Climate change has been called the existential threat of our age. But it isn’t the first time a civilization has come into conflict with a shift in the natural world. Speaking on “The Ancient Maya Response to Climate Change: A Cautionary Tale” at the Peabody Museum on Thursday evening, Arizona State University Professor Billie L. Turner II discussed how climate change — likely made worse by unchecked development — brought low one of the great civilizations of our hemisphere over a thousand years ago.

Delivering the Gordon R. Willey lecture, Turner detailed evidence that two major droughts resulted in the decline and depopulation of a culture that not only had monumental architecture but also a sophisticated understanding of mathematics and astronomy. Elements of this theory have been around for a long time. As early as 1912, archaeologists were theorizing that climate change had contributed to the decline of the Maya, and by the 1970s, it was largely accepted that Maya lands had been densely populated and developed. However, recent evidence across disciplines goes a long way to explaining not only how but when the problems began — raising more questions along the way.

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