Beyond a Shadow of a Drought
Range Creek’s cautionary tale.
Why did several Southwestern indigenous tribes disappear by the end of the 13th century? This is a mystery archaeologists have been trying to solve for decades. And at Range Creek, an active archaeological site in southeastern Utah, the question of what happened to the Fremont people specifically has dictated research every summer since 2003.
According to the radiocarbon record, the first evidence of Fremonts living in Range Creek appears around 400 CE in the form of a basket. Archaeological findings indicate that civilization here peaked around 1050. But by 1200, all material marks of people vanish.
The rule of water
The lead detective unraveling this enigma is Duncan Metcalfe, an anthropology professor at the University of Utah and chief curator of the Utah Museum of Natural History, where I first met him. He led me through a series of sterile white hallways, past dinosaur bones and framed maps, to his book-filled office. A stocky older man with a shock of white hair and glasses, Metcalfe shared with me his theory about the disappearance of the Fremont. Clues abound, but it boils down to one well-founded observation: “Moisture runs everything in the West.”
And out West, during the 12th and 13th centuries, moisture was scarce. According to analysis of tree rings in the area, a severe drought occurred during a summer between 1135-1180. About a century later, an even longer drought struck the West. The tree ring record shows that this coincided with the biggest mega-drought on record in the United States, which was part of a four-century dry run that endured until around 1300.
All this aridity would have spelled disaster for the Fremont in Range Creek. When the eponymous creek dried up, they would have lacked sufficient water to grow enough food to support their growing numbers. Families would have had to depend more on hunting and gathering to survive. Eventually, they might have been forced to consider a more drastic course of action. Simply put, when water supplies drew thin, the alternative would be to leave.
But before the Fremont left, Metcalfe thinks they may have fought over water and food. He has discovered signs of conflict coinciding with the drought, such as defensive towers and granaries hidden high up in sandstone crags, now only accessible using rock climbing equipment. Some Fremont began to inhabit the cliffs overlooking the canyon. This decision may have signified a shift from defensive to offensive posture—and a desperate one at that, since living so high up would also mean living a long, steep hike away from whatever water remained.
Yet paleoclimatologists are hesitant to fully chalk migration up to a drought or any environmental change. Eyes squinted in a smile, Metcalfe warned me against relying too heavily on environmental determinism—or, in other words, using the environment as the sole explanation for human behavior. But scientists do acknowledge the complex push-and-pull factors that a drought may cause. Namely, increased tensions over water and food might have pushed people to move, while the lure of more water to the north or south could have pulled people elsewhere.
When I learned about this historical nexus of drought, conflict, and migration, I couldn’t help but wonder: Could the case of the Fremont in Range Creek serve as a cautionary tale for us out West as we face drought caused by climate change?
Whiskey’s for drinking, water’s for fighting
As a former Coloradoan and current Utahn, I’m all too familiar with this Western gallows humor. If the Fremont had access to grain spirits, they may have invented a similar maxim once Range Creek began to dry up.
We, the residents of the Southwestern United States, live in a region where water supplies were recorded and allocated in the early 1900s—during what we now know were unusually wet years. This has led us to buy into what is called the Garden Myth of the Great Plains, a region of abundance. However, we Utahns live in the driest state in the nation after Nevada. Will our arid environment one day force us to leave just as the Fremont likely did? Metcalfe suggests that we might indeed be able to use the past to predict the future.
Even if drought doesn’t spark an exodus from the parched Southwest, it will radically change the lives of all who call it home. Eventually, southern Utah—like Nevada, Arizona and many other dry places—could reach a point where it can no longer support today’s population levels. In northeastern Utah where I live, lack of winter precipitation could spell the eventual demise of the ski industry, which plays a key role in the region’s economy.
That less snow and more wildfires lie in the destiny of the American West should come as no surprise to residents of the region. We’re already complaining about the lack of snow as rocks scratch up our skis and plotting exorbitant water projects so we can play another 18 holes in the desert, as beetles infiltrate forests, which then combust in wildfires that destroy homes. The authors of a recent U.S. Global Change Research Program report declare that “the Southwest is already experiencing the impacts of climate change.”
