How Vulnerable Are Societies to Collapse?

By Jim O'Donnell | September 28, 2017 12:28 pm

Research findings on three early Native American cultures from the southwestern United States show how each responded to environmental challenges in different ways that dramatically altered their people’s futures. (David Williams/SAPIENS)

Along the cottonwood-lined rivers of southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona, the Mimbres people did something unique: By the year 1000, these farmers were producing stunning ceramics decorated with naturalistic images of fish, people, and rabbits, as well as magical creatures and elaborate geometric patterns. And then, rather abruptly, they stopped.

After roughly a century of higher than normal rainfall, the area the Mimbres inhabited suffered a powerful drought, as indicated by the archaeological record. Big game—already scarce—became even less abundant, and it became harder to grow the beans, corn and squash that the Mimbres relied on. By about 1150 the Mimbres were no longer making their signature pottery.


The abrupt disappearance of the Mimbres people’s signature pottery, which featured elaborate naturalistic designs, is thought to be one indicator of how their culture shifted in response to environmental pressures. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

This abrupt change in pottery styles has long been considered a sign of a complete societal collapse and disappearance: Many scholars have interpreted it as evidence that when the climate shifted the society fell apart. But Michelle Hegmon, an archaeologist at Arizona State University’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change, disagrees with that narrative: “They didn’t disappear—they reorganized.”

Hegmon and her colleagues have helped to uncover evidence that the Mimbres moved from their centralized villages into smaller hamlets. They let go of their formal plazas and rooms that had been dedicated to ritual purposes. Their material culture became more diverse, and they abandoned their famous ceramic style for imported pottery and locally made knockoffs. Many of them even left the region, migrating to other parts of the U.S. Southwest as well as south into what is now northern Mexico. The ones who stayed expanded their trading connections to supplement their sedentary farming culture. Perhaps most interesting, the Mimbres were able to accomplish all this reorganization without falling to pieces. Skeletal remains from the period show little evidence of disease, starvation, or violence.

Adapt, Survive

Change is inevitable, but how cultural groups respond to the challenges they face determines whether they are able to cope—or not. Hegmon and her colleagues have turned a spotlight on how and why cultures like the Mimbres adapted and survived in the face of such challenges while other groups collapsed. Over 20 years of research, Hegmon and a handful of other scholars have taken a hard look at several cultures that lived in the American Southwest from about 1000 to 1500 and compared them to communities such as the Norse in Greenland to learn lessons about resilience: how to be nimble in the face of change and what that means for today’s societies.

In southwestern Colorado’s Mesa Verde region, hundreds of miles to the north of the Mimbres Valley, lie the remains of Yucca House, a town constructed by Ancestral Puebloan people some 900 years ago. Today it is a national monument, a hot and dusty place filled with rattlesnakes and jackrabbits. Coarse limestone-block walls run in intersecting rows, creating a network of rooms that look like a waffle from above. The wooden roofs and towers fell in centuries ago.

The people of Yucca House, along with tens of thousands of others across the Mesa Verde region, left the area hundreds of years after its founding. Another climatic shift, this time a series of droughts, hit the U.S. Southwest in the 13th century and precipitated a dramatic breakdown in Mesa Verde society that led to widespread starvation and violence.


An unexcavated mound at Yucca House National Monument. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

But Scott Ortman, an archaeologist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and one of Hegmon’s former students, thinks that some of the people who populated Yucca House survived the crisis and joined with others from the region, going on to plant the seeds of what would eventually become the modern Tewa peoples of northern New Mexico. “A Tewa story refers to Yucca House as an ancestral home,” says Ortman in support of his theory. The layout of the town and its central public area, he adds, is noticeably different from that of other Mesa Verde villages of the time, hinting that, when things fell apart, some survivors were willing to experiment with different kinds of societal organization and leadership.

Overall, the people of Mesa Verde were quite different from the Mimbres. “They were very established in their ways,” says Hegmon. “They had a very conservative culture. Their pottery styles, architecture, and lifeways remained much the same for a long time. This may have made them less able to deal with the climatic shifts that hit the U.S. Southwest.” Ultimately, the Mesa Verde people may have clung too rigidly to a way of life and been unable to adapt to their changing reality, she says.

