Droughts as random events in the Maya lowlands

Yoav Me-Bar, Fred Valdez

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Because the values of most of the parameters controlling the occurence and severity of a drought in a given location are unknown, and no periodicity has been observed, droughts can be considered random events. Running a random number generator within the limits of the annual rainfall variability relevant to the Maya lowlands, and defining a "Lean Year", it is observed that strings of lean years occur quite frequently. Defining "Severe Drought", "Disaster", and "Catastrophe" based on the length of these strings, it is observed that a severe drought occurs on average every 32 years, a disaster occurs on average every 130 years, and a catastrophe on average every 500 years. These values fit the measured variability of the Yucatan climate, as observed in lake core sediments and in the post conquest written records. It also fits the average occurence of "megadroughts" in the US Great Plains. The fit between the random occurence model and the actual, "measured" occurence of droughts supports the notion that for all practical purposes, droughts had been random events in the Maya region and could not be predicted. The lack of evident periodicity could be one of the reasons why means for long-term storage of food products were not developed there. It may also have affected the relationship between the priesthood and the general populace in that region. Since the method described here can be applied to any climatic region once the rainfall variability and the sensitivity of the local agriculture are known or can be estimated, if similar results are found they may probably have affected other regions with other ancient cultures in a similar way.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1599-1606
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Archaeological Science
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 2003


  • Drought
  • Long-term storage
  • Lowland Maya
  • Random

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Archaeology
  • Archaeology


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