It was the worst time to be alive, according to some scientists. From 536 C.E. to 541 C.E., a series of volcanic eruptions in North and Central America sent tons of ash into the atmosphere, blocking sunlight, chilling the globe, and destroying crops worldwide. Societies everywhere struggled to survive. But for the Ancestral Pueblo people living in what today is the U.S. Southwest, this climate catastrophe planted the seeds for a more cohesive, technologically sophisticated society, a new study suggests.

Tim Kohler

“This story makes sense to me,” says Tim Kohler, an archaeologist at Washington State University, Pullman, who has studied climate impacts on the Pueblo people of different eras but was not involved in the new work. He says the disturbance and subsequent reorganization of the Ancestral Puebloans provide clues to what makes societies resilient in the face of dramatic climate change.

Climate data from tree rings from northern Arizona suggest the region suffered abnormally cold temperatures and drought between the years 534 and 569. So the Ancestral Puebloans, like people around the globe, endured the harsh weather conditions of the time. Yet within a few decades, they had bounced back and reorganized into a larger, more cohesive civilization, the team reported last week in Antiquity.

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