The xeric landscape of the desert Southwest has always been a challenging environment for human occupation, especially for those whose subsistence depended on marshalling sufficient moisture for agricultural production. Despite the environmental constraints, the ancient peoples of the Southwest sustained for centuries various and rich cultural traditions and, at times in some places, originated complex economic and social structures. The history of their success and the associated tell-tale materials deposited in the archaeological record provide a natural laboratory for studying stability, transformation and the basis for institutional complexity in arid-land societies at multiple temporal and spatial scales. 

Current and future directions

The American Southwest has the best-documented record of prehistoric societies in the world. Thousands of sites have been excavated, many with remarkably precise dating, allowing archaeologists to trace the evolution of cultures both by investigating local internal dynamics and region-scale interactions. Current studies are focused on the impact of social and political institutions by different subsistence technologies, including large-scale irrigation, thereby contributing to the growing understanding of how complex societies originated and developed. The prehistoric societies faced substantial climatic variation, and the deep-time perspective of archaeology on the long-term cycles of change and adaptation is critical for understanding the environmental challenges humanity faces today.

School strengths

ASU archaeologists are actively pursuing fieldwork and analysis projects throughout the Southwest and, uniquely, often collaborate with one another and with colleagues in mathematics and various environmental sciences to develop synthetic and comparative perspectives at the local, regional and pan-regional levels. In particular, research teams are seeking to identify the key social and ecological variables and their interactions that fostered stability and promoted transformation in the coupled socio-ecological systems of the Southwest. Ancient life in the southwestern deserts also included economic intensification, sometimes at a regional scale. ASU researchers are investigating the conditions under which societies with relatively simple political arrangements developed complex, specialized economies.