Mesa Verde’s economy was organized around the family unit, Ortman notes. Each family was more or less economically self-sufficient; they lived on small farms and didn’t produce a surplus of food for market—in fact, there was no market. As the population grew, more people moved into marginal areas. Economic inequality also grew. This was manageable as long as the climate remained stable. But the droughts, and a bout of cooler weather, made those marginal lands even more difficult to farm.

Not If, but When

This perfect storm of factors contributed to conflict among the Mesa Verdean villages, says Kristin Kuckelman, an archaeologist at the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center in Cortez, Colorado. A drought that began in 1276 hit at a time when the population density of the region was peaking, wild foods such as mule deer were depleted, a cooling climate had shortened the already limited growing season, and the people were heavily dependent on a single crop—maize. “In my opinion, with that density of population in the mid-1200s, it wasn’t a matter of if, it was a matter of when a societal disaster was going to occur,” Kuckelman says. “And the when would be determined by the next serious drought.” Without the necessary infrastructures in place to redistribute food, the people of Mesa Verde began to starve.

Widespread violence hammered the region. Sometime around 1285 the people of Castle Rock Pueblo, not far from Yucca House, met a tragic end: At least 41 people in the village were killed in an attack, as evidenced by their fractured skulls and other signs of violent death. Other Mesa Verde archaeological sites have also turned up the remains of victims, as well as artifacts such as bows and arrows that may have been used as weapons. Some villages built defensive structures, and the people at Castle Rock Pueblo created artistic representations of violence, says Ortman. “The end of Mesa Verde was a very bad time.”

By about 1300, Mesa Verde had been largely abandoned. Demographic studies suggest that over the course of 35 years, the population plummeted from its peak of 30,000; an estimated 15,000 survivors left the Mesa Verde region for the Rio Grande Valley in New Mexico. The survivors scattered across a broad area, including the forested mesas of the Pajarito Plateau west of Santa Fe, New Mexico, to start something new. Eventually, over several generations, they became the Tewa peoples, according to Ortman. (Some scholars disagree, arguing that there is no clear line of descent from the people of Mesa Verde. But a new study shows a genetic link between domesticated animals in the Mesa Verde region and those of northern New Mexico, suggesting that the Tewa peoples of New Mexico may be descendants of Mesa Verdean populations.) This region was no less challenging, environmentally, than where they had come from. But the people who fled adapted to cope with the changes. “They became less family-focused and more communal,” says Ortman. For instance, Puebloan ritual rooms called kivas became communal, and the people built more plazas, indicating that they placed a higher value on community.

Today, the Tewa live in six villages up and down New Mexico’s Rio Grande Valley.

A hundred years after Mesa Verde faced environmental and societal mayhem, the Hohokam people of southern Arizona ran up against a similar barrier. And they were no more successful in overcoming it.

Mayhem Strikes

Along the rivers of the Phoenix Basin, the Hohokam constructed an intensive large-scale irrigation system that supported tens of thousands of people who comprised a multiethnic, multilingual society. They had ball courts, markets, and an extensive regional trade system. “The Hohokam had a very successful culture for a very long time,” says Hegmon. “They just had a very rough ending.”

Sometime after 1400 the Hohokam people encountered new challenges that led to a population decline. Exactly how and why is unclear. Water shortages, flooding and internal conflict were all factors at various locations and times, Hegmon and her colleagues say. Bioarchaeologist John McClelland, who is based at the University of Arizona in Tucson, has proposed that low fertility rates might have been the Hohokam’s undoing. Whatever the reason, things began to fall apart.

The Hohokam, Hegmon infers from the archaeological record, were simply too tied to their infrastructure. Their irrigation system was a marvel of engineering and labor organization, but when it ceased to function many generations after it was built, the Hohokam couldn’t find another way to maintain the large, complex, and densely populated society that the irrigation system had allowed to flourish. By the time Europeans arrived in 1540, the large-scale irrigation system was gone and the population of the region had dropped off dramatically, “from tens of thousands concentrated around the canal systems to far fewer people in more scattered settlements,” Hegmon says.

There are almost as many theories about what happened to the Hohokam as there are archaeologists studying the Hohokam, says Paul Fish, a curator emeritus at the Arizona State Museum in Tucson. Overreliance on large-scale irrigation is just one of those theories, but it’s a reasonable one, Fish says. The destruction of archaeological sites by modern agriculture and urban development has made it difficult to prove exactly what led to the Hohokam’s decline.


