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Drought, Famine, Overpopulation, and a Lack of Water: What the Puebloans and the Colorado River Can Teach Us

Drought, Famine, Overpopulation, and a Lack of Water: What the Puebloans and the Colorado River Can Teach Us


Examining Puebloan peoples’ responses to environmental change and growing agriculture can inform modern conservation efforts, but it still may not be enough.

Watering the desert

The Colorado River has brought life to an arid land for millennia. It’s not the largest river in the United States but its continuous and persistent flow has irrigated the desert, carved canyons, and provided life to countless millions of humans across the ages.

Native Americans used its life-giving properties to survive for thousands of years, construct vast cities, and grow crops in the Southwest desert long before the arrival of any Europeans. Numerous Native American nations have called the river home and used the geographical features the river has created as markers on the land, showing them sacred spaces, guiding migrations, and observing seasonal transitions. For many of them, the land and their people are inseparable. The story of the Colorado and its surrounding tributaries, vast landscapes, and otherworldly canyons is directly tied to their history, memories, and identity.

We must be careful not to fall into the racist trope of the pristine wilderness and “noble savage” that has plagued European thought well before Jean-Jacques Rousseau ever coined the term. Native Americans used resources to their advantage, building empires and vast networks spanning the continent. The Pueblo were one of the most successful groups to do so.

For countless generations the Colorado River has been used as a mercurial yet constant source of water for the mobile groups of hunter-gatherers that lived here. There is some truth to the fact that the original inhabitants of this continent do have a deeper connection to the land and the water that runs through it. Unfortunately, when white settlement reached this region they did not respect it as it deserved. Failing to understand the long history of ebbs and flows, times of abundance and times of scarcity, and the sustainable ways to survive off water in the desert has led to some of the modern issues surrounding the use of the Colorado’s water today.

The story of the overuse of the Colorado River has its origins in farming. Around 9,000 years ago a small wild plant called teosinte, commonly found in Mexico and Central America, was ingeniously domesticated. Mexico is one of the few places on Earth that archaeologists and botanists have determined agriculture independently arose. Mesoamericans relied on this plant to supplement the gathered crops and hunted animals for food. Over time and with direct human involvement, teosinte transformed into maize, or corn.

Glen Canyon Dam, Arizona, USA. The Colorado river behind the dam, surrounding by red rocks, desert, and mountain. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

The power of agriculture did not reveal itself immediately. Most hunter-gatherers did not make an immediate or dramatic transition to farming. From China to Mesopotamia to Mesoamerica, people likely used crops to supplement other wild food sources, becoming increasingly reliant on growing their own food as opposed to gathering it. This transition reduced the mobility of early farming groups. They could no longer pack up and leave land easily after investing time, energy, and hope into farming.

Settled life led to an increased population. Hunter gatherers have lower fertility rates than agriculturalists, possibly because multiple young children can be cared for at once in a farming community whereas carrying multiple small children across vast terrain is much more difficult.

Crop surpluses from farmed plants necessitated storage, ownership, and distribution of food to ensure the community’s survival through the seasons. It eventually meant that not every member of society had to hunt or gather. This allowed the formation of power hierarchies and classes not seen in mobile societies, which are inherently more egalitarian. We see the rise of monumental architecture, permanent cities, and population increases in regions where farming developed.

Maize in the Four Corners

Maize, or corn, agriculture spread slowly from southern Mexico up through the Southwest into the Four Corners region of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado. The Pueblo people living in the northeast corner of this area, including southern Colorado, became expert desert farmers. “Histories of Maize” by John Staller, Robert Tykot, and Bruce Benz compiles evidence of this transition via pottery, architecture, and oral traditions. Puebloans constructed “great houses”, likely to store excess food and seeds in case of crop failures. The unknowable nature of rainfall may have propagated the rise of new classes of priests and belief systems. By 900 A.D. the Pueblo peoples had built incredible cities, established vast trade routes, and brought agriculture to the desert.

Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Culture National Historical Park, New Mexico. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

“Pueblo” means home in Spanish. Today many people have an idea of what a pueblo looks like, but in fact the wattle and daub adobe buildings that the word conjures up would not appear until much later on. The first structures to be identified were called pit houses — half underground, half above ground. These homes used the natural cooling properties of being partly underground to create comfortable living spaces. “Kivas,” large circular ceremonial buildings, soon appeared in the archaeological record. The size of settlements gradually increased over time, with “great kivas” reaching up to 65 feet in diameter.

One of the first human developments to place a strain on the natural resources in this region was Chaco Canyon. Chaco Canyon, in what is now New Mexico, features twelve massive complexes, the largest of which was over five stories tall with hundreds of rooms. An archaeologist once quipped that Pueblo Bonito, the largest building in Chaco Canyon, was only surpassed in size once New York City constructed its massive tenement housing in the late 1800s.

