Review of late Holocene paleoenvironmental and cultural sequences from four regions of western North America show striking correlations between drought and changes in subsistence, population, exchange, health, and interpersonal violence during the Medieval Climatic Anomaly (A.D. 800-1350). While ultimate causality is difficult to identify in the archaeological record, synchrony of the environmental and cultural changes and the negative character of many human responses--increased interpersonal violence, deterioration of long-distance exchange relationships, and regional abandonments--suggest widespread demographic crises caused by decreased environmental productivity. The medieval droughts occurred at a unique juncture in the demographic history of western North America when unusually large populations of both hunter-gathers and agriculturalists had evolved highly intensified economies that put them in unprecedented ecological jeopardy. Long-term patterns in the archaeological record are inconsistent with the predicted outcomes of simple adaptation or continuous economic intensification, suggesting that in this instance environmental dynamics played a major role in cultural transformations across a wide expanse of western North America among groups with diverse subsistence strategies. These events suggest that environment should not be overlooked as a potential cause of prehistoric culture change.
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