Two (or three, or four) views
The question is whether some combination of climate change mitigation, technology and smart planning will allow us to avoid the outcomes that drought spelled for the Fremont—namely, conflict and migration. The answer depends on many factors, from timing and foresight to our ability to engineer our way out of water scarcity.
The latter is a question that a 2014 Utah Foundation report takes to task. In “Flowing Toward 2050,” the Foundation explains that state views on water supply boil down to two. The first: There’s plenty of water to go around! With a little conservation and efficiency, we’ll be fine. The second is that a troubling gap will soon exist between supply and demand—one that will need to be filled by new water projects. This is the viewpoint overwhelmingly held by the water districts and the Division of Water Resources.
But what if there comes a time when reduced water supply caused by climate change, coupled with a growing state population, means there just isn’t enough water to go around, period? I asked Utah Foundation research analyst Christopher Collard if his organization acknowledges this possible scenario.
“There probably are hard limits but our position is that we’re not there yet,” he said.
The possibility of demand surmounting supply in Utah grows when we consider climate change and its projected impacts for the Southwest. Yet the phrase “climate change” doesn’t even make a cameo in the Utah Foundation’s report on water. Collard noted that while he was not around to personally work on the report, he suspected that it was because the Foundation values itself “as an independent nonpartisan voice” and therefore “avoids charged language.”
Then there’s the elephant—or rather, the cow—in the room, which is who’s consuming most of our water here in Utah. It’s not so much our growing body of citizens, but agriculture, which guzzles an astounding 82% of our state’s water. The water pouring into Utah agriculture is mostly used to grow alfalfa (commonly used as animal feed) and to raise livestock.
So, why are we spending time on public awareness campaigns to help urban Utahns reduce their relatively modest water use when it amounts to so little? Simply stated, water rights stretch back many decades and aren’t easily pried from the hands of ranchers— or anyone else, for that matter.
Thus, we carry on, plotting controversial projects like damming the Bear River or the Lake Powell Pipeline. The alternative, of course, is recognizing that our hard limits here in Utah might be more imminent than we think.
When the creek’s flow slows
Since my first meeting with Duncan Metcalfe at the Utah Museum of Natural History, I couldn’t shake the idea that Range Creek held a powerful lesson for today’s inhabitants of the Southwest, myself included. So, when he asked if I’d be interested in visiting Range Creek, I immediately accepted his invitation and began planning a three-day trip in light of the long journey involved.
From Salt Lake City, I drove a couple hours southeast to Price, where I met Metcalfe, his wife (who is also the field station cook), and his dogs in the parking lot outside Lin’s Market, the unofficial Range Creek fuel-up stop. Shortly after, vans arrived with Dr. Shannon Arnold Boomgarden and the summer cohort of undergrad and PhD students. With long braided auburn hair and rainbow socks up to her knees, Boomgarden initially had me thinking she was a student. But I soon learned she was the assistant director of Range Creek and an anthropology professor at the University of Utah.
We loaded up several large coolers’ worth of food and floored it southeast on Route 6, then turned toward the Book Cliffs onto Route 123. Finally, we hopped on the path that would carry us all the way to our destination: Range Creek Road. It’s only a 16-mile journey, but feels far longer. The incline builds and builds until the route devolves into a series of steep switchbacks snaking around blind corners that dispel clouds of red dust when tires round them. On the other side of the narrow road was a precipitous descent into the valley below that I tried to put out of mind.
We eventually began a descent down more switchbacks. Finally, Range Creek Road flattened, transforming into a narrow path of tire-sucking sand. A few miles later, the canyon opened up, as if two hands pried apart its tawny walls to make room for trees and thicker vegetation.
This difficult access to Range Creek—and historically private ownership of much of it by cattle ranchers—is what makes the area such an archaeological gem: It’s been relatively untouched across centuries. Here, Metcalfe, Boomgarden and their students attempt to uncover the story of the Fremont.
The traditional way to do this is by excavation. Every summer, students wander uncharted hills in heavy heat surveying for signs of ancient humans. On any given summer, somewhere between six and a dozen new sites are discovered. During my visit, a group of students was beginning to triangulate Mojo, one of 484-and-counting established sites.
