The Village Ecodynamics Project (VEP) is a multidisciplinary collaboration among researchers at several different institutions to study the interaction between Pueblo Indian people and their environment over more than a thousand years, beginning in A.D. 600. The VEP includes two study areas, one in southwestern Colorado (the VEP North study area) and the other in northern New Mexico (the VEP South study area). Funded by National Science Foundation (NSF) grants to Washington State University, the VEP employs an innovative approach to reconstructing the human past and exploring its relevance in today’s world.
The VEP integrates three major studies:
- A reconstruction of the past environment. The VEP environmental reconstruction includes estimating local precipitation and temperature for each year during the 1,160 years studied by the VEP. It also includes specifying what types of soils are found in the study areas, reconstructing their past vegetation, identifying the location of all water sources, and determining the population of three important game animals: deer, black-tailed jackrabbits, and cottontail rabbits. Perhaps most important, the simulation reconstructs the amount of maize (corn) that could have been grown on each 200-x-200-meter cell in both study areas (almost 300,000 cells!) and how those agricultural yields varied as the precipitation and temperature varied each year.
- A computer simulation. This computer simulation puts virtual Pueblo farm families on the reconstructed landscape, beginning in A.D. 600 in the VEP North study area and in A.D. 900 in the VEP South study area. Among other activities, the families locate a place to live where the soils are suitable for farming; farm maize each year; obtain their daily needs for water and wood; hunt deer, jackrabbits, and cottontail rabbits; exchange food with their neighbors; and marry, reproduce, and die.
The simulation has numerous settings, called parameters. Some of these parameters control various aspects of the landscape, but many affect how the virtual Pueblo farmers made a living on the landscape. An example of a parameter would be how far the virtual Pueblo hunters traveled to seek game. To assess the importance of each parameter, their settings are varied in each run of the simulation. In one recent simulation exercise, we explored about 500 different combinations of parameters, therefore running the simulation 500 times. Outputs from each run are compared with data on the known archaeological sites in the two study areas. In this way, the VEP uses the simulation to determine which parameters, or behaviors, produce results most similar to the real archaeological record.
The VEP simulation is a new way of doing archaeology: it allows scientists to observe the effects of many behaviors that cannot be seen in the archaeological record. By comparing the results of the computer simulations with real archaeological evidence, researchers can identify the conditions and circumstances in the past that might have produced the archaeological patterns actually observed in the field. In this way, the VEP simulation provides new insights into the dynamics of Pueblo history and new understandings of how human-environment interactions shape the long-term development of society.
- An analysis of all known archaeological sites. VEP scientists built and analyzed a database of every known archaeological site in the two study areas. This includes about 18,000 sites in the north study area and more than 7,000 sites in the south study area.
The vast majority of these sites are ones that have been recorded only during archaeological survey, a type of fieldwork that involves locating sites and describing artifacts visible on the ground surface. A few of these sites, though, have been excavated. The VEP used the excavated sites that are precisely dated to determine the types of artifacts present in each time period, and these observations served as a calibration dataset to analyze and interpret the unexcavated sites known only through archaeological survey.
Because an important goal of this part of our research was to estimate population size through time, we first had to determine which sites were habitations—that is, sites where ancestral Pueblo families lived. Next, the artifacts from each site (mostly artifacts visible only on the ground surface) were analyzed to determine when each site was occupied. Finally, the size of the site, especially the estimated number of buildings, was used to determine how many people lived at each site during each period when it was occupied. In this way, the VEP reconstructed how many people lived in each study area and how that changed through time.
The VEP team included archaeologists, geologists, hydrologists, geographers, computer scientists, and economists from institutions across the U.S. and Canada. Between 2001 and 2014, this team completed a wide range of studies, and we continue to work on publications for both professional and public audiences. The VEP team also partnered with many other institutions and agencies. Together, we compiled datasets and developed techniques that we believe will be invaluable to others for years to come.
The VEP consisted of two phases. Phase I (2001–2007) examined the Pueblo occupation of a 1,827-square-kilometer area in the central Mesa Verde region in southwestern Colorado. Phase II (2008–2014) expanded the original study area in southwestern Colorado, including the addition of Mesa Verde National Park. This created a total study area in Colorado (VEP North) of 4,569 square kilometers. Phase II also added a new 6,955-square-kilometer study area located in the northern Rio Grande region of New Mexico (VEP South).
In addition to the assembly and analysis of existing data on archaeological sites, the VEP conducted new fieldwork and laboratory research. New fieldwork focused on the largest sites in the Colorado study area. These sites are called “community centers,” or “villages.” Although they are few in number when compared with the small sites, the larger sites in both the Colorado and New Mexico study areas are especially important to the VEP study because they were inhabited by many people for longer periods of time, and they were the locations of social, political, economic, and ceremonial activities that did not occur at smaller sites.
This website allows you to learn about the VEP by listening to VEP scientists answer questions about the project.We hope you enjoy hearing about the VEP from some of the scientists who conducted this important research