April 12, 2024

A 600-year-old blueprint for weathering climate change

Around the year 1300, the great Huhugam chief, Siwani, ruled a powerful city near what is now Phoenix, Arizona. His domain included pyramids of adobe and stone that rose several stories above the desert; an irrigation system that watered 15,000 hectares of crops; and a large castle. The O’odham descendants of the Huhugam relate in their oral history that Siwani “reaped very great harvests with his two servants, the Wind and the Storm Cloud.” By Siwani’s time, Huhugam farms and towns had already flourished in the Sonoran Desert for nearly a thousand years. But then the weather refused to cooperate: drought and floods devastated the city, and Siwani lost its awesome power, driven out by an angry mob.

Siwani was one of many leaders in North America in the 13th and 14th centuries who, partly due to climate change, faced the destruction of the civilization they ruled. From the 13th century onwards, the Northern Hemisphere underwent dramatic climate change. First came the drought, then a period of cold, changeable weather known as the Little Ice Age. At depth, the annual average temperature in the Northern Hemisphere may have been 5 degrees colder than in the preceding medieval warm period. It snowed in Alabama and South Texas. Famine may have killed as many as 1 million people around the world.

Native North Americans and Western Europeans responded very differently to the changes. Western Europeans doubled down on their pre-existing ways of life, while native North Americans devised entirely new economic, social, and political structures to meet the changing climate. A common stereotype of Native Americans is that before 1492 they were primitive peoples who lived in harmony with nature. It is true that the indigenous people of what is now the United States and Canada generally lived more sustainably than Europeans in the 14th century, but this was not a primitive or natural state. It was a deliberate response to the rapid transformation of their world – one that impacts the way we deal with climate change today.

Both native North Americans and Western Europeans had taken advantage of the Medieval Warm Period, which began in the 10th century and ended in the 13th century, by farming more intensively. Compared to previous centuries, the era brought relatively predictable weather and a longer growing season, allowing new crops and large-scale agriculture to spread to colder regions: from central Mexico to what is now the United States, and from the Levant and Mesopotamia to Western Europe, Mongolia and the Sahel region of Africa.

In both North America and Western Europe, agricultural expansion led to population growth and urbanization. Native Americans built large cities on the scale of those in Europe. Their ruins still stand across the continent: the stone structures of Chaco Canyon, in New Mexico; the complex irrigation systems of the Huhugam, in Arizona; the great hills of Cahokia and other Mississippi river towns in the eastern half of the United States. Many groups formed hierarchical class systems and were ruled by powerful leaders who claimed supernatural powers – similar to kings who ruled in Europe by divine right.

But then the climate reversed itself. In response, indigenous North American societies developed a deep distrust of the centralization, hierarchy, and inequality of the previous era, which they blamed for the famines and dislocations that had hit cities hard. They turned away from all-powerful leaders and the cities they ruled, and built new, smaller-scale ways of life, probably based in part on the way their distant ancestors lived.

The oral histories of many indigenous peoples tell of revolutions against and flights from cities. Cherokee oral history recalls how “the people rose up” and “destroyed a hereditary secret society, and hereditary privileges have never been tolerated among the Cherokees since.” Descendants of Chaco Canyon tell how sorcerers corrupted some leaders so that their people fought against the rulers or simply left to establish more egalitarian societies. O’odham oral tradition tells that after their ancestors rebelled, they built smaller settlements and less centralized irrigation systems in what are today the Phoenix and Tucson basins.

The cities that Native Americans left behind during the Little Ice Age—ruins like those at Chaco Canyon and Cahokia—led both European explorers and modern archaeologists to imagine societal collapse and the tragic loss of a golden age. But oral histories of the generations that followed the cities’ demise generally described what came later as better. Smaller communities made more sustainable economies possible. Determined not to depend on one source of subsistence, people supplemented their agriculture with increased hunting, fishing, and gathering. They expanded existing trade networks and transported large quantities of goods across the continent in dugout canoes and along trade routes; these routes provided a variety of products in good times and a safety net when drought or other disasters put pressure on supplies. They developed societies that encouraged balance and consensus, in part to alleviate the problems caused by their changing climate.