Hohokam ruins at Casa Grande Ruins National Monument. (Credit: National Parks Service)

By carefully combing through the archaeological record, however, Hegmon is developing a clearer picture of what life was like for the Hohokam people as things fell apart. As Hegmon and her colleagues wrote about the Hohokam in a 2008 paper, “People may have literally felt trapped, perceiving no way to make changes and no place to go, and so they stayed while things fell apart around them.”

To gain more insight, Hegmon and her team started to compare what they saw in the Southwest with what happened to the Norse people in the North Atlantic around the same time.

Nordic Insights

When the Norse, led by Erik the Red, arrived in Greenland from Iceland in 985, the Northern Hemisphere was unusually warm, and parts of Greenland were ripe for European settlement. Sea ice was limited and the growing season was sufficient for the Norse to transfer their livestock-centered lifestyle to the new land.

For nearly 500 years, the Norse endured. And then they didn’t. By about 1300, the Norse settlements in Greenland were in steady decline; by sometime in the mid-to-late 15th century, they were gone.

“The old story is that the Norse were simply a maladaptive society,” says Andrew Dugmore, a physical geographer at the University of Edinburgh. “This idea that they weren’t adaptable is a very reassuring narrative because it allows us to feel superior.” But this view of the Greenland Norse, made popular by Jared Diamond’s 2005 book Collapse, is very different from what archaeologists now think. “In fact, they were quite adaptable,” says Dugmore.

The massive number of seal bones uncovered throughout the Norse settlement indicate that very soon after landing in Greenland the Norse began supplementing their beef with a marine mammal diet more in line with native resources that were available to them in their new icy home. The Norse were communal, hunting and farming as a community and sustainably managing reindeer and non-migratory seal populations for almost 500 years. “They were flexible, resilient, practiced sustainable strategies, and worked together as a community,” says Dugmore. “And they still got whacked.”

The Norse faced a complex tangle of challenges: migration, globalization, and climate calamities. By the 1200s, the Inuit people were moving into Greenland, and the two cultures didn’t get along; they competed for resources and engaged in conflict. At the same time, the growth of commodity markets in Europe, and a loss of interest in the walrus tusk ivory that had been Greenland’s main export, hit the Greenland colony hard. Ships from Europe arrived less frequently, so essentials such as iron and wood became much harder to import. Meanwhile a worldwide increase in volcanic activity—including a particularly large eruption in Indonesia in 1257 that had a global impact—darkened skies, cooled Greenland, killed off livestock, and shifted sea ice, increasing the severity of storms and making it harder to harvest seals.


The remains of a Norse church in the Eastern settlement. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The Norse might have struggled through if they had faced each one of these problems separately, says Dugmore. But collectively it was too much. “Even if you perfect the things you’ve always done,” he says, “the outside world is always changing. The goal posts shift.”

Us or Climate?

In each of these archaeological cases, it wasn’t the changing climate in itself that brought about suffering but rather each society’s response to the challenges. “There is no such thing as a natural disaster,” says Dugmore. “There are only natural hazards and human vulnerabilities.”

Humans have been adapting to a wide variety of fluctuations in climatic conditions for our entire existence as a species. And, it might be argued, we’ve been pretty successful at it. Yet the question that arises when looking at the experiences of the Mimbres, Mesa Verde, and Hohokam people is: Can our societies adapt quickly and adeptly enough to deal with the pressing problems we face? The answer to that question might lie in how flexible a given culture is in dealing with change and at what point its people choose to act—or not.

There are some worrying signs of inflexibility in today’s world, Hegmon notes. Our nation-states are so large that relocation is not really an option. And we are perhaps overly reliant on large-scale infrastructure like the U.S. electric grid. “We’d go back to the Stone Age if the electricity system went out,” says David Nicol, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Illinois in Urbana.

“Sadly,” adds Nicol, “I don’t see any reason why we’d be any different than any past civilization.”

Experts widely agree that our modern lifestyles are dependent upon today’s fossil fuel–based economy, which has both driven the growth of our industrial society and triggered a serious threat to our climate. Many who benefit personally from the continued burning of oil and coal—from oil giants to car-engine manufacturers—are resisting attempts to shift to an economy based on renewable resources.

