Native Americans not only survived an ancient climate disaster nearly 1,500 years ago, but they thrived when the crisis ended, according to a new study.
In 536AD, a massive volcano erupted in Iceland that sent a thick cloud of smoke and debris across the Pacific and into the southwestern US, which dimmed the sun, lowered temperatures and killed crops.
When the climate catastrophe came to an end, decades later, ancient Puebloan farmers moved out of their small settlements and into communal villages where they began to prosper like never before.
Researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and Colorado State University found the civilizations experienced a population boom, which also sparked new ideas that led to new technologies in construction, culinary and hunting.
In 536AD, a massive volcano erupted in Iceland that sent a thick cloud of smoke and debris across the Pacific and into the southwestern US, which dimmed the sun, lowered temperatures and killed crops
R. J. Sinensky from UCLA, lead author of the research, said in a statement: ‘Human societies are capable of reorganization to deal with unprecedented climate disruptions.
‘Nearly 1,500 years ago Ancestral Puebloan farmers living in the arid uplands of what is now the southwestern United States were resourceful and resilient in responding to the most extreme global temperature anomaly to occur within the past 2,500 years.’
Medieval historian Michael McCormick refers to 536AD as the worst year to be alive, as Europe, the Middle East and parts of Asia were plunged into 18 months of solid darkness by a mysterious fog from a massive volcanic eruption.
Incessant volcanic activity is believed to have produced millions of tons of ash which spread over vast swathes of the world.
The study was recently published in the scientific journal Antiquity.
Temperatures fell between 2.7 and 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit, initiating the coldest decade in the past 2,300 years. And another eruption happened around 541 that extended the climate crisis by decades. Graph shows the temperature change over the period being studied
Temperatures in the summer of 536 fell between 2.7 and 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit, initiating the coldest decade in the past 2,300 years.
And another eruption happened around 541 that extended the climate crisis by decades, causing more disaster and turmoil in Eurasia during and after.
The effects in Eurasia are widely known, but scientists were curious about how people living across the Pacific Ocean dealt with the volcanic winter.
The study, published in the journal Antiquity, reveals ancient Native Americans were also hit with the same dramatic cold period, dying crops and darkness.
Looking at tree rings across the southwestern US, researchers observed how cold and dry conditions after the volcanic eruptions limited plant growth, whilst archaeological data showed a decline in construction as well as evidence of the sudden rejection of long-held traditions.
After the climate catastrophe came to and end, decades later, ancient Puebloan farmers moved out of their small settlements and into communal villages where they began to prosper like never before. Pictured is a carved stone collar marking an underground storage pit from this period, engraved with a zig-zagging line signifying migration
Researchers found the civilizations experienced a population boom, which also sparked new ideas that led to new technologies in construction, culinary and hunting. Pictured are ceramic vessel fragments with stone-drilled mending holes
WHAT HAPPENED IN THE YEAR 536AD?
A cataclysmic volcanic eruption in Iceland created a huge cloud that resided over most of the northern hemisphere for 18 months.
This included Europe, the Middle East and parts of Asia.
The eerie fog caused an unrelenting dusk persevering throughout day and night.
Effects on the climate were so severe that the Irish chronicles tell of ‘a failure of bread from the years 536–539’.
Temperatures in the summer of 536 fell between 2.7 and 4.5 degrees, initiating the coldest decade in the past 2,300 years.
This introduced a period of economic ruin which would steadfastly remain in place until a century later.
‘We analyzed more than 2,500 radiocarbon and tree-ring dates from archaeological sites to study the impact of this extreme global temperature,’ said Sinensky.
Prior to the volcanic eruption, Native Americans lived in small and dispersed settlements, or hamlets, with close relatives.
When the climate crisis ended, the small groups moved into larger villages and lived in communal buildings.
‘Archaeologists already knew that there was a population boom across broad swaths of upland Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah during the seventh century AD,’ said Sinensky.
Archaeologists had long puzzled over how these Ancestral Pueblo groups shifted from disparate hamlets to these massive sites that contained the largest buildings on the continent at the time.
Now, this research suggests that this transformation was in part the result of a climate crisis affecting the society and its reorganizing in the face of a new environment.
‘The economic strategies and social organization of these sedentary farmers differed from that of their predecessors,’ Sinensky said.
‘Ancestral Puebloan farmers restructured deeply rooted aspects of economic strategies and political institutions in response to an unprecedented climate anomaly that persisted for over a decade.’
The resulting, reorganized Ancestral Pueblo societies would eventually create countless famous sites in the region, such as those in Chaco Canyon – now a National Historic Park – which was a major cultural center from AD 800-1150.
This site also contains evidence of greater social inequality than in previous periods, hinting at the other social changes that came with this reorganization.