Did Mesa Verde Collapse?

Posted by: teofilo  :  Category: Anasazi, Archaeology, Canyon of the Ancients, Utah, carrying capacity, collapse, southern Utah, southwest

I’ve already questioned the idea that the decline of Chaco Canyon as a regional center in the twelfth century constitutes an example of societal “collapse,” but there’s another major event in Southwestern prehistory that could conceivably qualify.  This is the large-scale and apparently complete depopulation of the entire Northern San Juan region between AD 1280 and 1300.  This cultural region, which covers large parts of southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah, is often called the “Mesa Verde” region, after the well-known cluster of sites on and around Mesa Verde now part of major national park, but it also includes many other areas, including the recently designated Canyons of the Ancients National Monument and the Cedar Mesa/Grand Gulch area in Utah.  All of this vast area, as well as the parts of the San Juan Basin to the south that were still occupied after the decline of Chaco, seems to have been abandoned astonishingly rapidly.  The western parts in Utah were apparently abandoned first, starting around the 1260s, and all construction and other apparent activity came to a very abrupt halt throughout the region by 1280.  In some areas, such as Mesa Verde proper, construction was quite active throughout the 1270s, making the total lack of evidence for construction in the 1280s particularly remarkable.

So what happened here?  There are two main types of explanations, environmental and social, and their relative popularity has varied over the years.  The environmental explanation depends largely on the striking coincidence of the abandonment of Mesa Verde with the so-called “Great Drought” of AD 1276 to 1299, one of the earliest major climatic events to be identified in the tree-ring record.  The near-perfect alignment of the drought with the final abandonment of the area is indeed remarkable, and this explanation has been pretty popular and remains so today, but there is considerable evidence that there was more going on.  For one thing, while all of the Southwest is in some sense marginal for agriculture, within that context the northern San Juan is one of the most productive and reliable agricultural areas.  Indeed, much of southwestern Colorado is used today for commercial farming, largely using dry-farming methods not all that different from those used in antiquity.  The Mesa Verde area gets plenty of rainfall, and while a short growing season can be an issue at the higher elevations, throughout most of the region it is not generally problematic.  Models of agricultural potential based on tree-ring data have generally shown that the carrying capacity of the Northern San Juan greatly exceeded any plausible estimate of its overall population throughout prehistory, although that doesn’t necessarily mean that individual communities would always be able to support themselves on the land they happened to have.

Social factors, then, are probably involved along with the drought.  There is definite evidence for a considerable amount of violence during the thirteenth century in this area, and settlement patterns become increasingly defensive over time.  There is also an increasing diversity in public architecture among the various communities, suggesting that traditional religious or ideological structures may have been breaking down and being replaced by new ones.  A strong tendency toward settlement aggregation, perhaps due to defensive considerations, may have played a role in these religious trends.  Furthermore, all of this may have been influenced or set in motion by deteriorating environmental conditions; environmental and social factors were not necessarily separate things.

So where did the people go?  The general assumption is that they mostly went to the northern Rio Grande Valley, which sees a remarkable increase in its population right around AD 1300, just as Mesa Verde is emptying out.  This is a bit problematic, however, since there is relatively little evidence for people with obvious Mesa Verde cultural traits showing up in the Rio Grande at this time.  This may be because people were emigrating away from Mesa Verde in small groups and assimilating into existing Rio Grande communities, or it may have been because people were changing their cultures as they moved, perhaps abandoning the old social institutions that had been ineffective in preventing the abandonment and adopting new ones that seemed to work better.  It’s hard to say, really, and this is a topic of ongoing research.  One interesting effort recently has been the Village Ecodynamics Project by Washington State University and Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, which has used agent-based modeling and other innovative techniques to try to understand the culture history of the Northern San Juan.

Okay, so that’s more or less what happened.  Does it count as a “collapse”?  Let’s look back at Jared Diamond’s criteria for collapse:

  1. Collapse involves a major loss of population.
  2. Collapse involves a loss of complexity.
  3. Collapse occurs over a large geographic area.
  4. The changes brought about by collapse persist for a long time.

