to interpret the expansion and decline of emerging complex social groups during the Preclassic. Comparisons to paleoclimate proxy datasets suggest that fluctuating climate regimes may have promoted alternating integration and fragmentation of early hierarchically organized societies. Stable climatic conditions during the Middle Preclassic (1000/900-300 cal BCE) fostered the centralization of populations and the formation of large regional polities across the southern lowlands. An extended drought at the end of the Late Preclassic (cal 150–300 CE) likely contributed to the decline of some major polities in the central Petén, but smaller sites located in productive environments were more resilient and persisted in to the Classic period. This research provides a framework for understanding the complex social and environmental factors that influenced localized adaptations to climate change and the episodic growth and decline of early complex societies in prehistory.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)211-235
Number of pages25
JournalQuaternary Science Reviews
StatePublished - Oct 1 2017


  • Bayesian chronological modeling
  • Central America
  • Paleoclimatology
  • Preclassic Maya
  • Radiocarbon dating
  • Social complexity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Archaeology
  • Archaeology
  • Geology


Dive into the research topics of 'Regional response to drought during the formation and decline of Preclassic Maya societies'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this