prehistoric site


Rhiw Neolithic Tomb, Conwy, 13.8.17. This chambered tomb is positioned on a stony slope looking down the Conwy estuary. It is part of a series of tombs that marks out the valley route and that was utilised as a Roman road.


The Plain of Jars is an ancient megalithic archaeological site in Laos consisting of thousands of stone jars scattered through the valleys and foothills of the Xiankhoang Plateau. The Plain of Jars has been dated to the Iron Age, sometime between 500 BC and AD 500 and is considered to be one of the most important prehistoric sites in Southeast Asia.

Over 90 ‘jar sites’ have been discovered; each home to somewhere between 1 to 400 jars. Each of the jars vary in height and size, and are anywhere from 1 meter to 3 meters tall. They are hewn directly from rock, mostly sandstone, and are undecorated. While most of the jars have lipped rims, very few lids have ever been discovered.

The purpose of the jars can, of course, really only be theorized.

Lao legends describe a race of giants who, after winning a great battle, brewed huge amounts of rice wine to celebrate their victory, and built the jars to store it all. Another tells that the jars were simply molded from a mixture of clay, sand, and sugar to function as kilns for pottery. But perhaps the most practical of these explanations is that the jars were used to collect monsoon rainwater for caravan travellers. Even stagnant, the rain water in the jars could be boiled until potable, and archaeologists have observed this practice in many Eastern Eurasian countries already. Beads found inside the jars could have been a travellers offering, accompanied by a prayer for more rain.

More scientific study of the jars offers different insights. The initial study of the jars, conducted by Madeleine Colani in 1935, suggests that they were personal crematoriums. Inside many of the jars she studied, Colani found black organic soil, glass beads, and burnt teeth and bones. This conclusion was widely accepted namely because there wasn’t any further study of the site until 1994—almost 60 years later. While the 1994 study would ultimately corroborate Colani’s findings, it’s worth mentioning the nature of the delay: Laos has the unfortunate distinction of being the world’s most bombed country, and of the hundreds of thousands of bombs dropped and planted during the Vietnam War and the Laotian Civil War, 30% did not detonate, leaving 10 of the 18 provinces in Laos “severely contaminated” by both bomb-related refuse and debris, and unexploded ordinance. Of the 90 jar sites, only 7 are open to the public as a result, and further research into the stones still proves incredibly difficult to this day.


Monte d'Accoddi, Sardinia

Monte d'Accoddi is a Neolithic site in northern Sardinia, located in the territory of Sassari near Porto Torres. The site consists of a massive raised stone platform thought to have been an altar. It was constructed by the Ozieri culture or earlier, with the oldest parts dated to around 4,000 to 3,650 BC. No chambers or entrances to the mound have been found, leading to the presumption it was an altar, a temple or a step pyramid. It may have also served an observational function, as its square plan is coordinated with the cardinal points of the compass.

The initial Ozieri structure was abandoned or destroyed around 3000 BC, with traces of fire found in the archeological evidence. Around 2800 BC the remains of the original structure were completely covered with a layered mixture of earth and stone, and large blocks of limestone were then applied to establish a second platform, truncated by a step pyramid, accessible by means of a second ramp built over the older one. This second temple resembles contemporary Mesopotamian ziggurats, and is attributed to the Abealzu-Filigosa culture. Archeological excavations from the chalcolithic Abealzu-Filigosa layers indicate the Monte d'Accoddi was used for animal sacrifice, with the remains of sheep, cattle, and swine recovered in near equal proportions. It is among the earliest known sacrificial sites in Western Europe, providing insight into the development of ritual in prehistoric society. The site appears to have been abandoned again around 1800 BC, at the onset of the Nuragic age.


Presaddfed Burial Chamber, Anglesey, North Wales, 19.2.17. This Neolithic site is one I haven’t visited for a long time, partially because the land on which it is seated seems to be eternally wet and boggy; today was no exception. Originally the burial chamber would have been covered in stones or earth. I suggest mainly stones looking at the volume of them scattered at the side of the local fields in disarray. The orthostats are very solid looking and it possesses a sizeable capstone. The rain made the site particularly moody.


