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News Release 05-106

Researchers Simulate Long-gone Societies of the American Southwest

Sims and shards combine to answer ancient mysteries

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Researchers are using "object-oriented" computer languages to simulate history.

Researchers simulated the settlement and farmable land patterns of the Puebloan people living in Long House Valley, Ariz. from 400 to 1305 (upper panel covers the time period from 1170 to 1305). The models included the best available information on the region's maize-growing capacity, environmental conditions and water availability during that time. Scientists placed virtual households with defined characteristics--including nutritional requirements and fertility and longevity rates--randomly on the map, and tracked their movements as the dwellers searched out the most favorable living areas. The simulated households settled based on a simple set of rules included in the model. For example, households had to be located close to their farm plot and a water source. If the expected maize yield of the plot (based on extensive scientific data) dropped below the household's nutritional needs, it moved to a new location.

Researchers compared the models (upper) with archeological evidence of actual settlement patterns in the region (lower). The models closely matched the archeological record until about 1300, and both show changes that coincide with a drought during the late 1200s. But, the model didn't predict what happened around 1300, when the Puebloans completely abandoned the Long House Valley. Simulations indicate the region could have supported a small number of settlements.

Related experiments in the central Mesa Verde region of southwest Colo. examined the effects of hunting, fuel wood collection and cultural practices on the Puebloans.

Inset: Map highlighting the Four Corners region of the U.S. Southwest.

Credit: Nicolle Rager Fuller, National Science Foundation

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