This is indeed what most of us picture when we think of archaeologists at work: a careful eye trained to the ground in search of arrowheads; roped-off sites filled with khaki-clad experts armed with spades and brushes. But since 2013, researchers at Range Creek have also been carrying out a less traditional form of archaeology. The idea is to replicate the behavior of the people who left the artifacts in the first place.
Specifically, Boomgarden has been leading an ongoing study designed to identify the costs and benefits of the intensive irrigation required to grow food in such a dry place.
Another clue to the past? The creek itself, which supported life here in this valley. Every summer, researchers take careful measurements of Range Creek to better understand it. As Metcalfe explained to me: “Hydrology is incredibly important to unlocking the secrets of this place.”
When I accompanied archaeology PhD student Liz Baldwin and two undergraduates into the field, we spent half a day gathering data about Range Creek, wading into shin-numbing 50-degree water to measure depth, width and flow rate at several different points. It’s unglamorous and tedious work, but valuable. For the first time since this research began in 2003, Range Creek has dried up in several places. Instead of monitoring water depth and creek flow rate, students are documenting these dry sections.
For the Fremont, the decline of Range Creek would have meant insufficient water for irrigation, sending farming to “hell in a hand basket,” as Metcalfe puts it. Hunting and gathering would also have been affected as wild berries and seeds suffered under heat and aridity and deer populations declined. The question is whether drought and its army of impacts really did lead to fighting over dwindling resources and, ultimately, an exodus.
The Fremont of the 21st century
While the west is already mired in recurring droughts, the situation is not nearly as dire as it is elsewhere in the world. In 2011, the International Organization for Migration found that one in 10 adults worldwide “expect to move” for environmental reasons.
The regions where most of these migrants are expected to emigrate from? Chad, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, and sub-Saharan Africa. By 2071, scientists caution, climate change could cause levels of heat that make many places in the Middle East—like Dubai and Qatar—completely uninhabitable.
Imagine year after year after year of little to no rain. An inability to irrigate the crops upon which you depend. A gnawing insecurity over access to drinking water. These are the threats the world’s dry places face, and the threats that can cause the sociocultural changes that Metcalfe and his team suspect the Fremont underwent. Some link the war in Syria, for example, to a historic drought that forced people from rural areas to cities, where tensions grew. The Nagapattinam district of southern India is another such dry place, where thousands of farmers have committed suicide and many more have abandoned farming and moved. Heat, drought and other factors have devastated agriculture in that area.
While drought in the Southwest has yet to devastate us in such tragic ways, it is already threatening people’s homes and livelihoods. As I write, the Dollar Ridge Fire is raging across nearly 50,000 acres in northeastern Utah, swallowing up homes in its path. Across the entire Wasatch, smoke blurs the horizon and makes for ironically beautiful sunsets. On the other end of a lean snow year across the Southwest, this is just one of many wildfires devastating the region.
What’s most troubling is that we’re not in an anomalous year. According to NASA, in less than 100 years the Southwest will have a 99% chance of experiencing decades-long droughts.
Meanwhile, in Range Creek, things are already beginning to resemble the arid reality that set in for the Fremont. “This is one of the driest years in my 16 years of working in the canyon,” Boomgarden wrote to me from the field. This doesn’t just affect Range Creek’s flow or the rainfall that provides natural irrigation for farming. “The grasshoppers are so bad this year that our plots are taking a huge hit,” Boomgarden says. “This is likely due to the warm, dry winter.”
Examples of how drought impacts societies are playing out around the globe. Meanwhile, voices from our own land’s past call out to us.
The art of imitation
After we wrapped up our creek measurements, the archaeology students and I drove in a dust-coated Jeep to a plot of maize. Our goal was to water it by constructing a temporary irrigation ditch. First, we had to remove a small dam the students had built several weeks ago to allow water to flow into a shallow trench leading to the plot some 50 feet away.
The next task—“desilting” the trench, which basically meant scraping away wet sand with sticks and our hands until we’d forged a ditch deep enough for water to run through. Shovels, of course, would have made this much easier. But that would defeat the point, which was to do as the Fremont likely did. “We’re trying to live like they did to understand them,” Baldwin explained.
