Loss of resilience preceded transformations of pre-Hispanic Pueblo societies

Marten Scheffer, Egbert H. van Nes, Darcy Bird, R. Kyle Bocinsky, Timothy A. Kohler

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

25 Scopus citations


Climate extremes are thought to have triggered large-scale transformations of various ancient societies, but they rarely seem to be the sole cause. It has been hypothesized that slow internal developments often made societies less resilient over time, setting them up for collapse. Here, we provide quantitative evidence for this idea. We use annual-resolution time series of building activity to demonstrate that repeated dramatic transformations of Pueblo cultures in the pre-Hispanic US Southwest were preceded by signals of critical slowing down, a dynamic hallmark of fragility. Declining stability of the status quo is consistent with archaeological evidence for increasing violence and in some cases, increasing wealth inequality toward the end of these periods. Our work thus supports the view that the cumulative impact of gradual processes may make societies more vulnerable through time, elevating the likelihood that a perturbation will trigger a large-scale transformation that includes radically rejecting the status quo and seeking alternative pathways.

Original languageEnglish
Article number2024397118
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number18
StatePublished - May 4 2021


  • Archaeology
  • Climate change
  • Collapse
  • Resilience


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