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C325: Integrated Palaeoclimatology of the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico (Lead Supervisor: David Hodell)

Supervisor: David Hodell (Earth Sciences)

Importance of the area of research:

Lake sediments and speleothems provide useful archives for reconstructing past climate change on the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico, and assessing its impact on the ancient Maya civilisation. However, there is significant spatial and temporal variability in Yucatec climate, and palaeoclimate records don’t always agree (Douglas et al., 2016).   Previous palaeoclimate research has focused mainly on the so-called “Terminal Classic drought” that coincided with the demise of Classic Maya Civilisation (Hodell et al., 1995), but significant climate change is also indicated in the 15th century as recorded by historical accounts of cold and famine described in Maya and Aztec chronicles.  This project will specifically test the hypothesis that climate change associated with the onset of the Little Ice Age coincided with the demise of Mayapan in the mid-15th century (Hodell et al., 2005).  The project will integrate lake sediment and speleothem records and improve chronologies using new approaches to dating and correlation.

Project summary:

Mayapan was the political and cultural capital of the Maya during the Late Postclassic period from the 1220s until its abandonment in the 1440s.  The main temple complex at Mayapan overlies an elaborate cave system from which we collected several speleothem specimens. Nearby caves and lakes provide additional sources of palaeoclimate data.  This project will reconstruct the climatic and environmental history of the region by analyzing oxygen isotopes in speleothem and lake sediment deposits, and interpret these records in the context of other palaeoclimate archives, including chronicles and tree rings. The project is well suited for a student with an interest in geoarchaeology, paleoclimatology and stable isotope geochemistry.

What the student will do:

An archive of existing cores and speleothems are available for analysis, but the project will also require additional fieldwork in Yucatan to collect additional materials and water samples. The project will mainly involve sampling and isotopic analysis of lake sediments and speleothems to assess local and regional climate change, but there is also considerable flexibility for developing and applying new methods (e.g., laser ablation ICP-MS analysis of speleothems). An important component will be developing and improving radiocarbon and U-Th chronologies using new techniques. The project will also include analysis of instrumental and historical meteorological data to determine the statistical significance and robustness of isotopic palaeoproxies (e.g., “amount effect” on the d18O of rainfall in Yucatan; correlation and calibration of palaeoclimate data with the instrumental record for the recent past).

Please contact the lead supervisor directly for further information relating to what the successful applicant will be expected to do, training to be provided, and any specific educational background requirements.


Douglas, P.M.J., Demarest, A., Brenner, B., and Canuto, M.A., Impacts of climate change on the collapse of lowland Maya Civilization.  Annu. Rev. Earth Planet. Sci, 44:613–45 (2016).

Hodell, D.A., J.H. Curtis, and M. Brenner. Possible role of climate in the collapse of Classic Maya civilization, Nature, 375, 391-394 (1995).

Hodell, D.A., Brenner, M., Curtis, J.H., Medina-Gonzalez, R., Rosenmeier, M.F., Guilderson, T.P., Chan-Can, E.I. and Albornaz-Pat , A., Climate change on the Yucatan Peninsula during the Little Ice Age.  Quaternary Research 63:109-121 (2005).

Follow this link to find out about applying for this project

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