Once the water flowed through the ditch connecting the creek and the maize plot, we had to coax it toward each individual plant. We gingerly navigated the field with sticks in hand, scraping pathways for water to reach each stalk. We also removed obstructions, like weeds or small rocks that had fallen into this smaller network of ditches. Once we’d quenched each plant’s thirst, we rebuilt the small dam to close up the irrigation ditch for the day.
Our feet cooling off in the creek, we recorded our time in logs. All in all, it took four of us about 30 minutes to complete this task. This means it might take one person about two hours. I can’t help but be reminded of how easy I have it today, strolling into a supermarket to buy a cheap ear of corn, which might end up rotting before I eat it. Or, watering something as useless as a lawn with the simple turn of a knob. This exercise in irrigation makes me wonder whether I’ll bear witness to the end of convenient and abundant water in the West in my lifetime. If I do, I’m glad I’ve learned how to irrigate a field using just sticks and my hands.
At the end of the season, Range Creek researchers will use the data from this experiment to draw conclusions about the labor costs involved in irrigation. This is just one of many experimental archaeology projects taking place at Range Creek, with many more planned in the near future.
This year, the plot of maize I watered has expanded from 500 square meters to half an acre—which is closer to what a Fremont family might have maintained. The summer 2018 research agenda also includes investigating buried farm fields to collect data on actual prehistoric irrigation. So far, this research has shown that rainfall alone is not enough to grow crops in Range Creek—some supplemental irrigation is indeed necessary. And as we learned through imitation, irrigation is a time-intensive activity, which would have competed with the many other tasks necessary for survival.
What the Range Creek team can’t replicate is the visceral experience of hunger that would come from a dried-up creek and failed crops. When I bike or climb around Utah, it’s not uncommon for a friend or myself to become “hangry”—slang for a hunger so intense it leads to anger. Signs emerge quickly. A hangry person might become quiet, then grow short with his or her peers. Once the experience of hanger is acknowledged, a snack usually nips hunger-induced rage in the bud.
But what if hanger persists for days or months, exacerbated by heat and thirst? Could it ultimately lead to real aggression?
Following in Fremont footsteps
Somehow, climate change still feels more like a problem of tomorrow, even here in Utah and the greater Southwest. In spite of the impacts we’re already facing, we don’t yet have to worry about a Day Zero for water treatment and delivery in Utah. Yet if we fail to anticipate the day of reckoning for the Southwestern faucet, when it arrives, we will be unprepared. How can the narrative emerging about what happened to the Fremont help us prevent the turmoil that we know can result from drought?
I don’t have the answer to this question, but I do know that sometimes pictures can move us in a way that statistics and words can’t. There’s a certain image from my visit to Range Creek that haunted me long after I left: a petroglyph that spoke more powerfully than any statistic or theory ever could.
During a lunch break, PhD student Liz Baldwin led me and a couple others on a short hike through thick brush and over boulders to find a petroglyph site nicknamed Falling Man. We arrived at an overhanging band of red rock, where the Fremont made several drawings that have endured for centuries. Beside white marks resembling a tally and an etching that looked like a fern was a simple drawing in umber of a person upside down. In the context of the drought, conflict and disappearance that lie in the past of this remote canyon, I couldn’t help but feel that this enigmatic image of human disorientation was somehow symbolic of the environmental crises that played out here centuries ago.
As the research at Range Creek continues, we’ll learn more about the potential environmental exodus in Utah’s past. We might discover details that can help the current residents of Utah and other dry places avoid conflict and survive, even thrive, in spite of our arid nature and climate change, to boot.
What we do know about migration—whether it occurs in 1150 or 2030—is that it’s complex. “Migration is a process,” Metcalfe told me and a group of archaeology students sitting in camp chairs in the shade of a willow tree. “It’s not here today, gone tomorrow. It’s a series of decisions like those we might have to make in our own future.”
Maya Silver writes about food, the environment and other topics and is a writing instructor for the University of Utah’s U.S.-Pakistan Center for Advanced Studies in Water. She lives in Kamas, Utah with her husband, daughter and big white dog.