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Some climatic indicators in the period A.D. 1200-1400 in New Mexico

January 1, 1963

Three centuries before Columbus landed in America, the alluvial valleys of the south-western United States teemed with activity. The indigenous peoples had been building for 300 years a culture centred around community life based on flood-water farming and on hunting. A large number of pueblos had developed on sites earlier occupied by pit-house people. Community organization had brought advances in the ceramic and decorative arts, and changes in these artistic activities were sufficiently rapid that accurate chronologies have become available through the work of archaeologists during the twentieth century.

These chronologies were at first unrelated to absolute dates, but the excavations of the 1920s at Chaco Canyon (New Mexico) provided the materials through which absolute dates could be established. This was accomplished by matching the changes in tree-ring width backward in time from living trees through successively older samples. Trees overlapping in age provided, by unique successions of distinctive tree-ring widths, a calendar by which individual logs could be dated. Beams found in the excavations at Chaco Canyon gave the first material by which the cultural developments culminating about A.D. 1300 could be dated.

As a result of the time sequence provided by the tree-ring calendar, the dates within which different pottery types were developed could be accurately established. The dates of pottery types have been checked at a sufficiently large number of sites throughout the south-western United States that absolute dating of a large number of distinctive patterns can be considered unassailable.

The sequence of tree-ring widths gives some climatic indications of great interest both to archaeologists and to climatologists. A relatively large number of logs spanning the period from A.D. 1200 to 1300 and, in particular, the years between 1276 and 1299, indicate that this period was generally characterized by smaller tree-ring widths than in the centuries immediately before and after. As a first approximation, the hundred years of narrow tree-ring widths were interpreted as a time of relative aridity, and have been referred to as the “Pueblo Drought”. 

More recent studies of tree-ring widths using sophisticated statistical techniques have thrown some doubts on any direct correlation of tree-ring widths with rainfall. Such doubts have been put forward before by Glock (1955) whose studies have been aimed at separating the various effects of seasonal occurrence of precipitation, the amount falling in various seasons, and other climatic factors in their relative influence on tree-ring widths. At present, then, tree-ring widths may be considered more satisfactory for reading chronology than for reading climate.

It is this concern about direct correlation of tree-ring width with climate that led to initiation of the present study. This work is a preliminary attempt to obtain independent evidence from pollen concerning the probable nature of the vegetation and thus the climate in a period known to be characterized by narrow tree rings.