an NSF supported program

Village Ecodynamics Project


The late A.D. 1200s depopulation of the Mesa Verde region of the American Southwest is one of the great mysteries of American archaeology. Deserted Cliff DwellingsMany mechanisms have been proposed to account for this rapid out-migration of regional populations. Most suggest increasingly severe resource imbalances across a densely populated landscape. Some accepted research, however, shows that potential maize production was sufficient to support the estimated populations of the time. If these populations emigrated due to resource scarcity, then scarcity of other resources must have contributed to decisions to leave. On the other hand, there are hints of important changes in sociopolitical organization just prior to the depopulation.

This famous depopulation is one of the riddles that the Village Project addresses. The project was undertaken to examine the interaction of simulated agrarian households with their natural environment taking in to account the production and consumption of various natural resources essential for everyday life. By evaluating the possibility of crises in factors such as potable water, woody fuels, and protein, this research will help determine whether resource factors were in fact critical in these decisions, or whether social factors may have largely influenced the exodus.

See our Research Plan for other problems we are addressing.

VEP meeting on the Pajarito Plateau

Please note that this content is not current. It is being maintained for historical purposes.

group photo VEP On August 16th I touched down in New Mexico for a two-day meeting with Village Ecodynamics Project collaborators. These face-to-face experiences are essential for maintaining the collaborations that make this project possible. This time the meetings were not just in the boardroom—a full day was dedicated to visiting sites on the Pajarito Plateau north of Bandelier National Monument. As a graduate student new to this project, I found these visits were especially useful.

Mark Varien of Crow Canyon Archaeological Center (L) and Jeremy Kulischeck of the US Forest Service contemplate a collapsed cavateWe concentrated on seeing several Late Coalition, probably ancestral Tewa sites on Chupadero Mesa, Guaje Ridge, and Pinnikangwi, and trying to understand their farming systems. These sites were occupied in the late-AD 1200s through the early 1300s and exhibit similar layouts and architecture. Sherds of Santa Fe B/w and Wiyo B/w littered the ground alongside equal amounts of lithic debitage. Most of these sites had two or more kivas, and many cavates excavated into their underlying mesas—an architectural attribute nearly unique to this area. These cavates (from the combination of the words “cave” and “excavate”) were used as habitations, storage areas, and sometimes as ceremonial rooms. One was excavated 15 m into the mesa, and still displayed a charred ceiling, useful for sealing the crumbling tuff.


Picture of Kiva excavated into Tuff at PinnikangwiOn the second day of our conference we confronted the challenges facing the Village Ecodynamics Project as we expand our focus from Southwest Coloradointo the northern Rio Grande. Researchers at Crow Canyon discussed their experimental farming project, which helps inform the VEP’s paleoproductivity model. One of the biggest complications we face in expanding into the northern Rio Grande is to understand the diversity of farming systems in this area, and their productivity. Direct precipitation farming, also known as dry farming, strategies were discussed in detail, as were various forms of surface water management. Additionally, we discussed progress on modeling leadership and group formation in our agent-based simulation, as these are particularly important future directions of the model. The meetings concluded after two full days together. As I write this, we hope to soon get the reviews back from the University of California Press on our comprehensive report on VEP I, tentatively entitled Emergence and Collapse of Early Villages: Models of Central Mesa Verde Archaeology.

Group picture above, back row, from left: Kurt Anschuetz (Rio Grande Foundation for Communities and Cultural Landscapes), Stefani Crabtree (Washington State University Grad Student), Craig Allen (US Geological Survey), Paul Ermigiotti (Crow Canyon Archaeological Center), Sam Duwe (University of Arizona Graduate Student), Scott Ortman (Crow Canyon Archaeological Center), Mark Varien (Crow Canyon Archaeological Center), Mike Bremer (US Forest Service).  Front row, from left: Jaime Civitello (National Park Service), Will Dearholt (US Forest Service Volunteer), Jeremy Kulisheck (US Forest Service), Rory Gauthier (National Park Service), Tim Kohler (Washington State University).  Not Pictured: Bob Powers (University of New Mexico Grad Student).


VEP Researchers Publish New Book on Depopulation of the Northern Southwest

Please note that this content is not current. It is being maintained for historical purposes.

Leaving Mesa VerdeLeaving Mesa Verde: Peril and Change in The Thirteenth-Century Southwest has just been released by the University of Arizona Press. Edited by Tim Kohler, Mark Varien, and Aaron Wright, this volume is the result of an advanced seminar held at the Amerind Foundation in February 2008. Its 14 chapters (most involving VEP-affiliated researchers) include commentaries by Cathy Cameron, University of Colorado, and Jeff Dean, University of Arizona. This is the most comprehensive treatment available on the timing and causes for the famous depopulation of the northern Southwest in the AD 1200s. Please see the University of Arizona Press for more details.

Agent-based Modeling

Since the 1990s there has been a marked increase in interest in computational approaches—including simulation—by social science researchers. This appears to be driven both by a cross-disciplinary interest in the sciences of complexity and the ever-increasing computational capacity at our disposal.

In the past, due to the complexity of the phenomena involved, we have been forced to use simplistic world models. Today we are able to study a world in which most important phenomena emerge from the non-linear interaction of many agents (physical, biological, or social) in systems that are rarely at equilibrium.

This vision promotes a method—agent-based modeling—that provides a computational environment in which the behaviors of such systems can be studied.

Read more

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