High on History: That Time When People Overpopulated Themselves into Oblivion

In these trying times of reproductive rights, one is left to ponder the long-term plan of religious fundamentalists and other fertility pushers. Do they believe the Duggar lifestyle would work out on a massive scale? Sure, it wasn’t uncommon for women in centuries past to approach the Duggars’ birthing feat. But there’s a few major asterisks to place on that historical fact:

Many, if not most, of those children would die before reaching adulthood; many of the mothers would themselves die during childbirth; the societal standard of living was way (way) lower; and women had essentially no agency over their own bodies or life trajectory. (“Perfect!” says the Republican Congress in unison.)

And a recent discovery of the ancient variety reveals a real-life example of how over-population can create the downfall of a society. Researchers analyzing human remains found at sites across the four corners region in the Southwestern U.S. have concluded that a baby boom among the Native American inhabitants likely surpassed the highest birth rates found anywhere in the modern world. And no, the results weren’t pretty.

Let the Good Times Roll

Starting around 1,500 years ago, a centuries-long rise in population levels preceded a sudden, dramatic and, dare we say, disturbing fall. The baby plague corresponded with a relatively safe environment suitable for settling down, and the cultivation of corn in the region—which provided a consistent calorie source for all those little mouths. (And the increased food intake may have made women more fertile). The high birth rate worked out for a few centuries, and then it decidedly stopped working out.

Not So Fast

By the mid-1100s, the perfect storm was a-brewing: Terrible drought siphoned off precious water and killed crops, and inter-group conflict increased. Sounds like a good time to start cutting down on the number of Joe Juniors to feed, but instead the Pueblos kept cranking out the little bundles of hunger. Researchers hypothesize people might have wanted to maintain strong numbers for group- on-group struggles in the midst of lurking doom (and we should cut them slack in those pre-reliable birth control days) . . . but ultimately the rising populations simply hastened the societies’ demise.

With continued aridity, many farmers saw the writing on the wall and scrambled on out of the area by 1280 AD. Within another several decades, the entire area went from housing a solid 40,000 people (gargantuan by 1200 AD standards) to absolutely nil. It appears the population simply grew too big to feed itself.

Those Who Forget History . . .

Based on his findings, one researcher offered this helpful and crystal-clear reminder: “[A]ncient Puebloans show that population growth has clear consequences.” Here’s a bolder claim: Overpopulation isn’t sustainable. Let’s all remember that the next time governments give us the signal that women’s ability to control their fertility isn’t important. Oh wait, that's already happening.



Image: Thinkstock


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