Village Ecodynamics Project

Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park
Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park.

The Village Ecodynamics Project (VEP) is a multidisciplinary and multi-institutional collaboration among scientists and other researchers studying the long-term (A.D. 600–1760) interaction between Pueblo Indians and their environment. Funded by National Science Foundation (NSF) grants awarded to Washington State University, the project employs an innovative approach to manipulating large, diverse data sets to “predict” the past.

For more than a decade, archaeologists, geologists, hydrologists, geographers, computer scientists, and economists from institutions across the U.S. and Canada, including the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, have worked together to develop sophisticated computer-simulation programs based on geographic information systems (GIS) technology. The programs allow them to create “virtual” Pueblo families living on computer-generated, geographically accurate landscapes—and then to observe how both people and environments respond to changes in specific variables such as precipitation, population size, and resource depletion. By comparing the results of the computer simulations with real archaeological evidence, researchers are able to identify the conditions and circumstances in the past that might have produced the archaeological patterns actually observed in the field.

The VEP began in 2001 and consisted of two phases: Phase I examined the Pueblo occupation of a 1,827-square-kilometer area in the central Mesa Verde region in southwestern Colorado. Phase II expanded the original study area to include Mesa Verde National Park proper (for a total of 4,569 square kilometers) and an additional 6,955-square-kilometer area located in the Rio Grande region of north-central New Mexico. Archaeological, biological, and linguistic evidence, as well as Pueblo oral history, strongly suggest that many of the Pueblo inhabitants of the Mesa Verde region migrated to the northern Rio Grande in the late thirteenth century.

Data collection for the project involved field survey in addition to the assembly and analysis of existing data recorded during a century’s worth of previous archaeological work in the study areas. In the end, information on more than 18,000 archaeological sites in the central Mesa Verde region and more than 6,000 sites in the Rio Grande area was amassed, organized, and entered into a large database for use in the computer simulations. Variables such as site location, size, type, and estimated duration of occupation were used to reconstruct ancient settlement patterns through time. In addition, VEP researchers incorporated soils, climate, and hydrological data into their simulations.

Map showing 18,000 archaeological sites in the VEP database.
The VEP database contains information on more than 18,000 archaeological sites in the central Mesa Verde region.


Primary research associated with the VEP was completed in 2014, but multiple publications for both professional and public audiences are planned, and the data sets and techniques developed during the project will be invaluable to scientists for years to come. For more information, including a a list of project personnel and periodic research updates, see the Village Ecodynamics Project on the Washington State University website.

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