9 Ancient Man-Made Environmental Catastrophes

Mayan ruins in Tulum, Mexico

DC_Aperture / Shutterstock

Many people still hold stubbornly to a belief that nature's resources are unbounded, that the world's ecosystems are simply too large to be significantly impacted by the mere actions of humans. But in fact, man-made environmental catastrophes have occurred throughout human history, and have even caused the collapse of whole civilizations. Long before the boons of modern industry and technology, humans wrought environmental destruction with much less. As a stark reminder of that lesson, here's our list of nine ancient environmental catastrophes caused by people.

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North American megafauna extinction

Photo: Kamraman/Wikimedia Commons

The Americas once were inhabited by magnificent beasts, some of the largest mammals ever to have walked the Earth. They included giant ground sloths (pictured here), woolly mammoths, horses, giant beavers, massive cave bears, and even American lions and cheetahs. While experts debate some of the causes of the extinctions, no one denies the eerie coincidence that all these creatures went extinct around 13,000 years ago, just as human hunters first arrived from across the Bering land bridge, wielding stone tools.

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Easter Island ecological collapse

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Despite being one of the world's most remote islands, Easter Island was once home to a great civilization famous for constructing 887 giant stone statues all across the island, called moai (pictured). The civilization collapsed because of some of the worst environmental management in human history. Nearly every last tree standing was chopped down — likely used as tools to erect the moai — and all of the native tree species on the island were driven to extinction, destroying the soil and forever altering the ecosystem of the island.

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Gilgamesh and ancient Sumerian deforestation

Photo: Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg)/Wikimedia Commons

The epic Sumerian tale of Gilgamesh describes vast tracts of cedar forests in what is now southern Iraq. According to the story, Gilgamesh defies the gods by cutting down the forest, and in return the gods say they will curse the land with fire and drought (as described in the ancient tablet seen here). In fact, the Sumerians likely deforested the land, causing widespread desertification. By 2100 B.C., soil erosion and salt buildup had devastated agriculture, forcing residents to move north to Babylonia and Assyeria. Further evidence for this theory? Some of the first laws ever written to protect forests were decreed in the Sumerian settlement of Ur.

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Collapse of the Mayan civilization

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The Mayans, one of the mightiest civilizations in the Americas, may have collapsed because of a smorgasbord of ecological problems. Their bloated overpopulation was sustained for a short time due to a system of slash-and-burn agriculture, which eventually destroyed the forests, exhausted the soil and caused biological diversity to dwindle.

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Collapse of the Minoan civilization

Photo: Martin Belam/Wikimedia Commons

Archaeological evidence from the Minoan civilization of Crete has shown proof of deforestation during the late stages of development, leading many scholars to suggest that environmental mismanagement may have been a chief culprit in its collapse. Since the Minoans were a mighty sea power, they likely needed large quantities of wood to construct their ships (like the replica one seen above).

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Nazca culture and desertification

Photo: Dom Crossley/Flickr

Peru's ancient Nazca culture — famous for the construction of their cryptic "Nazca lines" or geoglyphs — likely perished because of deforestation and subsequent desertification of the landscape, now among the driest, most arid in South America. The land, which was once a vast riverside oasis with fertile soils capable of supporting thousands of people, was held together by the ancient root systems of trees called huarangos, which were systematically cut down by the Nazca people for fuel and wood.

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Stone Age Europe

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Humans who pre-dated major civilizations were just as capable of radically changing the environment of an entire continent as we are today. Ancient people from the Mesolithic and Neolithic eras, wielding only stone axes (like the one seen here) were able to clear whole forests across Europe, replacing them with open grassland ecosystems. In Great Britain, for instance, shade-tolerant species such as oak and ash were replaced in the pollen record by hazels, brambles, grasses and nettles.

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Australian megafauna extinctions

Photo: Karora/Wikimedia Commons

Like the North American megafauna extinctions, Australia's disaster coincided with the arrival of humans. In Australia, that occurred about 45,000-50,000 years ago. Just as it is today, the ancient megafauna of Australia were unlike creatures found anywhere else in the world. They included giant marsupial lions (pictured), hippopotamus-sized marsupials called diprotodons (basically giant wombats), lizards that grew to as long as 7 meters, and huge flightless birds related to waterfowl.

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Collapse of the Anasazi civilization

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Like so many other civilizations and cultures, the Anasazi fell victim to environmental pressures. Overpopulation put a severe strain on scant water resources in the American Southwest, where the Anasazi lived. The problem was exacerbated by a period of extreme drought, which the Anasazi became incapable of managing because of overstretched agricultural irrigation technology.