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Ancient Skeletons Reveal Cataclysmic Violence in Mesa Verde

Ancient Skeletons Reveal Cataclysmic Violence in Mesa Verde


New research has revealed that parts of the American southwest experienced unprecedented levels of violence around 800 years ago, according to a news release in Live Science. The new study published in the journal American Antiquity, has shown that between 1140 and 1180 AD, nine out of every ten skeletons found around the Mesa Verde region in Colorado show signs of violent injury. Until now, researchers have been unsure why society in this region took a turn for the worse around this time, but the latest research may help to explain why the ancient settlers around the Mesa Verde region mysteriously disappeared over the course of only three decades in the late 1200s.

“Archaeologists with one or two exceptions have not tried to develop an objective metric of levels of violence through time,” said Washington State University archaeologist Tim Kohler. “They’ve looked at a mix of various things like burned structures, defensive site locations and so forth, but it’s very difficult to distil an estimate of levels of violence from such things. We’ve concentrated on one thing, and that is trauma, especially to the head and portions of the arms. That’s allowed us to look at levels of violence through time in a comparative way.”

Previous research has shown that from 500 to 1300 AD, the ancient southwest experienced a prolonged baby boom, in which each woman had an average of more than six children, a higher fertility rate than is seen anywhere else in the modern world. At the same time, there was a shift from a nomadic lifestyle to a more settled existence.

In the northern Rio Grande region of what is now New Mexico, a similar boom was experienced but with far less evidence of violence.  The growing population was coupled with a number of significant societal changes, including more sophisticated and specialized societies, wider affiliations with surrounding populations, specialized skills, and the development of trade networks. Archaeological records reflect a peaceful way of living.

But further north, in the Mesa Verde, people didn't adapt well to the population boom. Few people developed specialized skills and “when you don’t have specialisation in societies, there’s a sense in which everybody is a competitor because everybody is doing the same thing,” said Kohler. But with specialisation, people are more dependent on each other and more reluctant to do harm.

The episode of conflict in Southwest Colorado seems to have begun when people in the Chaco Canyon civilization, halfway between central Mesa Verde and northern Rio Grande, attempted to spread into Southwest Colorado following a drought in the mid-1100s. Their influx was resisted, and by 1160 the region had erupted into violence.

A digital reconstruction of what Chaco Canyon

A digital reconstruction of what Chaco Canyon would have once looked like. Image credit: National Park Service.

“In the Mesa Verde there could be a haves-versus-have-nots dynamic towards the very end,” said Kohler. “The people who stayed the longest were probably the people who were located in the very best spots. But those pueblos too were likely losing population. And it might have been the older folks who stuck around, who weren’t so anxious to move as the young folks who thought, ‘We could make a better living elsewhere.” Older, or with too few people to marshal a good defence, the remaining people in the Mesa Verde pueblos were particularly vulnerable to raids.

Over the next few decades, the inhabitants of the Mesa Verde region plummeted from 40,000 to zero – the whole area was abandoned. Some of the inhabitants probably survived and moved elsewhere, but from the skeletal remains showing violent injury, it is clear that many did not.

Featured image: Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park.

By April Holloway



Tsurugi's picture

No reason to be mad. He did discover it. Discovering something means finding something you didn't know was there, or tracking down something you suspect is there but you aren't sure. Whether other people knew about it or not is immaterial .
For instance, there's another recent article on Ancient Origins that talks about archaeologists discovering two more ancient cities of the Maya. Obviously those archaeologists are not the first humans to ever see those cities; the Maya knew about them, right? And undoubtedly there were plenty of local people who were aware of them as well.

When it comes to "discovering" the americas, they've been discovered over and over by peoples throughout history. There is plenty of evidence that the Dutch had discovered the americas before Columbus made his attempt, but they kept it secret. The Vikings discovered it, also kept it to themselves. China had probably found it at some point in the past, and maybe Japan as well, they kept it secret. The many various migratory peoples that ended up settling in the Americas throughout history weren't necessarily keeping their discovery secret, they just weren't in communicaton with anyone outside of the americas, so they effectively vanished into the secret.

Columbus' discovery was not kept secret. It was an open proposition to Spanish Royalty so it was not secret right from the start, and when he returned it ignighted imaginations throughout the world and spurred a wave of expeditions and colonies. Piri Reis, creator of the infamous Piri Reis map, mentiones Columbus on one of his maps made during the time, crediting him for discovering lands across the Atlantic that he had seen in "his book", implying that Coumbus had some sort of text that gave him preknowledge of the existence of the americas(a statement backed up by rumor and anecdote, plus many curious correlations). This is coming from the man who it seems certain had access to his own texts and ancient documents indicating the existence of lands across the Atlantic...and who lived in Istanbul at the time of Columbus' expeditions. This illustrates the lack of secrecy of Columbus' discoveries.

Many people discovered the americas before Columbus. What made his discovery important was that he made it so that no one would have to discover it again. So perhaps you might say, Columbus was the LAST to discover America. Haha....

angieblackmon's picture

i love this article, but i'm mad because i was taught all through school that Columbus discovered America...and that's what I grew up thinking before becoming exposed to different lines of thought as well as infomation on what was really out there. And that's what they still teach!

love, light and blessings


I wrote a archaeological research paper on this region during my studies at college. I was disturbed to have discovered that there is also evidence of cannibalism on some of these bones as well. All evidence points toward a very brutal war. It would seem that the drought dwindled resources down to a point of severe desperation. What ever happened to these people during this time was very dark indeed.

>...Mainline science refuses to face the reality that non human intelligent life once existed on Earth." <

Puma Punka would be a good example of that.

Mainstream archaeology also refuses to accept the fact that human civilization is cyclical and not linear.

The American Southwest holds many mysteries and Mesa Verde is just one of them. However, what is little known is that the Southwest and Mexico combined harbored an ancient civilization during the time of the dinosaurs.

I just dated Monte Alban, a lost city in Mexico resting on a mountain top 6,400 feet high, to 85 million years old. The plate tectonic movements of Mexico supports this conclusion. Mainline science refuses to face the reality that non human intelligent life once existed on Earth.

aprilholloway's picture


April Holloway is a Co-Owner, Editor and Writer of Ancient Origins. For privacy reasons, she has previously written on Ancient Origins under the pen name April Holloway, but is now choosing to use her real name, Joanna Gillan.

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