Zorats Karer is a prehistoric archaeological site in Armenia. It contains a total of 223 stones, including burial cists, standing stones, menhirs, and stone circles. Primarily erected from basalt, they range in height and weight, some as tall as 3 meters and weighing up to 10 tons. Given their age, almost all are covered in moss and lichens, and have been severely eroded.

Sometimes referred to as the “Armenian Stonehenge,” it literally translates from modern Armenian in English as “Army Stones,” but even this translation lacks eloquence, if not also accuracy. Zorats Karer goes by many alternative names, one of which being Carahunge, derived from a nearby ancient village called Carunge. Carahunge is a name derived of 2 Armenian words: Kar, meaning ‘stone,’ and hunge (or hoonch) meaning ‘sound.’ Thus Zorats Karer could be more accurately called “Speaking Stones.” This translation in part comes from the fact that on windy days, whistling sounds are heard coming from the stones, as 80 of the stones have holes bored through them at various angles.

Russian and Armenian archaeoastronomers have suggested the stones were used for astronomical observations, namely because of how the holes align with certain phenomenon. For example: 17 of the stones have been associated with the sunrises and sunsets at various solstices and equinoxes, and 14 with lunar phases. But these findings are conjectural at best, as there can be no certainty that the wholes are even prehistoric in origin, and part of the original construction.


Prehistoric Cairn field, Burn Moor, near Boot, Cumbria and Lake District, 26.7.17. There are 403 clearance cairns on Burn Moor, created through the Bronze Age. Of this number, ten are thought to be funerary cairns.


The Callanish Stones are a collection of stones arranged in the form of a cross. They are located near the village and Callanish, Scotland, erected in the late Neolithic era. One local legend claims the stones were petrified giants who would not convert to Christianity. Another claims the stones as the end of a hiking path for an entity known as “the Shining One,” who walks amongst the stones in early midsummer mornings and is heralded by the call of a cuckoo.

Carved from lewisian gneiss, the Callanish Stones consist of a large stone circle, a series of standing stones, and a large chambered tomb-like structure beneath the ground.

Thought to be the focus for Bronze Age ritualistic activity, numerous nearby monuments and stone circles suggest the area itself was a site of prehistoric religious activity for at least 1500 years. Although interestingly, sometime around 1500 – 1000 BC the complex fell into disrepair as Bronze Age farmers used up the land. It was abandoned probably sometime around 800 BC and by 500 BC the smaller stones and the circle were covered by turf over 1 meter thick.

As with most things this old, the way these stones were used remains a mystery. Not surprisingly there is some thought that it was a lunar observatory, but critics quite reasonably argue that alignments between stars and standing stones are bound to exist by pure chance as much as they deliberate design. Moreover, extreme weathering and shifts in the earth over millennia mean there is no way to be certain that these alignments are even still accurate.


Tre’r Ceiri Iron Age Hill fort, Llyn Peninsula, North Wales, 29.4.17. This has to be one of the most impressive prehistoric sites of the UK given its scale and location. The Iron Age hill fort sits atop a peak and features more than 150 hut foundations and two perimeter walls, in places just under 3 metres in height. The peak of the fort also features a Bronze Age cairn. The entrances to the fort are still visible are as the different shapes of the huts, shelters and roundhouses that emerged over generations. The earlier huts are to a circular, wheel shape with room compartments under one roof whilst later structures are smaller and more oblong with one or two room spaces. At its height, it was thought to be the home for over 400 people. Excavations have found large traces of Roman pottery and it is thought that the Celtic tribes that occupied the site may have traded with the Romans and used the fort as a refuge from Irish invaders. 


The Dingonek is a scaly, scorpion-tailed, saber-toothed cryptid found in the African Congolese jungles. At the Brakfontein ridge, Western Cape in South Africa is a cave painting of an unknown creature that fits the description of the Dingonek, right down to its walrus-like tusks

It is said to be exceedingly territorial and has been known to kill any hippos, crocodiles and even humans, who have had the misfortune of wandering too close to their aquatic nests.

