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Megadrought and CollapseFrom Early Agriculture to Angkor$
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Harvey Weiss

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780199329199

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2017

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780199329199.001.0001

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PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (oxford.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2021. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in OSO for personal use. date: 22 June 2021

Fourteenth to Sixteenth Centuries AD

Fourteenth to Sixteenth Centuries AD

The Case of Angkor and Monsoon Extremes in Mainland Southeast Asia

Chapter:
(p.275) Chapter 9 Fourteenth to Sixteenth Centuries AD
Source:
Megadrought and Collapse
Author(s):

Roland Fletcher

Brendan M. Buckley

Christophe Pottier

Shi-Yu Simon Wang

Publisher:
Oxford University Press
DOI:10.1093/oso/9780199329199.003.0010

Angkor, the capital of the Khmer Empire in Southeast Asia, was the most extensive low-density agrarian-based urban complex in the world. The demise of this great city between the late 13th and the start of the 17th centuries AD has been a topic of ongoing debate, with explanations that range from the burden of excessive construction work to disease, geo-political change, and the development of new trade routes. In the 1970s Bernard-Phillipe Groslier argued for the adverse effects of land clearance and deteriorating rice yields. What can now be added to this ensemble of explanations is the role of the massive inertia of Angkor’s immense water management system, political dependence on a meticulously organized risk management system for ensuring rice production, and the impact of extreme climate anomalies from the 14th to the 16th centuries that brought intense, high-magnitude monsoons interspersed with decades-long drought. Evidence of this severe climatic instability is found in a seven-and-a-half century tree-ring record from tropical southern Vietnam. The climatic instability at the time of Angkor’s demise coincides with the abrupt transition from wetter, La Niña-like conditions over Indochina during the Medieval Warm Period to the more drought-dominated climate of the Little Ice Age, when El Niño appears to have dominated and the ITCZ migrated nearly five degrees southward. As this transition neared, Angkor was hit by the double impact of high-magnitude rains and crippling droughts, the former causing damage to water management infrastructure and the latter decreasing agricultural productivity. The Khmer state at Angkor was built on a human-engineered, artificial wetland fed by small rivers. The management of water was a massive undertaking, and the state potentially possessed the capacity to ride out drought, as it had done for the first half of the 13th century. Indeed, Angkor demonstrated just how powerful a water management system would be required and, conversely, how formidable a threat drought can be. The irony, then, is that extreme flooding destroyed Angkor’s water management capacity and removed a system that was designed to protect its population from climate anomalies.

Keywords:   Angkor collapse, Khmer Empire, high-magnitude monsoon, megadrought, Angkor water system, Medieval Warm Period, Little Ice Age

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