(ORDO NEWS) — In what is now the borders of Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico, ancient Pueblo societies prospered and then collapsed for 800 years.
Each time they were restored, their culture was transformed. These changes in history can be seen in their pottery and the incredible stone and earth dwellings they created. During 300 of these years, some Pueblo peoples who also used ink tattoos were ruled by a matrilineal dynasty.
As with the collapse of other ancient civilizations, the social collapse of the Ancestral Pueblos coincided with periods of climate change – but Pueblo farmers often persisted during droughts, suggesting there was more to their collapse than just environmental conditions.
So last year, archaeologists took a closer look at what happened in these societies before 1400 CE, which preceded periods of upheaval. Using tree ring analysis for building construction, the researchers were able to construct a time series of the productivity of Pueblo societies.
Peak periods of construction were associated with good corn growing seasons, although on average these periods were not more favorable for corn production than periods of calm in construction.
A recent study found that while societies often recovered fairly quickly from a lull in construction, there were clear slowdowns in recovery that coincided with an increase in violence.
A similar systemic slowdown can be seen in other regional collapses of ancient societies, such as the Neolithic Europeans, that were not linked to climate change. This is also the case for complex systems such as tropical rainforests and the human brain.
“These warning signals turn out to be remarkably universal,” says Marten Schaeffer, a complexity scientist at Wageningen University. “They are based on the fact that a slowdown in recovery from small disturbances signals a loss of stability.”
Schaeffer and his colleagues suspect that slowly building social tensions – such as wealth disparity, racial injustice and general unrest – sapped social cohesion until all it took was a little more pressure from another drought to knock them over the edge. This apparently happened to the Pueblo peoples in 700, 900 and 1140 AD.
However, in the late 1200s, a combination of drought and external conflicts prompted the Ancestral Pueblos to leave the region permanently.
“Cohesive societies can often find ways to overcome climate challenges,” explained archaeologist Tim Kohler of the University of Washington in 2021.
“But societies that are torn apart by internal social dynamics of any kind – whether they be wealth disparities, racial inequalities or other divisions – are fragile because of these factors. Then climate problems can easily become very serious.”
The ancient Pueblo peoples did find a way to thrive elsewhere, perhaps by drastically changing their culture, and today their descendants live in the tribal lands surrounding the empty spaces that were once the center of the Pueblo world. Their story serves as an important warning to us.
“Today, we are facing numerous social challenges, including growing wealth disparities, as well as deep political and racial divisions, at a time when climate change is no longer theoretical,” Kohler said. “If we are not prepared to meet the challenges of a changing climate as a cohesive society, we are in for real problems.”
If we want to avoid repeating history, we’d better be careful.”
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