Said to dwell in the rivers and lakes of western Africa, the Dingonek has been described as:

  • Being grey or red.
  • 3 to 6 metres in length.
  • Square-like head.
  • Sometimes a long horn.
  • Saber-like canines.
  • Tail complete with a bony, dart-like appendage, which is reputed to be able to secrete a deadly poison.
  • Covered in scaly, mottled epidermis.

The description by John Alfred Jordan, an explorer who said that he actually shot at this unidentified monster in the River Maggori in Kenya in 1907, claimed this scale-covered creature was as big as 18 feet long and had reptilian claws, a spotted back, long tail, and a big head out of which grew large, curved, walrus-like tusks. A shot with a .303 only angered it.


Bronze Age items and reconstructed living spaces, The Museum of East Riding, June 2017


‘Roos Carr’ Figures and Boat, The Museum of East Riding, June 2017. These wooden figures and boat were found in the marshy land near Holderness in 1836. They are carved in yew with quartz pebbles for eyes. Each male figure is anatomically correct. The boat they once stood in has an animal or dragon head. They are carbon dated to between 2606 and 2509 years old; just prior to the flourishing of the Celtic world.

Black Dog (Paranormal)

The Black Dog is said to be a nocturnal apparition, sometimes associated with the Devil or Hellhound. Black dogs are almost universally regarded as malevolent, however, there are some that are regarded to be benevolent.

History & Haunting Grounds

Stories of phantom black dogs abound in Britain, and almost every county has its own variant, from the Black Shuck of East Anglia to the Padfoot and Bogey Beast of Yorkshire. Phantom black dogs have been witnessed too frequently in modern times to parcel the phenomena as pure folklore and legend, but then folklore and legend often has origins in real events. There are various theories to explain the phenomena and they have many common traits from sighting to sighting.

Black dogs often seem to haunt ancient lanes, trackways, crossroads, old churchyards and prehistoric sites. Many of these places were associated with local superstitions and the uncanny, they are liminal places, where the veil between worlds was thought to be thin. The haunts of the black dogs are also features said to denote ley lines, it has been suggested that they represent some form of energy or natural phenomena moulded by the mind into an archetype of the black dog. A great deal of work has been done by earth mystery researchers to suggest that certain geophysical conditions may affect the human mind. These places were recognised by ancient man, and that is why black dogs (as some form of archetype) appear at places of ancient sanctity. This same theory has been applied to other unexplained phenomena.

Gallows sites (often crossroads) were also common black dog haunts, the black dog was often seen as the spirit of the executed criminal, such as the dog said to haunt a gallows site in Tring, Hertfordshire: An old woman was drowned for witchcraft at Tring in the year 1751. A chimney sweep was held responsible in part for the killing, and was hanged and gibbeted near to the place of the crime. A black dog came to haunt the place where the gibbet stood, and was seen by the village schoolmaster. He described it as being shaggy, as big as a Newfoundland, with long ears and a tail, eyes of flaming fire and long teeth.

The Black Dog of Bungay (England)

  • This event occurred in St Mary’s Church in 1577.
  • It was said that the apparition of the devil was in disguise of a black dog, and visited Bungay.
  • During a storm on Sunday, August 4th, a terrifying thunderstorm occurred with such - ‘darkness, rain, hail, thunder and lightning as was never seen the like’.
  • As the people knelt in fear, praying for mercy, suddenly there appeared in their midst a great black Hell Hound.
  •  It began tearing around the Church, attacking many of the congregation with its cruel teeth and claws.
  • 'All down the church in midst of fire, the hellish monster flew
    And, passing onward to the quire, he many people slew’

  • Then as suddenly as it had appeared, it ran off, departing for Blythburgh Church about twelve miles away where it killed and mauled more people.
  • The door in Blythburgh Church still retains the scorch marks of the Devil’s claws.

Prehistoric Massacre Site Hints at War Among Hunter-Gatherers

The remains of 27 individuals have been recovered along the shore of Lake Turkana in Kenya. The remains are roughly 10,000 years old, and may be one of the first discovered instances of organized warfare and mass-slaughter in hunter-gathering society.

