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Angkor’s collapse due to drought and flooding

After studying the rings of trees at Angkor, researchers have determined that drought and flooding led to the collapse of the capital of the Khmer Empire.

A prolonged drought punctuated by intense monsoons that partially destroyed the city’s water-preservation infrastructure led to the 15th century collapse of the ancient city of Angkor, capital of the Khmer Empire, U.S. and Asian researchers reported.

Researchers had suspected that water scarcity played a role in the city’s demise, and the first tree-ring chronology in Asia provides strong support for that speculation. It shows that the drought persisted for decades, which would have severely strained the city’s ability to survive.

Monsoons then inundated Angkor’s extensive canal system with mud and other debris — which other researchers had previously discovered — impairing its ability to provide adequate water for the nearly 1 million residents sprawled over an area similar to that of modern-day Los Angeles, the team reported this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“I think that is the exact scenario” for the city’s collapse, said archaeologist Michael D. Coe, an emeritus professor at Yale University who was not involved in the research.

“The evidence is pretty watertight. . . . The drought interspersed with flood periods was sort of a double whammy” that the city could not survive.

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