American culture really benefited from “the worst year in human history”
As for the years, you could do a lot better than 536 CE. By the standards of some historians, it may have been “the worst year in human history.” Depending on where in the world a person lived, those cold, dark times continued to really suck for many years to come.
Now it looks like it might not have been the worst thing, at least for the Ancestral Puebloan communities that occupied the southwestern United States. In fact, the darkness of this brief global ice age could have heralded a bright new day for their culture.
A study by a team of archaeologists and anthropologists from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and Colorado State University in the United States found signs that the population spread across the region de Four Corners not only recovered from catastrophic climate change in the mid-6th century – in some ways, they came back stronger than ever.
To get a direct idea of why 536 CE was difficult to travel through much of the world, Byzantine historian Procopius noted the epoch in his account of the Persian wars:
“For the sun has been giving its dull light, like the moon, all this year, and it has looked extremely like the eclipsing sun, for the rays it shed were not clear or such as it was. the habit of projecting. “
Today it appears this protective fog from the sun originated in a series of volcanic eruptions across the Americas, which spat enough ash into the atmosphere to turn summer into winter across much of the northern hemisphere.
Barely five years later, a good part of the Roman population would fall under a plague unlike any other. Oh, and another colossal volcanic event, this time in El Salvador, produced even more ash to top it off.
Life in North America was not much better. Tree rings measurements from northern Arizona reveal declining temperatures and rainfall that lasted for decades.
Yet archaeological records show that despite these difficult times, the ancient Puebloans would continue to develop a rich and complex culture that would thrive for centuries.
To get a clearer perspective on how their founding agrarian communities coped with abrupt and sudden climate change, researchers amassed a database of hundreds of radiocarbon food materials and their dates, all collected from 230 sites. excavations across the region.
The ages, densities and locations of agricultural products reflected the history already familiar to archaeologists, that of a widespread population – divided into many small localized villages – practicing farming techniques suited to local conditions.
Until around AD 400, the land was a mosaic of foragers and farmers. Rather, some were the latter, growing more substantial crops that included corn and beans to supplement diets.
Significantly, in the 6th century, a sharp increase in population growth began to limit the amount of available farmland. Where dispersed family groups were once keen to pack their bags and relocate when opportunities presented themselves, by mid-century they sat tight and collaborated with their neighbors in more complex social groups.
By comparing the evidence for this cultural mixing in their database with the climate records represented by tree rings on the Colorado Plateau, the researchers argued that there is a strong link between climate change and cultural change.
“Archaeologists have long recognized that demographic and social changes transformed ancestral Pueblo societies in the late 6th and early 7th centuries CE, but we argue that these changes are best understood when juxtaposed with the consequences. extreme cold at the start of this interval. ” the team writes.
The hardships following the year 536 CE tested the mix of emerging communities in the southwest. Some were able to reorganize themselves and develop socio-political links which brought them to fruition. Others have failed to thrive. Ultimately, the Hell Years served as a process of selecting cultural practices that could bring people together and allow them to share their experiences through hard times.
For example, a former farming community that occupied Cedar Mesa and Grand Gulch was known to keep domesticated turkeys. By AD 550, this practice was common throughout the southwest region, indicating a sharing of knowledge and a willingness to diversify food sources.
In a few generations, the skies have cleared again and the good times have returned. Armed with new cooperative social practices, the ancient Pueblos would establish a rich and resilient civilization that would last for centuries.
Of course, it wasn’t just rainbows and turkey dinners. Sedentary lifestyles and complex political systems come with their own challenges and risks of inequality. But following many upheavals, the ancient Pueblos always seemed to find a way to come back in force, until finally disappearing in search of new lands in the 14th century.
Even today, traces of their agricultural practices remain in the cultures such as the Hopi.
In the face of our own struggling years, we might take into account the resilience that the ancient Puebloans found in coming together to share their knowledge. And hope that we too will come out stronger in the years to come.
This research was published in antiquity.