The remains showed unmistakable signs of violent deaths. Many of the skeletons had large blows to the back of the head and other parts of the body. Others had deep cuts to the forehead jaws and hands possibly caused by stone blades. The bones were scattered in no particular order and the positions of the bodies suggested that there was no effort at a burial. One individual was even positioned in a manner which suggests that their hands and feet might have been tied up. 

The origins of war is a topic that is highly debated among archaeologists. It is the consensus that warfare was a concept that came after the Neolithic period and the rise of agriculture and permanent settlement. The site at Lake Turkana has revealed no evidence for  fortifications, settlements in a defensible location, artistic depictions of war, or specialized weapons - all of which are classic signs of ancient warfare. The competition for territory, however, is a typical condition that leads to warfare. It is believed that the population of the area at the time was expanding, causing new conflict as newer groups arrived and sought territory. The stone remnants found among the remains were obsidian, a material that’s rare in the area, suggest that the attackers may have came from somewhere else.

If the massacre site was indeed the result of war, it could shatter the belief that warfare was a concept that emerged after the Neolithic period.
The greatest vanishing act in prehistoric America

Vultures carve lazy circles in the sky as a stream of tourists marches down a walkway into Colorado’s Spruce Canyon. Watching their steps, the visitors file along a series of switchbacks leading to one of the more improbable villages in North America — a warren of living quarters, storage rooms, defensive towers and ceremonial spaces all tucked into a large cleft in the face of a cliff.

When ancient farmers built these structures around the year 1200, they had nothing like the modern machinery that constructed the tourist walkway. Instead, the residents had to haul thousands of tonnes of sandstone blocks, cut timber and other materials down precarious paths to build the settlement, known as Spruce Tree House, in Mesa Verde National Park.

“Why would people live here? That’s an important question. It’s not an easy place to reach,” says Donna Glowacki, an archaeologist now at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, as she walks among the ruins. Even more perplexing is what happened after they settled there. The villagers occupied their cliffside houses for just a short time before everyone suddenly picked up and left. So did all the other farmers living in the Four Corners region of the American Southwest, where the modern states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Arizona meet (see ‘Turbulent times’).

All together, nearly 30,000 people disappeared from this area between the mid-1200s and 1285, making it one of the greatest vanishing acts documented in human history. What had been one of the most populous parts of North America became almost instantly a ghost land.

Archaeologists have long puzzled over what drove these farmers, the ancestors of the Pueblo people, from their homes and fields. “That is one of the iconic problems of southwestern — and world — prehistory,” says archaeologist Mark Varien, who is executive vice-president of the Crow Canyon Research Institute in Cortez, Colorado. Early scholars blamed nomads, the ancestors of the Apache and Navajo, for violently displacing the farmers. Over the past couple of decades, the main explanation has shifted to climate — a profound drought and cold snap that hit in the 1270s.

But a series of studies by Glowacki, Varian and other researchers reveals a much more complex answer. The scientists have used detailed archaeological analysis, fine-grained climatic reconstructions and computer models to simulate how ancestral Pueblo families would have responded to their environment. The interdisciplinary strategy has enabled the researchers to examine prehistoric societal changes at a level unattainable in most other regions. “We have enormous detail on this archaeologically. Unparalleled detail,” says Steve Lekson, an archaeologist at the University of Colorado Boulder.

The emerging picture is one of a society rocked by troubles until it eventually toppled. More than a century before the Mesa Verde villages emptied out, political disruptions and a monster drought destabilized the entire ancestral Pueblo world. Thousands of people moved into the Mesa Verde region from nearby areas, straining the agricultural capacity of the landscape and eroding established cultural traditions. This led to violent conflicts that further undermined the society, spurring some people to leave. When another drought hit in the late 1200s, the remaining population departed en masse.

Political instability, cultural conflict, violence, overcrowding and drought. Many of the challenges encountered by the ancestral Pueblo seem all too familiar in 2015, as hundreds of thousands ofmigrants flee from the Middle East and Africa towards Europe. When Glowacki looks at the events of more than seven centuries ago at Spruce Tree House, she sees many similarities. “There was a splintering that went on and an implosion of this political system. It was a rejection, them saying, 'We can’t live that way anymore. There has to be a better way’.”

