Climate change contributed to ancient Angkor’s decline: Study

Archaeologists will present research findings in an upcoming documentary that shows how climate variation affected Angkor. From the 9th to 15th century Current Era (C.E.), the maritime capital of the Khmer Empire was the city of Angkor. Located in modern-day northwestern Cambodia, Angkor at its peak extended 1000-square-kilometers and was the largest low-density urban complex in the world at the time, according to researchers. For perspective, the sprawl of the Angkor city had reached an area greater than that of New York City’s total land area.

Iconographic imagery of Angkor has reached popular culture by way of films such as Tomb Raider and Indiana Jones. Most notable at Angkor are the famous monuments of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom which hold symbolic implications pertaining to religious significance and kingship, according to orthodox archaeology.

Archaeologists Damian Evans and Roland Fletcher, with the contribution of many others, have used high-precision laser technology known as “LiDAR” to survey the topography of the Angkor area. The LiDAR surveying allows the archaeological team from the University of Sydney to digitally map the elevation and contours of the Angkor region which is densely forested.

The history regarding Angkor is dynamic and has been superficially understood until rather recently, says Evans. However, over the past 20-years, mapping efforts have helped to elucidate anomalies in orthodox interpretation. The mapping efforts and research have contributed to the following developments: the actual magnitude of the greater Angkor complex; the level of complexity that existed in Southeast Asia during a pre-industrial era; insight into Angkor’s purpose; and deeper understanding into the factors that led to the city’s decline.

Orthodox interpretations of Angkor believed that the surrounding areas of the primary monuments, like Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, were insignificant and disassociated with the urbanized core walled-monuments. However, the research done by Evans, Fletcher and others involved in Angkor archaeology are presenting evidence, such as their LiDAR scans, which indicate misconceptions in orthodox Angkor archaeology.

The aforementioned mapping efforts, including those of Evans et al., have unveiled the illusive canopied forest floor. The digitally reconstructed landscape has revealed features that were previously unknown to orthodox archaeologists in the region. The mapping efforts have illustrated Angkor features such as: ancient roads, ponds, occupation mounds, field walls, canals, and other elements that are attributed to the agricultural and urban networks, according to Evans. The features shown from LiDAR have reveled Angkor to be an elaborate and developed urban landscape. Angkor’s urban design and development focused on hydraulic engineering, according to Evans et al.

Angkor and its surrounding areas were hydraulically engineered cityscapes. The LiDAR results have shown how ancient Angkor would have looked similar to a modern-day urbanized city that had a network of “city blocks,” according to Evans et al. Moreover, the urbanized environment of the greater Angkor area focused on hydraulic engineering. The engineering was for the purpose of water management, as based on LiDAR and archaeological research. A design emphasis in the greater Angkor area incorporated water management for multiple reasons.

Water management was critical in an environment wherein monsoon rains varied annually, and thus they could induce flooding one year but then drought the next. The cityscape (i.e. design) of the Angkor area and its surrounding regions had to incorporate and be able to adapt to climatic variability wherein water scarcity threatened livelihoods, according to Evans and other researchers. More importantly, however, was how vital water management was to urban design in regard to Angkor’s development.

The development and success of the greater Angkor area was contingent on population sizes being supported, according to Evans et al. Supporting a population by designing a city to incorporate climatic variability, as it relates to water security, is intrinsically beneficial if an empire is going to exist like Khmer did. Evans and the archaeological team demonstrate that climate change (i.e. variability) was a factor into how the greater Angkor area was designed. However, climate change also contributed to its decline.

Climate variability could have damaged water networks in the greater Angkor cityscape and thus this could have led to populations being affected by water management issue; the result of which is a decline. Evans et al. stress that while LiDAR shows causality between climate change and Angkor it is not the sole reason for the city’s decline.

Evans, Fletcher, and the Angkor archaeological team that contributed to the LiDAR mapping project and its research will be featured in a SBS documentary on Feb. 8.

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