Posted by: Brad Nixon | January 6, 2018

A Twelfth Century Southwestern Winter

Here in the northern hemisphere, it’s early winter. Much of North America and Europe are experiencing severe weather, with record cold and heavy snow, even in unlikely areas like the southeastern United States.

One of our strengths as humans is our ability to imagine ourselves in someone else’s situation. In Savannah, Georgia and Charleston, South Carolina, people may be asking, “What if I lived in Portland, Maine or Mankato, North Dakota, and had to expect weather like this all the time? How would I prepare?”

I try to envision the life of the original inhabitants when I visit the sites of ancient civilizations in places like Mesa Verde, Colorado and Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. I’m usually there in summer, when the environment is hot, dry, and it’s easy to imagine the 12th-Century inhabitants struggling to find water, searching for elusive game in dry country and tending crops struggling in the harsh conditions.

Chaco Canyon Brad Nixon 4119 (640x420)

But for the original inhabitants, even in midsummer, there would be a steady undercurrent of thought: Winter is coming. What would that be like?

Winter in the American Southwest varies by elevation. At 3,000 or so feet above sea level, it can be cold, there is some snow, but the climate is more temperate than at the 6,000 – 8,000 foot altitudes of places like Mesa Verde, where sustained cold and deep snow can prevail for many months. Yet all across the southwest, native people built societies that endured for hundreds of years, including here at Mesa Verde.

Mesa Verde Brad Nixon 9769 (640x480)

To persist for so long meant that through spring, summer and autumn, they were constantly preparing for winter. If they failed to prepare adequately, they would freeze or starve.

In winter, everything changes. Any naturally-available food remaining in fields and forests is scant, more difficult to collect. Game patterns change, with many mammals reducing their activity and others migrating to lower, milder areas. While tracking an animal in snow has advantages, the difficulty of pursuing it, reduced hours of daylight for hunting and the challenge of being outdoors for extended periods can severely limit success.

The primary element of the communities’ food supply was the crops they grew, which were critical to winter survival and at least somewhat within their control. From the earliest days of human cultivation 13,000 years ago, to the present, farmers have watched the timing and progress of every step: planting, sprouting, growth, ripening and harvest. Rainfall, sunshine and temperature affect everything, and those who depend on the crops’ success know at every stage how things stand: There will be enough food — it’s a bumper crop; or ─ dire news ─ there’s not enough. Winter is coming.

With dozens of generations of experience to draw on, passed on from older to younger, everyone in the ancient communities knew the situation with the maize, nuts, seeds, roots and vegetables in the stone-lined storage bins. It will be a good winter … we’ll scrape by … or, if things weren’t right, there will be long, lean days of hunger and thin rations.

Spring, summer and autumn, in addition to the labor required for daily living, the need to prepare for winter was ever-present: preparing skins and fur for clothing, yucca and wood for sandals and soles, gathering tinder and firewood, chinking cracks against wind and weather. In cliff dwellings of the Gila Mountains and the adjacent Mimbres river valley, northward near the Manzano Mountains in the pueblo city of Gran Quivira, at Hovenweep and Chimney Rock, the work varied slightly with local conditions, but never ended. Remember last winter!

Today, farmers consult complex meteorology reports compiled from data collected by satellites, ocean buoys, mountaintop observatories and the water levels in reservoirs, looking for trends, predictions, expectations for the elements that will mean success or failure.

12th-Century farmers relied on what had come before: generations of knowledge passed along: when to plant and harvest, when rain should fall, when the elk would move, when snow could come. It’s no wonder that nearly every structure-building culture we know of devoted work to establishing some solar observatory, aligned to tell them how long ‘til midsummer and then midwinter, when the sun would touch that far point of its travel and begin to return: so many days or moons until the first new food would sprout on the bushes, then ripen. At Chaco, Cahokia, Fort Ancient and everywhere, the mounds, earthen lines and carefully engineered gaps in walls that marked the sun’s position weren’t there simply to investigate curious phenomena. They tracked the very essence of life. So far as we know, they had no system of writing, no written numbers, but their survival relied on knowing where they stood in the cycle of the sun, the rain and the growth of the world.

A particularly harsh winter, or one without enough snow to provide water once the dry days arrived, could both spell disaster of different kinds ─ one sooner, one later. Throughout the winter, someone had the task of watching the storerooms, pottery and baskets filled with food collected and carefully preserved. Too little food left with too many days before first harvest required delivering the news that there wasn’t enough. The foragers increased their range, seeking overlooked nuts and late berries, the hunters traveled farther, staying out for more days: long, cold days in the snow, searching. Failure wasn’t merely disappointment; it meant starvation.

Even in midsummer at Chaco Canyon, with the temperature at a hundred degrees, I think of it.

Chaco Canyon Pueblo Bonito Brad Nixon 4214 (640x399)

Or in Mesa Verde, as autumn colors the deciduous trees in the canyon, it’s easy to imagine…

Mesa Verde Brad Nixon 9799 (640x480)

…An inner awareness drove those communities in a common purpose: Winter is coming. Too many winters like last one, and what will we do? Too many dry summers and how will the corn grow? This is our home, and our lives are tied to it.

Eventually, something failed. Too many hungry winters. Too many summers of drought. The game animals were too few, too far away. And now there are only walls of stone.

Chaco Canyon Pueblo Bonito Brad Nixon 4188 (640x429)

© Brad Nixon 2018


  1. Yeah its been an incredibly harsh winter here in southern Canada so far this year. It sounds strange that it is snowing and freezing raining in Northern Florida, and New Years Eve in New York was -14C. I’ve seen a few nights here close to -30C


    • That, my friend, is seriously cold. Keep the oil pan heater plugged in on the car.


  2. Fortunately, unlike these early civilizations, we in America have Wall Street and the Top One Percent who control 60% of all of the nation’s wealth. Surely they will save the rest of us from the harmful effects of severe climate change, won’t they? Won’t they?


    • They may already feel they’re well insulated.


      • Louis XV thought that, too, on a warm mid-July day in 1789. He kept a daily journal. Guess what he wrote of the day’s events on July 14: “rien.” (Nothing.)

        Time will tell. Nothing lasts forever.


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