Mesa Verde

Climate change has forced a number of states in the nation to face increasing water scarcity. From California to Colorado and everywhere in between, droughts combined with growing populations have communities worried about whether they will have enough water in the near future.

Countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia are also particularly vulnerable to a growing drought crisis. But this is not the first time that the lack of water has negatively affected society. Throughout our history, societies have built and then crumbled around water. These ancient societies fell when the water dried up.

1. Mesa Verde

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Mesa Verde was a bustling community of about 6,000 people at its height—its people are known for building multistory sandstone and mortar structures tucked into the cliff faces. The ancestors of the Pueblo people who lived there hunted large game and subsisted on beans and corn. But around 1277 AD, a 23-year drought began to devastate the community, and by 1300 AD, the Pueblo people abandoned Mesa Verde.

According to Scott Ortman, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado, about 30 percent of the population lives on land where you can’t grow food because of the drought. Signs of brutal conflict emerged, which can be seen at various archaeological sites — with decapitated bodies and skeletons decapitated by the war. “The drought caused some pretty serious social strife, and society basically blew up because of it,” he says.


More on current droughts

  • As it dries, Lake Mead reveals its secrets.

  • Lost cities and artifacts from World War II find their way to the surface during the European drought.


2. The Akkadian Empire

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The Akkadian Empire is considered one of the first great empires. Centered around the city of Akkad, the empire stretched across the Middle East and lasted from 2350 – 2150 BC. But according to a study published in Geology, the drought caused his death. “Archaeological evidence suggests that this highly developed civilization collapsed suddenly, possibly related to the transition to drier conditions,” the study authors said.

3. The Mayan Empire

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The Mayan Empire grew out of the tropical lowlands of Mexico and Central America. They built dramatic stone structures and were skilled in the arts, agriculture and language. But around 900 AD many of their great stone cities were abandoned. Researchers aren’t entirely sure what went wrong, but they think the drought may have played a role.

According to Takeshi Inomata, a professor of anthropology at the University of Arizona, society was already struggling as a result of social problems, wars, and administrative problems. However, the impending water shortage at the time probably made matters worse. “The drought may have come at the worst time because society is already vulnerable,” he says.

4. Late Bronze Age

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Before its collapse in 1200 BC, the eastern Mediterranean was home to a vibrant society centered around the use of bronze, which was stronger than other metals at the time. But according to a study published in PLoS One, researchers looking at radiocarbon dating in Syria and Cyprus found that the collapse of these complex civilizations in Europe and the Middle East likely resulted in part from climate change that caused water shortages. “This study shows that the Late Bronze Age crisis coincided with the beginning of a 300-year drought 3,200 years ago. This climate change caused crop failure, death and starvation,” the authors write.

5. The Tang Dynasty

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The Tang Dynasty, which lasted from 618 to 906 AD, is considered a golden age for arts and culture in ancient China and a period of growth throughout the region. Known for peace and prosperity, this dynasty also saw the expansion of overland trade with Syria and Rome via the Silk Road. But according to research by National Science Foundation, extreme drought may have partially led to the decline of these dynasties due to poor grain harvests caused by the lack of water. “The researchers found that periods of weak summer monsoons coincided with the final years of the Tang, Yuan and Ming dynasties, which are known to have been times of popular unrest.”

The collapse of society is often caused by several factors that combine with the wrong timing. These once vibrant societies are a good reminder that civilization is fragile and the impact of climate change has often been enough to topple what once seemed invincible.

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