Crow Canyon Archaeological Center - Learning from the Past: Prehistoric Climate Migrants

Montezuma County, Colorado

“The drought that has gripped the American Southwest since 2000 is as bad or worse than droughts in the region over the past 1,200 years.”
- New York Times, April 16, 2020

The Research Institute at the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center collects and curates the archaeological data generated by Crow Canyon over its 40 years of conducting research about the ancient peoples who created the spectacular villages that dot southwestern Colorado. Crow Canyon researchers also have built parallel data sets that reconstruct climate over the same period of time. Together this data opens windows into how ancient humans responded to climate change over thousands of years.

The drought that began in the mid-1100s was the most severe recorded during the span of ancestral Pueblo occupation of southwest Colorado. It lasted several decades, affected much of the Four Corners region, and contributed to the migrations that depopulated Chaco Canyon in New Mexico. However, other ancestral Pueblo peoples were able to shelter in place and survive the drought—including the Pueblo villagers of the Mesa Verde region.

By comp

arison, the so-called Great Drought of the late 1200s was neither as severe nor as long as the mid-1100s drought. Yet, this time the descendants of the Pueblo people who survived the 1100s drought moved away from their ancestral homelands. Many migrated south to the northern Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico, to join existing Pueblo communities and benefit from the predictable water offered by the Rio Grande. Why?

Two big changes took place in the Mesa Verde Region between 1150 and 1250. First, Pueblo population grew dramatically—almost doubling. Second, Ute, and Navajo oral histories record that their ancestors, who were nomadic foragers, had arrived in the Four Corners area, and were raiding the villages for food—histories that are corroborated by some Pueblo histories. Collectively, these data tell a familiar story of more people competing for increasingly scarce resources.

Population growth, coupled with drought, likely tipped the balance, and the ancestral Pueblo people left the Mesa Verde region and migrated to a landscape that offered conditions friendlier to their agrarian village life.

This story highlights the long term and continuing impacts of climate change on our world, underscoring that successful responses are specific to the place and cultural context in which the change is taking place. Archaeological research shows that climate change drives innovations like the adoption of new food sources, the genetic manipulation of food sources, and technological efficiencies for producing, processing, and storing food. In today’s world too, climate change is pushing innovation, including dietary shifts and new technologies like clean energy.