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Drought, not war, led to demise of ancient city

A PROLONGED and intense drought may have contributed to the demise of Cambodia's great ancient city Angkor, an American researcher said yesterday.

Brendan Buckley, who was attending a three-day climate conference in Vietnam, said bands on tree rings that he and his colleagues examined show that Southeast Asia was hit by a severe drought from 1415 until 1439.

That would coincide with the period during which many archeologists believe Angkor collapsed. From the city of famed temples, Angkorian kings ruled over most of Southeast Asia between the 9th and 14th centuries.

During that time, they oversaw construction of architectural stone wonders, including Angkor Wat, regarded as a marvel of religious architecture and designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

"Given all the stress the Khmer civilization was under due to political reasons and so forth, a drought of the magnitude we see in our records should have played a significant role in causing its demise," said Buckley, a research scientist at Columbia University's Tree-Ring Laboratory in New York.

Scientists have a historical record of droughts with the thickness of a tree's rings. Since trees grow more during wet periods, the rings grow thicker at those times. Trees grow less in dry times so those rings are thinner.

While the 1431 invasion from Siam, what is now Thailand, has long been regarded as a major cause of Angkor's fall, archaeologists working at the temple site have long suspected ecological factors played a role.

The Greater Angkor Project is run by the University of Sydney in collaboration with the French archaeological group Ecole Francaise d'Extreme Orient and APSARA, the body responsible for the management of the Angkor World Heritage Park.

The project concluded in 2007 that Angkor had become unwieldy and that efforts to expand rice production to support a population of 1 million had led to deforestation, top soil degradation and erosion.

Last year, the group went further to show that the deforestation resulted in flooding and huge amounts of sediment clogging the network of canals.


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