RESEARCHERS in the region have helped prove that a drought lasting nearly a century helped destroy an ancient civilisation.

The study, which involved academics from Durham University, found that the Classic Maya culture of Central America thrived in rainy times and then collapsed in turmoil as the weather turned to drought.

The international project led by researchers from Pennsylvania State University, USA, and ETH Zurich in Switzerland, has created a precisely-dated record of rainfall by studying cave deposits in the Classic Maya region, and compared it to a 'war index' of events recorded on stone monuments.

The research allowed the team to create a historical timeline linking climate and culture in unprecedented detail.

The war index is based on how often keywords occurred in Mayan inscriptions on carved stone monuments, and the researchers were able to chart how increases in war and unrest were associated with periods of drought.

This provided a unique insight into how a civilisation prospered and developed, expanding into large cities, during a period of favourable climate and then collapsed following climate change between AD 660 and 1100.

Dr James Baldini, from the department of Earth sciences, Durham University, said: "The rise and fall of Mayan civilisation is an example of a sophisticated civilisation failing to adapt successfully to climate change. Periods of high rainfall increased the productivity of Maya agricultural systems and led to a population boom and resource overexploitation.

"The progressively drier climate then led to political destabilisation and warfare as resources were depleted.

The findings are published in the journal Science.