“There will always be some people in a society who benefit while others don’t,” says Ortman. “When change is needed, those doing well will want to maintain the status quo and will prevent evolution and adaptability. If a society prevents innovation and creative destruction, you have big problems.”

Will modern societies successfully adapt to changing climates and conditions like the Mimbres, be overextended like the Hohokam, or be overwhelmed like the Norse? Perhaps the Mesa Verde case provides at least a glimmer of hope by showing that even if a society as a whole has trouble adapting and falls apart, the more flexible segments of that culture can still survive. “The failure of Mesa Verde was a failure of imagination,” says Ortman. “The Tewa society that emerged was a triumph of imagination. They found a better way of doing things.”


This work first appeared on SAPIENS under a CC BY-ND 4.0 license. Read the original here.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World, Top Posts
  • Uncle Al

    1929, 2008, and the BIG DIPPER when the US and/or the EU must pay honest interest on accumulated Accounts Payable (about $10^15 base either way).

  • OWilson

    I’d say this Iphone Kardashian society that thinks food comes from supermarkets are my nomination for oblivion.

    If the power went down, no refrigeration, no heat, air conditioning, no gas no TV, no Internet, no radio.

    Within just a couple days you’d have the gangs roaming the streets looting whatever they could find.

    It’s happened before in history, often!

    • Uncle Al

      You only truly own what you can hold in both arms at a full run.
      If you owned a gun, you would not be running.
      Survival is never guaranteed, but you can be very expensive meat.

      • RebelSoldier

        Survivalists always think in terms of their own families. But survival really depends on a local community hanging together and supporting the weak among them. In a world where billions are starving the lone wolves will be picked off. But communities that prepared in advance. stand some chance against the sizable gangs that will spread across the landscape like locusts. You can’t have enough guns against society’s collapse to protect yourself.

        • OWilson

          Who is prepared in advance?

          This society relies on the government for everything, including safety.

          You are talking about traditional community values that have been gradually worn away with all personal responsibility given over to the State!

          You need gun slinging cops in pairs patrolling your neighborhoods even now, to stop your neighbors from stealing your stuff and doing terrible things to your wife and kids.

          Take them away, and it’s back to the old barbaric survival of the fittest.

          Us old folks who have seen personal responsibility decline, who decry the total reliance on, and obedience to, the State, are laughed at, as if they are somehow immune from human nature and history, when they are the least prepared to survive themselves, and their family that depends on them in the human contract!

          • Erik Bosma

            So, basically, except for our gadgets, things haven’t changed much since, well… since always.
            If everything ‘went south’ I would be able to take care of myself and family (as I’m sure OW and Unc Al would) but I would doubt if punks with guns and no skills would allow me to for very long. I’m too old and slow.
            Perhaps the homeless of today will be the survivors of tomorrow if an apocalypse ever happened.

          • RebelSoldier

            I think some communities would survive, the ones with a lot of luck on their side. Communities that can guard a valley or stretch of road continually with scouts, that had wells and were acquainted with outhouses and had good kitchen gardens, cows and poultry and swine and basic skills. And had also done community wide food and medicine and basics prepping. I think a desert town a hundred miles from anywhere could prepare for the apocalypse, but they would need to be prepared. Few communities to none are even thinking about it. It’s about a lot more than shooting. It’s about preparing to guard a community from outsiders which requires communication, food stores, organization, etc etc.

          • OWilson

            I daresay folks who defended their Second Amendment Rights to own and carry a gun, would have a little more than “luck” on their side! :)

          • RebelSoldier

            You are not thinking far enough down the road. The collapse of society, and the health system, the distribution network that brings food to the cities and suburbs and towns, the water grid and electric and gas grids would mean that most populated places would be impossible to live in no matter what fire power you had because there would be piles of feces in the gutters of populated areas. And then there would come the contagious diseases. And boiling any water to clean it would require fuel that would be needed by everyone around you. If you live in a city you and your well armed family would be guarding something in the process of dying. A single family in the middle of Alaska, per se, could survive until the day comes when your grandchildren meet the warriors of a real community.

