On the vulnerability of the ancient Maya society to natural threats

Y. Me-Bar, F. Valdez

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The concepts of disaster, vulnerability and societal vulnerability as well as natural threats that are relevant to the Maya area are discussed. Ancient Maya societies were vulnerable to natural threats, such as droughts, diseases and volcanic eruptions. Some of the factors that may be considered as having influenced Maya vulnerability are discussed, and a method is proposed for ascribing a numerical value to the vulnerability of a given society to a specific threat at a particular time. To apply the method, it is necessary to choose a set of relevant parameters and to assign them numerical values. The weight of each of these parameters in the overall vulnerability also needs to be assessed. The numerical value of the vulnerability is defined as a relatively simple combination of these values. Since there are no precise means for measuring parameters such as "water scarcity" or "external threats", the proposed method is based on estimates. Simplistic examples are presented to illustrate the use of this method for a presumed threat of a severe three years drought. Using a concise set of parameters and subjective estimates of their values and their weights, the average vulnerability to the presumed threat of Maya society as a whole, at the onset of the "Hiatus" (ca. AD 540) is estimated to be ∼40% higher than that in the Late Pre-Classic (AD 100 - 250). Toward the end of the Late Classic (AD 800 - 900), it is estimated to be ∼80% higher. The method can also be used to assess numerical values for the vulnerability of specific sites to a given threat, relative to a specific reference, and El Mirador at the Late Pre-classic transition is used as an example.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)813-825
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Archaeological Science
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 2005


  • Disaster, Expert assessment
  • Maya
  • Vulnerability

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Archaeology
  • Archaeology


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