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Palaeo-Perspectives on Human-Climate-Environment Interactions

Our society is increasingly interested in the consequences of future climate and environmental change, as well as the role that humans play in these changes. Human civilizations throughout history have affected the environment through deforestation, agriculture, urbanization and industrialization. My presentation will focus on the Maya region of Mesoamerica with specific emphasis of how the ancient Maya affected their environment and, in turn, how environmental and climate change may have influenced cultural evolution. Until recently, one of the strongly held beliefs was that climate in the region had remained relatively stable throughout the Holocene, and that major environmental perturbations were caused by human settlement and technology. Our research has uncovered strong physical evidence for a series of droughts in the 9th and 10th century AD that coincided with the collapse of Classic Maya civilization (~800-1000 AD). This finding has challenged archaeologists to reconsider the role that climate and environment may have played in Maya cultural evolution. We have also demonstrated that early Maya inhabitants of the Yucatan Peninsula deforested the local landscape resulting in significant increases in soil erosion. A protracted period of erosion and soil loss from slash-and-burn agriculture and urbanization preceded the great cultural transformations that occurred in the Terminal Classic Period (800-1000 AD).

Understanding this history is especially relevant today as deforestation is once again occurring at an alarming rate in the region against a background of uncertain future climate variability.

View this presentation online


David Hodell, University of Cambridge


David Hodell is the Woodwardian Professor of Geology. He is a Paleoclimatologist and stable isotope geochemist with an interest in Quaternary paleoceanography and the effect of past climate change on ancient civilisations

David Hodell’s research uses deep-sea and lake sediment cores and stalagmites (speleothems) to better understand past climate and environmental change . He is an active participant in the Integrated Ocean Drilling Programme (IODP) which recovers sediment cores from the sea floor throughout the world and is especially interested in the Quaternary history of the polar oceans, including their role in controlling atmospheric CO2, thermohaline circulation, and affecting abrupt climate change. He also works with archaeologists to examine the evidence for the possible role of climate and environmental change in the cultural evolution of major ancient civilizations, such as the Maya of Mesoamerica, the Khmer civilization of Cambodia and, most recently, the Harappan culture of India.