Evidence of intricate pipe networks, massive storage units, and countless cobs of corn points towards an agricultural and architectural explosion. We do not know how many people lived here full time. It was likely a ceremonial center full of symbolism. Road networks emanated from the canyon, spanning hundreds of miles across the terrain. Some roads paralleled each other and some ended not long after they beain. These roads may be symbolic entryways of different groups of Pueblo peoples into what is known as the Chaco system. As corn production grew, so did the influence, size, and power of this central storage city. Entire mountains may have been deforested to construct the great buildings in Chaco Canyon.

In the epic book “One Vast Winter Count,” Colin G. Calloway states, “Between about 900 and 1150 the people of Chaco built a dozen towns, or ‘great houses,’ and scores of small settlements. They used at least two hundred thousand timbers in these construction projects.” Calloway adds, “Tree-ring-dating techniques applied to the beams allow archaeologists to establish detailed chronologies of construction.”

More and more innovative and complex ways to sustain this settlement are seen in the archaeological record. Controlling water became important. Calloway informs us that “Chacoans also built dams, ditches, canals, and reservoirs to collect water and transport it to their fields.” Strategies we use on the Colorado River today were pioneered over a thousand years ago. However, it did not last forever.

Colorado River, Lake Powell and Trachyte Canyon looking down aerial view from above – Bird’s eye view Colorado River, Utah, USA. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Geography or history?

By the time European settlers arrived, Chaco had been abandoned for centuries. The numerous trees used to construct the canyon also tell a grave tale. Using tree rings as biological evidence, scholars are able to estimate when these buildings were constructed but also reveal that persistent drought struck this region in the mid 1100s. Calloway explains, “Prayers for rain went unanswered, and drought gripped the region for several years. Tree rings show that drought struck the San Juan Basin in 1130 and persisted until about 1180.” Maize-based agriculture continued to flourish in areas further south like Mexico, but Calloway adds, “Farmers who had extended their communities and fields to areas where soil and growing conditions were marginal for corn cultivation were hard hit.”

What our modern minds conceive of as catastrophe may not have been perceived as such by the Puebloans who built Chaco Canyon. We actually see populations rise after Chaco fell. It seems the Pueblo peoples adapted to the overuse of resources in one area by fanning out, building numerous smaller settlements and not over-straining the canyon that had once been the center of their world. Instead, the inhabitants likely realized that incorporating elements of hunting and gathering, living in less dense settlements, and allowing the land to recover from deforestation and overuse of water was the solution to environmental degradation.

“There is little evidence of people fleeing their homes in blind panic and clear evidence of planned movements. People made choices based on the alternatives available; they knew where they were going and why,” Calloway writes.

“There is little evidence of people fleeing their homes in blind panic and clear evidence of planned movements. People made choices based on the alternatives available; they knew where they were going and why.”

Drought, crop failures, and other environmental factors have played an incredibly important role in shaping human history, yet we would rarely say something like the Roman Empire fell solely because of drought. Historians also point to forced movements of populations and political instability as reasons empires fall. This narrative helps reinforce human agency but reduces the role of geography and climate.

Farming is shown to have spread at a much faster rate in the Old World compared to the Americas likely because of the orientation of the landmasses. It is easier for crops and animals to be transported laterally, across a wide continent, because the climate does not vary as much along latitude as it does longitude. The shift in climate from the heart of Mexico to the mountains in Colorado is much greater than the shift from the eastern Mediterranean Sea to the western side. Similar climate and geography facilitate the spread of farming and animals, but it does not determine the course of history.

Taking things too far the other way, stating that geography is the reason why humans developed the way they did, is also a known fallacy experts call “geographical determinism.” The popular book “Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies” by Jared Diamond has been accused of this. Somewhere between the constraints of geography and human agency lies our history.

Adapting to the reality of prolonged drought, the Pueblo peoples created new survival strategies. Although evidence of warfare and destruction does not exist in Chaco, across the Four Corners we start to see a dramatic shift in architecture. Pit houses and great houses gave way to cliff dwellings located at staggering heights on mountain faces. Defensive settlements, like Mesa Verde, developed as the main architectural features. Stone watchtowers and rock art demonstrate an increase in violence. New peoples, also affected by widespread environmental change, appeared in the region.

Although drought occurs regularly in the Colorado River’s past, today’s challenges are vastly more complicated in that humans are causing global climate change. The Puebloans reacted to overuse of water in a drought by changing their ways. Today’s challenge is deeper than a local, regional, or even continent-wide drought.

“A monument to man’s arrogance”

The first white settlers to lay eyes on Chaco Canyon were themselves less than one hundred years away from their own water crisis. Abandoned cities in the desert could have served as a warning sign that water availability and precious resources can and will change course.

