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 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.