In this case 1, 3, and 4 are pretty obvious.  The Mesa Verde region was totally depopulated, which is about as major a loss of population as you can get.  It’s also very large, and the changes that resulted from the abandonment of the region and the influx of population to the Rio Grande have persisted to the present day; many aspects of Mesa Verde culture notable in the archaeological record were not brought to the Rio Grande, and are not present in the modern Pueblos there.  Since Diamond apparently considers only one of the first two criteria to be necessary, he probably would consider this a collapse, but most other collapse theorists, including Joseph Tainter, consider loss of complexity to be a more important consideration than loss of population, so let’s look at complexity in the Mesa Verde case.

There basically isn’t any evidence for significantly complexity in Mesa Verde before its abandonment or in the Rio Grande afterwards.  Unlike the Chaco case, the villages in the thirteenth-century Northern San Juan seem to have had relatively egalitarian social structures, at least economically and probably politically as well.  This is not to say that there were definitely no disparities in political power, but that they were likely masked and subverted by an egalitarian ideology that prevented massive accumulation of wealth and power.  This is the case in the modern Pueblos, where despite some possible inequalities in power and political influence among different clans or societies the overall ideology has enforced a general economic equality.  This seems to have been the case in the thirteenth-century Northern San Juan as well, and it could have been in part a reaction to the perceived excesses of the Chacoan era, although it’s noteworthy that a certain amount of Chacoan influence seems to have persisted, especially in the Totah area around Aztec, albeit without much evidence for the economic inequality that marked the Chacoan era itself.

Mesa Verde doesn’t get mentioned in the collapse literature as much as Chaco, although sometimes the two are kind of muddled together incoherently, and for good reason.  What we seem to be seeing at Mesa Verde is a period of societal difficulty that resulted in depopulation and migration, a common pattern in Southwestern prehistory.  While there were some changes in society during the abandonment and migration that make it difficult to tell exactly where the people ended up, these changes don’t seem to have been related to any change in the overall complexity of the society, which remained about as complex as it had been before.

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13 Responses to “Did Mesa Verde Collapse?”

  1. Jim Allison Says:

    Here I feel compelled to recommend the new book “Leaving Mesa Verde”, edited by Timothy Kohler, Mark Varien, and Aaron Wright, which is now available (as of about a week ago) from the University of Arizona Press. I have a chapter in it that deals with the abandonment of the far-flung, more peripheral (to Mesa Verde) Fremont and Virgin River regions, but most of the book deals directly with the issues Teofilo raises.

  2. teofilo Says:

    This is the book Jim mentioned.  Like most books of this sort, it’s too expensive for me to buy, but it looks very interesting; if the Rutgers library buys a copy I may take a look at it.

  3. PolyisTCOandbanned Says:

    1.  The Valla Grande (sp?) looks cool.  All the cows are like ants.

    2.  Los Alamos and Bandolier rawk.

  4. Andy Says:

    I spent many springs and falls over the last 30 years in the San Juan area, so this topic really interests me and I know the geography well.  I was wondering if you might comment on the “Kachina Phenomenon” as a possible factor.  I first read about it in David Robert’s book, “In Search of the Old Ones.”

  5. Ed Forbes Says:

    Where did the people go? some of them were ate.

    ” “We believe the entire community was extinguished in a single episode of violence and terroristic cannibalism during a period of social chaos brought on by the drought,” Billman said. ”
    “ no evidence of other mammals, corn or other vegetable matter in the coprolite, which suggested that other food was unavailable.”


  6. teofilo Says:

    Andy: The kachina cult is usually invoked in this context as an explanation for why some areas were depopulated and others weren’t.  It seems to have originated in the late thirteenth or maybe early fourteenth century somewhere to the south of Mesa Verde (there’s a lot of dispute about exactly where and when it started).  It was well-established by 1325 or so in the Hopi, Zuni, and Rio Grande areas, which is to say in all the areas that were not abandoned around 1300.  There’s no trace of it in the San Juan area, which suggests that it was abandoned before the cult had spread that far.