American settlers and farmers also recognized the importance of the Colorado River to their development plans. By the 1880s this new wave of settlement was becoming more and more reliant on the river’s water to sustain their farms. Increased water use led to disputes over who has rights to access the river’s flow. In 1922 negotiations began among the several states that depend on the river. In a shortsighted and cruel twist of fate, the water allocations agreed to during the Colorado River Compact were unsustainable from the start.

“It’s now known that the years on which the original estimates were based on, in the early twentieth century, were the wettest since the 1400s,” writes David Owen in his book about the Colorado River, “Where the Water Goes.”

“It’s now known that the years on which the original estimates were based on, in the early twentieth century, were the wettest since the 1400s.”

Regulators, land-owners, and politicians were basing their decisions off of incredibly recent history, with little to no understanding of lessons from the deep past. The fact that the Colorado River had not been that full in over 600 years — and that the river has a history of fluctuating quite a bit — never played a role in that early decision-making process.

The term “paper water” is used to refer to water allocations that exceed the actual flow of the Colorado River. Today more water is legally granted for use than actually exists. Arid megapolises like Las Vegas and Los Angeles can only thrive because of the Colorado River’s series of dams, canals, and reservoirs.

“It supplies water to more than 36 million people, including residents not just of Boulder, Denver, and Colorado Springs, but also of Salt Lake City, Albuquerque, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Tucson, San Diego, and Los Angeles … it irrigates close to six million acres of farmland,” Owen states, yet the water use is unsustainable, and our modern society is highly unlikely to be able to adapt to changes the way the Pueblo peoples did. We also face a globe that has been altered, almost irreparably, by industrialization and population growth on a scale nearly unimaginable just a hundred years ago.

Recent news of shrinking reservoirs outside of Las Vegas exposing old mob hits and sunken boats serve as a dire warning that water is running out. Despite recent “atmospheric rivers” hitting California, a series of storms will not solve what is inherently an unsustainable allocation of water resources. It remains to be seen if mega-cities and suburban sprawl can weather the changes that our dramatic climate will throw at them in the not too distant future.

Record low water level of shrinking Lake Mead. The lake is key reservoir along Colorado River. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

The past is the future

The Pueblo peoples are still here. Often Native Americans are talked about only in the past tense, as a relic of older times. This could not be further from the truth. Lessons from those who still live on the land of their ancestors cannot be ignored.

Efforts to return the management of land back to Native American groups have grown in popularity in recent years. These programs are an attempt to return stewardship of land, animals, and precious resources like water to people with a long history of adapting to them. It won’t be enough to solve the Colorado River water crisis on its own, however. Overpopulation and global climate change have driven water usage in the West to epidemic proportions that ancestral Pueblo would have never imagined.

The history of the Pueblo farming the Southwest desert is ultimately one of success, adaptation, and realizing the carrying capacity of nature when living in harsh, arid environments. To look towards our future we must consider the deep past. Architecture that takes advantage of natural heating and cooling properties can reduce energy consumption. Basing new development in the West on actual flowing water, not paper water, will have dramatic effects but may ultimately be necessary. Today we also have to contend with forces like political corruption via oil and gas companies, unrestricted pollution by the military which has a massive presence in this part of the nation, and the sheer scale of damage already wrought by globalization and industrialization. There are lessons to learn from the Puebloans of the past and the Puebloans of today, but we as a society must be willing to make herculean efforts and rethink what success means in order to cope with a changing landscape.

The history of the Pueblo farming the Southwest desert is ultimately one of success, adaptation, and realizing the carrying capacity of nature when living in harsh, arid environments.

Where has all the water gone?

  1. Drought has always played a role in who can live in the West, we have entered uncharted new heights with population growth and urban development 
  2. The Colorado River was at its highest point in centuries when an agreement to divide up the waters was signed in the 1920s
  3. The series of dams, reservoirs, and canals built in the 20th Century allowed more development West of the Rockies
  4. Major cities in arid regions, like Los Angeles and Las Vegas, are users of the Colorado River’s waters
  5. There is now more water allocated to use than actually exists in the River itself 
  6. The River no longer flows into the ocean, it depletes itself somewhere near the Mexico border

When Systems Fail

  1. The Pueblo adapted to drought by dispersing into smaller settlements and shifting reliance away from agriculture
  2. The entire modern West runs on Colorado River water, from drinking, to irrigation, to use as an energy source
  3. If the River dips low enough, intake in crucial dams will drop below functioning level and the dams won’t generate power
  4. Massive cutbacks on water usage will be needed, some restrictions are already in place


Austin Clinkenbeard
Austin Clinkenbeard has been traveling the world with his wife for the past several years exploring food, history and culture along the way. He is a passionate advocate for stronger social science education and informed global travel. Austin holds degrees in Anthropology and Political Science from San Diego State. When he’s home there’s a good chance you can catch him cooking allergy friendly food. You can follow along Austin’s travel adventures and food allergy journey at www.NowWeExplore.com.

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