Understanding Ancient Cities May Shed Light on Our Fight Against Climate Change

Nature

Khmer towns in mainland Southeast Asia (including Angkor) and Maya cities in Mesoamerica both fell between 900 and 1500CE, coinciding with periods of extreme climatic change.

While many cities’ ceremonial and administrative urban centers were abandoned, the communities surrounding them may have survived because of long-term investments in resilient landscapes.

Their work, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, presents a broad blueprint for climate change resilience.

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How Ancient Civilizations Fought Climate Change

Ancient Civilizations

(Photo : Wikimedia Commons)

Studying historical civilizations and climate change has sent a dire warning that cities and their hinterlands must create resilience to endure climatic stress.

“They constructed vast landscapes of terraced and bunded (embanked to regulate water flow) agricultural fields that functioned as huge sinks for water, sediment, and nutrients,” lead author Associate Professor Daniel Penny of the University of Sydney School of Geosciences explained.

“Long-term investments in soil fertility and water collection and storage may have allowed certain settlements to survive long after the urban centers were abandoned.” Professor Timothy Beach, a colleague at the University of Texas at Austin, arrived at this result after reviewing pertinent archaeological and environmental data from Southeast Asia and Mesoamerica.

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Surviving Climatic Stress

Drowned Land of Saeftinghe

(Photo : Wikimedia Commons)

The administrative and ceremonial core of the ancient city of Angkor in modern Cambodia, for example, was gradually abandoned over several decades, culminating in a series of catastrophic droughts in the 14th and 15th centuries. However, the surrounding agricultural landscapes may have survived these periods of climatic stress.

Long-term and large-scale investments in landscape resilience, such as improving water storage and retention, improving soil fertility, and securing biodiversity, can better enable both urban and rural communities to withstand periods of climatic stress, as these historical cases of urban collapse demonstrate. Unfortunately, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that this will grow more often and intense in many world regions over the next century.

“We typically think of these past occurrences as tragedies, but they can teach us a lot about persistence, resilience, and continuity in the face of climatic unpredictability,” Associate Professor Penny said.

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Socio-Political Factors Leading to Downfall

Many other continents have also experienced severe failures, including the loss of governmental authority, continuous military battles, and the exodus of a portion of their people to other areas. According to an examination of environmental data, major modern climatic shifts have been discovered as a result of these failures.

According to climate data, the degree of environmental balance has changed throughout time, with major hydrological consequences. People’s hydraulic engineering has allowed them to construct reservoirs, retention basins, and irrigation canals, which have proven to be highly effective in dealing with short or moderate climatic hazards, as evidenced by the Mayan cities of Palenque and Tikal, as well as the Khmer city of Angkor.

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