Cliff Palace, a Pueblo dwelling in Mesa Verde National Park, was a thriving village in the 1200s.

Stone work

It was chance that first carried Glowacki into the world of the ancestral Pueblo. Before starting graduate school, she ended up in a summer job as a ranger at Mesa Verde National Park, where she fell for the landscape and its archaeology. She has spent the past 23 years, on and off, researching the region’s ancient populations.

At Spruce Tree House, Glowacki pulls out a map showing the latest results of an architectural analysis that she is helping the park to carry out. The work is laborious — researchers sometimes sit in front of a wall of sandstone blocks for days, studying the mortar and rocks to work out how the structure was first built and then altered over time.

Gradually, a history of the village has taken shape, showing that people assembled the first set of rooms in the alcove around the year 1200, and added more right up until the last residents abandoned the site around 85 years later. The researchers can narrow construction dates to within a year or two by analysing tree-ring patterns in the wooden support beams in the ceilings and then matching them to an established tree-ring chronology for the region.

Despite the tedious nature of the work, Glowacki says that it never loses its appeal. “There are rooms that are fully intact, and you can stand in them — and they were built in the 1240s. In this country, being able to stand in something that was built at that time is really pretty magical.”

The cliff dwellings were a last resort for the park’s prehistoric Pueblo residents. When farmers first arrived in the region around AD 600, they settled on the fertile highlands above the canyons, which gave them easier access to their fields. But by 1200, something began to force them over the edge into the giant alcoves that naturally form in the sandstone cliffs.

Insights into that shift are emerging thanks to a major interdisciplinary effort called the Village Ecodynamics Project (VEP), which launched in 2002. Funded by the US National Science Foundation, the nearly US$2.5-million initiative is assessing how social and environmental factors influenced the populations of prehistoric Pueblo farmers from about 600 to 1300, says Tim Kohler, the VEP’s principal investigator and an archaeologist at Washington State University in Pullman.

In one strand of research, the team drew on the rich history of archaeology in the region to compile a database of 18,000 prehistoric sites, which allowed them to measure the population and how it shifted over time1. With such a massive database, the researchers could look at population changes in narrow time bands averaging about 40 years (see 'All gone’).

“There are not many places in the world where archaeologists can look at changes in such discrete slices of time,” says Varien, who is a co-principal investigator of the VEP. The analysis1 suggested that people started leaving the Mesa Verde region at least 15 years before the drought hit. “It looks as though the final depopulation began with a trickle and ended with a flood,” says Scott Ortman, an archaeologist at the University of Colorado Boulder who developed the model for the project’s population analysis.

Another part of the VEP looked at how the farmers fed themselves. The researchers used temperature and precipitation estimates from tree-ring data to create a model of where the communities could have grown maize (corn) each year, which was their main source of food. The calculations of this 'maize niche’ did a good job of explaining how many people settled in different regions, says Kohler.

The team’s latest data show that when growing conditions improved, the population density spiked, more than doubling in some regions. But one place defied that pattern: Mesa Verde National Park. When farming became easier, people actually moved out of that area. And, paradoxically, when times grew tough, more people moved in.

Kohler and his colleagues suggest that these movement patterns have to do with topography. The park stands higher than the surrounding landscape, so it gets more precipitation. And because the highlands tilt to the south, cold air drains off, leaving Mesa Verde warmer than the surrounding lowlands. So when the region faced drought or a cold spell, farmers congregated in the more-reliable Mesa Verde area — something researchers had not appreciated before now, says Kohler. “People have been working in this area for 100 years, and I don’t think they ever realized it,” he says of such a climate pattern.

Virtual reality

The VEP researchers have also conjured up a virtual version of the past. The team constructed a computer model of the landscape and then seeded it with households that could grow maize, hunt, collect water and wood and move to new sites if they failed to secure enough resources. By comparing the simulations to the archaeological record, the researchers can examine factors that might have driven ancient populations to migrate. “It’s really a new way of doing archaeology,” says Varien.

