The social landscape of depopulation: The northern San Juan, A.D. 1150--1300

Donna M. Glowacki
Dept. of Anthropology, Arizona State University
July, 2006


Population decline and relocation are often associated with periods of societal turmoil and reorganization, but they do not always lead to the complete depopulation of a region. What circumstances cause entire societies to leave an area, particularly when innumerable social and socio-natural interactions contributed to creating the conditions prompting large-scale widespread emigration? My research uses the example of the Northern San Juan region---also known as the Mesa Verde region---of the U.S. Southwest to better understand a specific social landscape known to have fostered a complete regional depopulation involving the emigration of thousands of ancestral Puebloan people in the late 13th century. I use five subregions---Totah, Mesa Verde Proper, McElmo-Monument, West Mesa Verde, and Lower San Juan---as analytical units to explore intraregional variation in demography, the distribution of community centers and public architecture, and patterns of intraregional pottery circulation. I compiled two regional databases for this analysis: a Northern San Juan Pueblo III Period habitation site database with more than 3,720 sites to examine site distributions and occupation histories; and a Pueblo III Period INAA database with over 1,000 samples to assess pottery production and circulation.
My results suggest there were three phases of development and change leading up to regional depopulation: the Post- Chacoan Transition (A.D. 1150--1200), Eastern Expansion (A.D. 1200--1240), and Mesa Verde Florescence (A.D. 1240--1300). It is in the context of the historical perspective obtained from conceptualizing the social landscape in this framework that we can understand how intraregional population movement contributed to creating an environment conducive to social change. Specifically, the influx of migrants from the western portion of the region into the eastern subregions coupled with on-going aggregation into community centers resulted in ritual transformation and the intensification of ceremonialism. Noticeable emigration from the eastern Northern San Juan began by A.D. 1260, which precedes the extreme drought conditions and intense violence in the 1270s and 1280s. Consequently, it appears that the stimulus underlying widespread emigration was, in part, associated with the disruption of eastern ceremonial practices and social networks.