New Research Casts Doubt on Cause of Angkor’s Collapse

The ancient city of Angkor Thom.

Scientific evidence from Angkor Thom suggests the ancient city gradually declined. (Image: via University of Sydney)

New University of Sydney research has revealed that the ancient Cambodian city of Angkor underwent a gradual decline in occupation rather than an abrupt collapse. Researchers have long debated the causes of Angkor’s demise in the 15th century. Historical explanations have emphasized the role of aggressive neighboring states, and the abandonment of Angkor in A.D. 1431 has been portrayed as a catastrophic demographic collapse.

However, new scientific evidence shows that the intensity of land use within the economic and administrative center of the city declined gradually more than 100 years before the supposed collapse, implying a very different end to the city.

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Sediment drill cores samples from Angkor’s moat examined

Associate Professor Dan Penny from the University of Sydney’s School of Geosciences examined sediment drill cores extracted from the moat surrounding Angkor Thom, the last and largest of its walled citadels. Penny said:

Location map of Angkor. Credit: PNAS.
Location map of Angkor. (Image: via PNAS)

In a new study published in the prestigious PNAS journal, Associate Professor Penny and co-authors show that evidence for forest disturbance, soil erosion, and burning all declined in the first decades of the 14th century, suggesting a sustained decline in land-use in the commercial and administrative heart of the ancient city.

By the end of the 14th century, the moat was covered in floating swamp vegetation, which indicates that it was no longer being maintained. The findings suggest Angkor’s demise was not a catastrophic collapse caused by the Ayutthayan invasion or by infrastructural failure, but a gradual demographic shift by the urban elite. Penny said:

Provided by: University of Sydney [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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