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Where Did the Pueblo Go? Blame Ancient Climate Change

Dec 04, 2014 06:33 PM EST
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More than 800 years ago, the ancestral Pueblo people of southwest Colorado underwent a massive and mysterious depopulation event, with little evidence of why or how it occurred. However, new revelations may help experts uncover the circumstances of this in even greater detail, finding evidence that severe and localized climate change may have been the cause.

That's at least according to a study recently published in the journal Nature Communications, which details how a pair of researchers used tree-ring data, the ideal growing conditions of traditional maize crops, and a suite of computer programs to construct a detailed map of Southwest growing regions for the past 2,000 years.

This new data supports a very logical, but not exactly exciting hypothesis concerning what happened to most of the ancient Pueblos: they just moved.

According to the researchers' map, natural shifts in local climate made it harder and harder to grow maize, which was the main food crop for the Pueblos in ancient southwest Colorado. Meanwhile, the Pajarito Plateau of the northern Rio Grande, where growing conditions remained stable, saw a large population spike.

The plateau "also happens to be the place where you would want to move if you were doing rain-fed maize agriculture, the same type of agriculture that people practiced for centuries up in southwest Colorado," study co-author Kyle Bocinsky explained in a statement.

According to the researcher, it seems that in the wake of climate change these ancient people were far more willing to abandon their homes than abandon their way of life. Bocinsky suggests that it could be no different for modern climate change, during which stubborn farmers and fishermen will choose to shift from region to region rather than adapt to a changing environment.

"When we are looking for ways to alleviate human suffering, we should keep in mind that people are going to be looking for places to move where they can keep doing their type of maize agriculture, keep growing the same type of wheat or rice in the same ways," Bocinsky explained. "It's when those niches really start shrinking on the landscape that we start having a major problem, because you've got a lot of people who are used to doing something in one way and they can no longer do it that way."

"So we need to understand how people deal with these local changes," he added, "to generate predictions and help guide us in dealing with more widespread changes of that nature."

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