    The idea is that the kachina cult helped to integrate the increasingly large aggregated communities that were developing throughout the Southwest, perhaps in response to increased warfare and need for defense, because it is not kin-based (as previous social structures are often assumed to have been) and could therefore unite people of varying origins thrown together in close quarters.  Since the cult never reached Mesa Verde, it’s possible that the various methods being tried there to integrate the large villages didn’t work, and people left and ended up in places that had adopted kachina ceremonialism.  Some have argued that the kachina cult may have actually been a “pull” factor attracting people from Mesa Verde to the areas that had the cult, but the timing seems wrong; there’s little to no evidence that the cult was in place in those areas before the abandonment of Mesa Verde.  Some have argued otherwise (Steve Lekson, for one), but not very convincingly.

    Ed: There’s certainly evidence for cannibalism, but most of the well-documented cases (including the one you mention) were much too early to have anything to do with the abandonment of Mesa Verde, and may instead have had something to do with the decline of Chaco.

  7. Ed Forbes Says:

    teofilo: Not sure why you say “much to early”.  Pinning something in this timeline to closer than +- 50 yrs can be pushing the results a bit to much.
    episodic drought is well documented for this area and would be the most likely reason for people leaving the area without being pushed out. People tend to stay in one place unless pushed.  Nothing to suggest that they were pushed by other people is there?

    ” Results of the investigations indicated that people colonized and abandoned that part of Southwest Colorado several times between 700 and 1300. ”

    “18 occurrences of cannibalism, nine of which occurred between about AD 1150 and 1200 in the Mesa Verde area”
    [ as prior post]

  8. teofilo Says:

    Well, there’s really two droughts we’re talking about here: one in the mid-twelfth century (possibly associated with the fall of Chaco) and one in the late thirteenth century (possibly associated with the abandonment of Mesa Verde).  And the archaeological record in the Southwest is very precisely dated by the standards of prehistoric archaeology, thanks to the extensive tree-ring record, which is also how we know those droughts occurred.  Mesa Verde was abandoned between 1280 and 1300; there are few things in archaeology that can be determined with more certainty.  Cowboy Wash dates to about 1150, as do most of the other well-attested examples of cannibalism.  There may have been other episodes of cannibalism associated with the later drought, but if so they’re not the ones people usually talk about.  I’m certainly not ruling out the possibility that cannibalism had something to do with the abandonment of Mesa Verde, but Cowboy Wash is not evidence that it did.

  9. Ed Forbes Says:

    the cannibalism quotes were to show that food was non-existent at times, not that people were forced out by cannibalism. cannibalism was the result, not the cause.

    Lack of food by drought is the most likely reason for the exodus.  I believe it would take extraordinary evidence to show otherwise as people do not leave an area in mass without being forced.

  10. teofilo Says:

    I don’t see anything to dispute there, but I certainly wouldn’t have understood that to be your argument from your initial comment.

  11. Andy Says:

    Thanks!  It sure does seem reasonable to think there was a confluence of factors involved.
    As an aside, I’m also a student of Irish history and there are some parallels there.  At a few points, large parts of the island were largely denuded of people through a combination of war, famine and disease.  In 1579-1580, for example, Munster was practically swept clean - the English killed every man, woman and child they could find.  More importantly, they killed all livestock and destroyed what limited stores of food they found.  The resulting famine killed many more than the English could and by the winter of 1580-81, there was no one left.  It turns out that although Munster was a rich land, the agricultural economy was precarious.  The English campaign, begun in March, hit at exactly the right time to disrupt the economy and seal the fate of almost everyone who lived there.  The effects persisted for many years afterward.

  12. Sam Wise Says:

    FWIW — if you’re interested in “Leaving Mesa Verde,” Amazon’s selling it for $44 (about 1/3 off the U of A price).

  13. toby Says:


    The case of Munster (Ireland) you mention is one where a pre-exisitng war by an outside force precipitated the collapse. I suppose an ecological catostrophe (like a plague) could have precipitated an already precarious society into collapse. 16th century societies were pretty precarious. The Thirty Years War in the 17th century devastated Germany, when the appearance of an army was like a plague of locusts.

    The Great Famine of 1845-52 is another Irish case. Here the rural population had exploded, cultivating marginal lands where they grew potatoes, the staple diet. When the blight removed the potatoes, a million of the rural poor died and another million fled the country. It meets  Diamond’s criteria for a collapse, one that might have been mitigated by beter relief efforts.

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