Kohler says that he sometimes switches on the graphics during a simulation to watch the behaviour of the dots that represent households. Scattered randomly at first, they scurry around until their inhabitants can harvest enough resources. Then, they form into settlements, which grow rapidly to a point when they can no longer sustain themselves — and so the households move again. But there is a limit to how much Kohler can watch. “Even on modern, fast processors, when the agents get into the thousands, it slows down and it’s no longer fun,” he says.

By comparing the simulations to the actual population data, the researchers discovered2 some interesting discrepancies during the 1100s and 1200s. In the model, the farmers spread out farther across the landscape than they actually did in reality. So something seems to have caused the real ancestral Pueblo to huddle together more tightly than expected.

Kohler and his colleagues wondered whether fear might have been a factor. To find out, they surveyed the archaeological literature and tracked levels of violence in the area through time by tallying how many skeletons had broken arm bones, fractured skulls or other signs consistent with acts of aggression. Some had apparently died in massacres, and there was even evidence of cannibalism at certain sites.

Between 600 and 1000, the Mesa Verde region was relatively peaceful, but rates of violence rose in the mid-1000s and spiked again in the late 1200s, right before the ancient Pueblo left, the researchers reported last year3. “What we found was that people were more clumped up than the model predicted precisely in times when there was a lot of violence on the landscape,” says Kohler.

There has been some scepticism among archaeologists about the use of agent-based modelling, but Kohler says that it has been useful in this case: the inconsistency between the simulations and the real data prompted the researchers to look at violence in a new way. “That disjunction identifies for us interesting questions,” he says.

In Spruce Tree House, a ladder leads down into a sunken ceremonial space known as a kiva.

Most researchers think that the majority of violent acts occurred within ancestral Pueblo communities: one village attacking another over food resources or neighbours turning on each other. More than half the skeletons from some periods bore signs of trauma. “They are one of the most violent societies we’ve ever studied,” says Kohler.

But not all of their troubles came from within. Some unusual-looking projectile points have turned up at massacre sites that date to just before the Pueblo people left the Mesa Verde region, so invading nomads might have had a role in forcing the farmers from their homes.

In the next stage of the VEP project, researchers plan to look at how food shortages might have contributed to violence. The new version of the agent-based model is more sophisticated than the last, allowing households to form social groups that compete with each other for access to agricultural lands. Leaders can emerge, fighting can erupt between groups and people can migrate away from Mesa Verde to an area farther south in New Mexico, where many ancestral Pueblo are thought to have resettled.

This all amounts to a huge step up in processing, so the team will graduate to a supercomputer for future simulations, which are planned for later this year or early next year. Nothing of this scale has been done before in the field, says Kohler. “Archaeologists do not have the reputation of being users of high-performance computing environments,” he says. “But I don’t think we’ll be the end of the road for this kind of work.”

Among the ruins at Spruce Tree House, Glowacki takes a different approach. As a collaborator on the VEP project, she does not discount the importance of drought and short growing seasons. But she focuses on some of the other factors that also stressed the ancestral Pueblo society.

The signs are in the houses that fill the Spruce Canyon alcove. The architectural-documentation project has taught Glowacki that the residents there updated their homes just as much as people in New York or London today. “Even when they were living there, they were making changes and adding walls and doors and doing all of this remodelling.”

Culture clash

Some of these alterations point to dramatic events. In the mid-1200s, structures associated with one of the founding families were burned: fire damage can be seen in one room and in a kiva, a circular depression that served as the family’s ceremonial space. The fire does not seem to be accidental, Glowacki says. Rather, it could have been part of a ritual changeover in ownership or it might reflect someone forcing out one of the original clans. “At the very least, that suggests there were some significant changes in the clans or families that were using the structures — or in part of the leadership there.”

Other rooms in the alcove were also burned, including a tower that may have served as a defensive structure. Taken together, the architectural evidence provides a detailed view of friction in the village, she says. “There was some sort of conflict and people left, presumably, and new people came in and remade these spaces.”

Around the Pueblo region, there are many signs of cultural change leading up to and during the 1200s. Glowacki, along with some other archaeologists, thinks that such adjustments had to do with shifting political allegiances in that part of the world.

