The project will bring together a transdisciplinary team of scientists to address one of the most compelling questions in archaeology: was the Classic-period collapse caused by environmental change? This period of dramatic social change involved the collapse of rulers and ruling institutions as well as the depopulation of cities and, in some cases, entire regions. For decades, archaeologists and paleoecologists have debated the role of environmental change in the collapse but have had difficulty in establishing causal connections between environmental and social change. Much of the debate over the causes and consequences of environmental change results from the lack of transdisciplinary projects designed to address the specific ways in which environmental change impacted social and environmental systems. Such a transdisciplinary approach is crucial for demonstrating the causes of societal collapse, making the project transformative for research on political collapse more generally. This project includes STEM education and educator development; increased public scientific literacy and engagement, support of full participation of women and underrepresented minorities in STEM research, and development of a diverse, globally competitive STEM workforce. STEM education will involve development of educational resources for students in K12 to college. Public scientific literacy and engagement will be facilitated through the continued development of a bilingual website, and through workshops for host communities. Meaningful research experiences will be provided to twelve undergraduate and graduate students, many of whom are women and members of underrepresented minorities in STEM. Collaborations will enhance transdisciplinary approaches to understanding societal collapse and environmental change, and forge new collaborations for future research.

The project integrates archaeological, geoarchaeological, paleoecological, paleoclimatological, and bioarchaeological fieldwork and laboratory analyses designed to test hypotheses concerning the role of environmental change and human impact on the environment in societal collapse. Prior research on the Classic-period collapse has tended to focus on specific sites or small regions. This study focusses on two interrelated, but contrasting, ecological regions: a semi-tropical lowland and a temperate highland region. This innovative comparative approach to societal collapse allows for the examination of the human and environmental components of the socio-environmental system and their interrelationships that promote or inhibit resilience and vulnerabilities to societal collapse in the two regions. Archaeological excavations at the two sites will examine the impact of environmental and landscape degradation on land use, domestic economy, and human health and diet during the Late Classic and Early Postclassic periods. Geoarchaeological research will examine changes in land use and landscape degradation by focusing on agricultural terraces while floodplain geomorphologic analysis will examine human and climatological impacts on the river system. Lake sediment cores and their biological and chemical signatures will be investigated to determine environmental change and human landscape impacts. Chronological precision will be achieved through a combination of radiocarbon, paleomagnetism, and optically stimulated luminescence dating, while chronological modeling will more effectively link the diverse datasets. By combining these different datasets, this research will provide a novel detailed paleoclimatological record for the study region. The results will provide a long-term perspective on current and future problems facing humanity by contributing to models of long-term environmental change and human impacts on the environment with implications for future land use planning and resource management.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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Jeffrey Mantz
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University of Colorado at Boulder
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