It’s Not Just Nazca! Ankgor Downfall Tied to Water, Drought

Ta Prohm, Angkor / Photo: Robert Clark for National Geographic

A while ago, we told you how the ancient Nasca civilization of Peru (which created the famous Nazca Lines) fell because of bad water management. Just like the ancient builders of the Moai on Easter Island. Now, there is scientific evidence that a similar fate befell Angkor, the great religious city of the Khmer Empire in Cambodia.

It wasn’t their fault, though: this immense spiritual metropolis (pop. 1 million, the largest city in the world 1,000 years ago) was a “Hydraulic City” carefully designed to collect water – with miles of dikes, irrigation canals, reservoirs, and diverted rivers. Tree-ring analysis of immense banyans like the one above has shown, however, that even the most advanced schemes are under the thumb of Mother Nature. Two huge droughts (in the 13th-14th centuries and in the 15th-16th centuries) alternated with vicious monsoon backlashes. The combination destroyed the infrastructure. The full story is available at Discover Magazine‘s superb Not Exactly Rocket Science blog.

Water catastrophes didn’t completely seal Angkor’s fate – “by the time the droughts kicked in,” says Not Exactly Rocket Science, “the city was already weakened by social, economic and political strife.” It’s clear, though, that in the recent revelations about Easter Island, the Nazca, and Angkor as well, science is revealing history we need to learn: that social values and cultural practices, in combination with natural-resource management and climate, is what makes civilizations – and what breaks them too.


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