During the mid-1000s and early 1100s, the centre of power among the Pueblo people was located about 150 kilometres south of the Mesa Verde area, in New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon. In the 1100s, an extension of the Chaco political order rose up at a site now called Aztec Ruins National Monument, midway to Mesa Verde. The Chaco–Aztec culture was socially stratified, with massive residences in which the elites lived. Smaller versions of the elite 'great houses’ have been found in villages to the north, which reveals the broad influence of the Chaco–Aztec political order.

Then, an awful drought between 1130 and 1150 apparently weakened that order, and new types of practice emerged. In the Mesa Verde region, some communities built more-inclusive spaces, such as open plazas, and they removed the roofs from some large kivas, allowing broader participation in rituals4.

The changes in public and ceremonial spaces demonstrate the waning influence of the Chaco–Aztec polity, which had previously unified the Pueblo world. “What is happening is you have this dissolution and splintering,” Glowacki says. That may have contributed to the increased violence and served to drive farmers from their highland villages towards the more-secure alcoves along the cliff faces.

These political upheavals may also partially explain why people started to abandon the Mesa Verde area decades before the drought of the mid-1270s hit. The combination of political instability, social upheaval and then a rotten climate was too much to take, she says. “It got really bad and really nasty, and they wanted to get away from it.”

Kohler sees parallels with the collapse of the classic Mayan civilization in the ninth century, as well as with events in the Middle East today. In the case of the Mesa Verde exodus, researchers can look in detail not only at why and when people left, but also at what happened afterwards. “We need to understand migration streams better,” he says. “We have the advantage of the long view.”

Finding peace

Whatever forced the Pueblo to uproot themselves, tens of thousands of people left the Four Corners region in search of something better. And many apparently found what they were looking for. When the exodus began, the ancestral Pueblo migrated in several different directions: some to the southwest into Arizona and some to southern New Mexico. Archaeologists have long suspected that many settled along the Rio Grande river in northern New Mexico, a couple of hundred kilometres southeast of the Mesa Verde region. That hypothesis is supported by population data, which show that the Rio Grande region became more crowded; VEP studies5 have indicated that between 1250 and 1300, the population in this area swelled from 8,000 to 18,000 people. By the early decades of the 1300s, it was close to 25,000, Ortman says.

When they settled in their new home, the Mesa Verde people made a clear break from their former lives. Analysis by Kohler, Ortman and their colleagues3 shows that rates of violence were much lower than before. And the Pueblo made social changes as well. “The migrants do not appear to be trying to continue with the society and traditions of the Four Corners. They were trying to leave them behind,” says Ortman. The Pueblo villages that grew up after 1300 reflect a much more communal type of society, in which multiple families shared kivas and residents gathered in open ceremonial spaces.

There was also a political change, says Lekson, who has studied the elite residences at Chaco Canyon and Aztec Ruins. “They shucked off all the nobles and the kings, and they never had them again. They figured out how to run villages without that apparatus.”

Even today, southwestern Pueblo villages continue to embrace an egalitarian society. Ortman finds inspiration in the evolution of Pueblo culture after the collapse. “Pueblo people had to create those values and institutions that reflect them as a result of their past struggles,” he says.

And that system has been remarkably successful. Pueblo villages have retained their culture and languages to a much stronger degree than most other Native American communities, he says. “Some of the Pueblos that emerged after the Mesa Verde migration have been able to withstand 500 years of European colonization,” says Ortman. “One could say that those communities have weathered European colonization better than almost any other society in the world — certainly within the United States.”

At Spruce Tree House, Glowacki has seen how strong those traditions still are. Just a few weeks earlier, she took part in a workshop that included some teachers who are Pueblo and who demonstrated how they grind maize. Even that mundane chore took on spiritual dimensions as the teachers made offerings to their ancestors who once inhabited the cliff dwelling. To the modern Pueblo, the centuries-old structures are not abandoned ruins but still echo with the spirits of those who came before.

“It was a really beautiful moment,” says Glowacki. “What I think makes Pueblo culture really interesting and perhaps unique is the long arc of Pueblo history. There’s a lot we can learn about how a society faces really difficult times, adversities — and fundamentally reorganizes and transforms their culture.”