Column / The Dirt

Cold Enough for Ya?

Archaeology gives us the ability to see the impacts that natural events like the little ice age can have on human culture.

Every winter, on either the first or second cold snap, I hear the question “Cold enough for ya?” as I get on the bus, exit the Metro, or eavesdrop on colleagues’ conversations. We hear these words often and smile or join in the complaint. Weather is inherently used to initiate a conversation, resuscitate a stalled one, or to serve as a point of shared misery. But in archaeology, weather can be an intense topic.

Imagine an August night in New Mexico so cold that frost expands the water in the trees’ cells, causing the cells to burst! Imagine a year or two without a real summer, and the winters colder than before. Imagine waiting on a springtime thaw that barely arrives. We might never experience this sort of weather variability, but nearly 400 years ago people across the world struggled to survive the impact of what has been termed the little ice age.

Lucas van Valckenborch painted a cold winter landscape set near Antwerp, Belgium, in 1575. Europe was then in the midst of the Little Ice Age.

Lucas van Valckenborch painted a cold winter landscape set near Antwerp, Belgium, in 1575, when Europe was in the midst of the little ice age. Städel/Wikimedia Commons

The little ice age was a period of climatic disruption caused by a cooler than normal climate between A.D. 1300 and A.D. 1850. In Europe, droughts, floods, and harvest failures resulting from climate problems led to social disruptions such as forced migrations, wars, and revolutions. Geoffrey Parker, author of Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century, recently wrote in The New York Times that the unusual cold from the 1620s until the 1690s included ice so thick on both the Bosporus strait and the Baltic Sea that people could walk from one side to the other. He further noted that, “In the 17th century, the fatal synergy of weather, wars, and rebellions killed millions. A natural catastrophe of analogous proportions today—whether or not humans are to blame—could kill billions. It would also produce dislocation and violence, and compromise international security, sustainability and cooperation.”

The little ice age may have shaped history just as dramatically across the Atlantic. Archaeologists have recently begun to reconsider the role of one of the most significant events in the American Southwest: the Pueblo Revolt of 1680.

In 1540, conquistadors pushed the Spanish empire northward when they entered the middle Rio Grande Valley and found 12 closely spaced pueblos stretching from what is now Albuquerque to present-day Bernalillo, New Mexico. When Captain General Francisco Vázquez de Coronado’s large expeditionary force entered the area and forcibly took the food and fuel the locals had accumulated, the area was put into a demographic spiral from which it never fully recovered. The demands for food for the additional inhabitants placed a strain on the area’s ability to produce enough crops. Even though 1500–1550 was favorable for crop production, some archaeologists believe that 1575–1600 was part of what has been referred to as the “megadrought” of the last thousand years. The 1600s began moderately cool and wet, but by 1635 a long interval of extreme wet and cold set in.

Various data sets (represented by colored lines) all point to a dramatic drop in global temperature between A.D. 1300 and A.D. 1850.

Various data sets (represented by colored lines) all point to a dramatic drop in global temperature between A.D. 1300 and A.D. 1850. Wikimedia Commons

The middle Rio Grande basin experienced a severe and persistent cold drought between 1664 and 1678. It was during this time that Governor Juan Francisco Treviño hanged three Pueblo men for practicing religious rituals that Spanish colonists believed were witchcraft and sorcery. While there was likely reason enough for revolt prior to 1680, the climatological record indicates a particularly destructive freeze took place that summer that damaged the corn crop at a time when it was too late to replant at lower elevations. Perhaps this climatic event was the last straw that led the Pueblos to unite together and violently revolt against the Spanish, expelling the European colonists from New Mexico.

More recently, the American experience of the Dust Bowl still is fresh in the minds of many people whose lives and livelihoods were forever changed by the combination of drought, wind, and unsustainable farming practices. During an archaeological survey in one of the western Oklahoma counties hit hard during this time period, I happened to reach the top of a fence post in a shovel test 18 inches below the current ground surface, indicating at least 5 feet of dirt and sand blown into that area.

Archaeology gives us the ability to see the impacts that natural events can have on human cultures. By piecing together historical records with climatic indicators in archaeological and non-archaeological contexts, we can offer insights into human adaptation. So the next time you are inconvenienced by a week or so of snow, colder than normal weather, or a period of drought (or rain), think about some of the indirect effects such events can have on human populations. As Brian Fagan notes in The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History 1300–1850, “The little ice age is a chronicle of human vulnerability in the face of sudden climate change. In our own ways … we are no less vulnerable today. There is no doubt that we will adapt again, or that the price, as always, will be high.”