            This obsession with fire power ignores the fact that modern weapons need maintenance, and ammunition and in a few decades only the most easy to maintain guns would still work. Yeah you could protect your family for a few decades let’s say with your weapons if you lived somewhere far off the grids and were prepared but the closer you are to roads the more likely a horde will descend on you. Nobody is going to die next door to you, or on a highway near you while you are heating meals up in your cabin.

          • OWilson

            I agree with everything you say, except your initial assumption that I’m not thinking far enough down the road.

            The one thing that has served me well all my life and travels, is contemplation of an “exit strategy” for any circumstance, or choice I make.

            Must I really attend a NY Jets vs NY Giants game in NY on a 9/11 anniversary?

            Maybe, at my age, but I wouldn’t give tickets to my kids! :)

          • cam paul

            Indigenous people will do just fine, and you wanna know why? They don`t have elites! Imagine some elite -wanna -be in an indigenous tribe blocking off the river, or herding all the wild animals, or logging the whole are, and then declaring himself elite and now everyone would have to do multiple things to get access to these resources. This wanna- be -elite would last about 30 minutes. The bottom line is, allowing elites to control resources gives them short term gains while causing long term devastation.

          • RebelSoldier

            Excellent point.

          • Swami_Binkinanda

            This is a religious statement based on propaganda.

          • RebelSoldier

            I agree with you. But where communities are possible, and that probably isn’t in densely populated areas, communities are really the only hope for prepping against societal collapse. Otherwise, at best, you have little lights going out one after another over the years or decades following a world wide catastrophe. Planning by one man for his family is just easier. But real survival from a catastrophe where the state collapses will depend on communities that prepare. I see none of that except for a few Mormons. The truth is often not what we want hear.

          • OWilson

            We had the power go out a couple years ago in Toronto in the middle of a severe winter!

            Only for a few days, but we had 40 story apartment buildings with no electricity (no elevators) and after another day, no back up emergency lighting.

            No heat, no light, no electronics, and no way to get to all the stuck aged or disabled or sick people. The food ran out or went bad in a week. Nowhere to charge a cell phone. Nobody had an old fashioned battery radio for news.

            But then, after a week, they got the power back on, just in time, to save a catastrophe.

            The gummint praised their government hydro workers, then conveniently forgot about it!

            A couple years later, absolutely nothing changes.

            Move along citizen, nothing to see here!

          • RebelSoldier

            I agree with you wholeheartedly. I hope you live on ground level or near it. I live in megacity, the San Francisco Bay Area in its most concentrated part, San Francisco. I know about the dangers to our lifestyle. I feel them in my bones. And every day I think about it. Many, many people do.

          • OWilson

            I just got back from Hurricane Irma and Maria, so I know how you feel.

            As long as you are aware of the statistical risk of crossing the Oakland bridge, if anything were to happen, you would automatically blame Trump!

  • Jeffrey Clinton Rogers

    I am reluctant to imagine what a modern American would face if our electrical grid failed (for whatever reason), especially without the basic survival skills of ancient peoples…

    • OWilson

      Suddenly those rednecks and deplorables in flyover country who are demeaned by the elite media, but know how to catch catfish and skin a polecat, feed their family, and light a fire on a rainy day, would suddenly be the be the master race!

      • Erik Bosma

        Yep, and Trump would be their king.

      • Swami_Binkinanda

        That is an assertion based entirely on mythology and not fact.

        • OWilson

          Well. yer always gets yer choice of those darned neighbors!

          Maybe you prefer a family of Kardashians? :)

      • Mike Richardson

        I wouldn’t advise skinning a polecat — ya know what, never mind. :)

  • S Niehart

    We need to consider the total problem including putting so many families into poverty when shutting down oil etc… Offer a solution that doesn’t break Americans in the fly over states

  • flowerplough

    How vulnerable?

    Ask a Venezuelan, or someone from Baltimore, Maryland.

    And, “When the Norse, led by Erik the Red, arrived in Greenland from Iceland in 985, the Northern Hemisphere was unusually warm, and parts of Greenland were ripe for European settlement. Sea ice was limited and the growing season was sufficient for the Norse to transfer their livestock-centered lifestyle to the new land.” is all, I belive, Climate Change denier ThoughtCrime. Please be more careful, and politically correct, in the future, Jim.


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