There’s been some interesting research concerning the American Southwest and in particular Chaco Canyon in New Mexico and the Mesa Verde ruins in Colorado. Chaco Canyon is one of my favorite places as I find the ruins there absolutely fascinating because they are like no others in the Southwest. Perfect circular Kivas dot the canyon along with the remains of high rise living quarters (apartments). I’ve visited the site many times and I’ll never forget the first time I visited back in the 1970s. The attendant said we could go wherever we wanted so we did. We walked through the apartment ruins and I hiked down into many of the great Kivas. The mud brick work was unlike anything I’d seen in the American Southwest. In fact, it reminded me of stonework done by the Aztecs or Toltecs!
Back in January, 2010 researchers from the University of Arizona in Tucson, AZ studied stalagmites in caves in Arizona. Stalagmites are like record keepers as they provide a century by century record of climate and in this case they provided a record spanning 55,000 to 11,000 years ago. It was during that era that the American Southwest began to have some very significant climate fluctuations. The areas climate during that time alternated between wet and dry periods. Further, there were, at the time, abrupt (sudden) changes in the Ice Age climate all the way from Greenland to the southwestern US.
During the last ice age when it was cold in Greenland it was wet in the US southwest and, in contrast, when it was warm in Greenland, it was dry in the American Southwest. The stalagmites studied were in a cave in southern Arizona known as the Cave of the Bells. Stalagmites grow up from the cave floors. During the last ice age ice sheets covered much of North America and in the southwest the climate was cooler and wetter than it is today. The fluctuations between wet and dry lasted happened in less than 200 years which is rather quick in climate terms. Further, these climate changes were part of the global abrupt climate changes that were first documented studying Greenland ice core samples. These changes are attributed to changes in the circulation patterns of the North Atlantic. Clearly these climate fluctuations had a impact on the peoples living in the American Southwest but there is more….
In August of last year, 2014, researchers concluded that the US Southwest experiences a very violent period in the past. This violence is seen in the crushed or injured skulls and arm bones in remains found in Native American graves who lived between 1140 and 1180. This was a very bloody period for peoples living in the areas of Mesa Verde and Chaco apparently which is odd because for about 400 years prior to that the peoples in these areas lived peacefully.
This research was conducted by the Washington State University and one of the theories was that the Chaco culture was attempting to spread its influence but their efforts were met by resistance in the Mesa Verde area. This resistance, however, was futile as Chaco culture came to dominate the region. As Chaco culture later began to fall apart rebellion grew in the outlying regions and that rebellion was apparently very violent. During the period of the mid-1200s the human population in the area went from about 40,000 to zero in the space of only 30 years! It is surmised that the younger people thought they could do better elsewhere so they moved while the older people stayed and were later slaughtered.
In a more recent study by Washington State University (Dec 2012) it is believed that local climate change contributed to depopulation in the ancient Southwestern US. The final depopulation of southwestern Colorado (Mesa Verde) took place in the late-1200s. Apparently drought was one of the final determining factors as people found it impossible to grow crops like maize (corn). So the people moved to what we know today as the Pajarito Plateau in the northern Rio Grande region. These dramatic climate changes took place near the end of what is known as the Medieval Warm Period and it appears climate in the southwestern US underwent MAJOR changes. Apparently, there were radical shifts in temperature and rainfall causing prolonged drought. When people get afraid and hungry they do crazy things! Small spats likely erupted into major regional wars between the peoples living in the southwest at the time. I’m sure water became a highly valuable resource and there were likely several fights over who was going to control it.
So basically what all this research suggests is that there was some abrupt climate change going on in the US southwest and the people living there began to get desperate and frustrated, which resulted in wars and human slaughter. What ended up happening is the people abandoned the area altogether and went eastward into the area of the northern Rio Grande where they established new settlements and new farms. But these new settlements did not rival the old like those found at Chaco Canyon. It’s as if the people gave up and their ruins reflect that in my opinion as the new sites were nothing compared to the fantastic building techniquest seen at Chaco.
One thing that is interesting to note is the Chaco is in the bottom of a canyon and pretty much out in the open. Mesa Verde is a cliff dwelling, a defense site (fortress). Some researchers believe that as Chaco culture began to fall many of the inhabitants moved into the Mesa Verde area and this may have caused conflict with the people already living there. That may be very true. One thing we can say for sure is that something BIG was happening in Chaco and at Mesa Verde and a lot of people were slaughtered by whatever it was. Likely it was a mix of war, climate change, and drought/hunger. When we look back into the past we see many examples of how climate change has changed the course of human history and normally NOT for the best, unfortunately. And I think that we are starting to see a repeat of this today in our own times as our climate IS changing rather dramatically. At some point modern humans will be forced to change and move and that will of course cause conflict, again. The American Southwest may well see a repeat of history and a repeat of human slaughter. As I said, when people get afraid and hungry they do crazy things. We might have more technology than ancient people did but man (humanity) really hasn’t changed all that much in terms of desires, fears, emotions, aspirations, etc.
Southwest Climate Change http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/01/100120161243.htm
Violence in the American Southwest http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/08/140804100356.htm
Climate Change and the Demise of Southwestern Cultures at Chaco and Mesa Verde http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/12/141204074309.htm