To support their new economies, native North Americans established decentralized governance structures with a variety of political checks and balances to prevent dictatorial leaders from taking power and to ensure that all members of a society had a say. Power and prestige lay not in accumulating wealth but in ensuring that wealth was wisely distributed, and leaders earned support in part by being good suppliers and wise distributors. Many polities established councils of elders and balanced power by linking leaders such as the war leader and the peace leader; setting up councils for men and women; and operating among family clans with members in multiple cities. For example, in the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy, female clan leaders elected male representatives to the Confederacy Council and could replace them if they failed to serve the people. In most societies in North America, all people—women and men alike—had a say in important decisions, such as choosing a new leader, going to war, or making peace. As Anishinaabe historian Cary Miller wrote in her book Ogimaag: Anishinaabeg leadership, 1760–1845Native American non-hierarchical political systems “were neither weak nor arbitrary, but highly organized and deliberate.”

Ogimaag – Anishinaabeg leadership, 1760-1845

By means of Cary Miller

Underlying the structural changes was an ideological shift towards reciprocity, an ideal of sharing and balance that underpinned the economy, politics and religion in much of the continent. For example, the Sonoran Desert-dwelling O’odham developed a him day, or “way of life,” which teaches that people are expected to share with each other based on what they have, especially the needs for food, water, and shelter. Reciprocity is not merely generosity; Giving away a surplus is an investment, an insurance policy that will help others in your own time of need. “Connection with others improved the chances of overcoming any calamity or disaster that might befall the individual or group,” wrote Lumbee lawyer Robert A. Williams Jr. in his book Linking Arms: Visions of Justice and Peace from the American Indian Treaty, 1600–1800.

Linking Arms – American Indian Treaty Visions of Justice and Peace, 1600-1800

By means of Robert A. Williams

By the end of the 14th century, the civilizations of what are now the United States, Canada, and northern Mexico were more different from Western Europe than you might have predicted during the Medieval Warm Period. From Russia to England, Europe moved in the opposite direction in response to the changing climate. When the drought and then the Little Ice Age hit, hundreds of thousands of Europeans starved, and the famines made people more susceptible to the Black Death, which hit especially hard in the cities. Western Europeans, like North Americans, sought a ruling system that could best keep people fed and safe, but they took the opposite approach.

As Western Europe recovered from the devastation of the Black Death and the end of the Medieval Warm Period, it generally became more centralized under the rule of hereditary absolute monarchs. Europe’s rulers amassed military power at home and abroad, built large armies and invested in new military technologies, including firearms. Militarization reduced the status of women’s labor, and in contrast to the complementary gender structures that developed in indigenous North America, patriarchy was the basis of power in Western Europe, from the pope and kings, to lords and priests, down to husbands within households. Through mercantilism and colonization, Europeans sought natural resources abroad to increase their power at home. That impulse brought them into contact with native North Americans, whose adaptive history they could not see. They also could not see how deliberately the Native Americans had decentralized their systems of government.

Native Americans who visited European cities or even colonial towns were shocked by the inequality and lack of freedom. For example, the Muscogee Creek chief Tomochichi visited London in 1734 and expressed surprise that the British king lived in a palace with unnecessarily many rooms. One Englishman wrote that Tomochichi noted that the English “knew many things that his countrymen did not know,” but “lived worse than they did.” In turn, there were Europeans who wondered how North American societies could exist with dramatically fewer restrictions – and less poverty – than their own. They generally labeled Native American societies as primitive rather than recognizing them as complex adaptations. Yet human choices had created these striking contrasts in response to the same changed climate.

The descendants of North America’s great cities came to see the value of trying to get along better with each other. What if, instead of doubling down on the way we have lived, we did what the indigenous North Americans of the 13th and 14th centuries did, and developed more balanced and inclusive economic, social and political systems that fit our changing climate? What if we made spreading prosperity and distributing decision-making more broadly our top priority? It sounds unprecedented, but it has happened before.


This article is adapted from Kathleen DuVal’s upcoming book, Native Nations: A Millennium in North America.

Indigenous Nations – A Millennium in North America

By means of Kathleen Du Val


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