01.10.13Martha Golea

What’s the worst that could happen in a drought? Cannibalism


Can you remember the most bizarre thing you learned in 2012? (Please don’t say it was Kim Kardashian and Kanye West’s baby. We all know that’s a publicity stunt.) For me, a crazy tweet from Columbia Water Center was the eye-opener that sent me into a researching fever. In a Twitter chat about the value of water, I mentioned Phoenix, ironically, has not had water shortages or restrictions and this was their response:

Columbia Water Centr ‏@columbiawater : @MarGoH2O Yay AZ water engineers — you are safe. Did u know in the drought of 1300s the Anasazi in AZ became cannibals? #ValueofWater


Oh so that’s how Arizona got it’s reputation…

This turns out to be a highly controversial subject. While archaeologists have dug up everything short of recipe cards, descendant tribes are understandably offended by the allegations their ancestors were cannibals and dispute the evidence. Their justification? The piles of stewed bones are from public execution of suspected witches.  Not a considerable improvement…

Even archaeologists are divided on the matter, each side claiming the other would do anything to prove they were right, even ignoring the truth. I really wanted to pick a side, but the more I studied the situation, the closer I got to losing my lunch. So you can review the evidence yourself here or here, and I’ll just point out a couple of the ways drought could have led to Anasazi cannibalism.

Drought causes food scarcity

Cannibalism out of desperation

There’s not enough food to go around, so the tribe moves to find another food source. No luck. They’re starving. So they eat what’s available…their neighbors.

In this option they may have been traumatized by their own behavior and most likely did not want anyone to ever know it happened (my interpretation).

Drought causes social change

Cannibalism as an intentional act of violence

Drought causes villages to fight over what little food is available. One village wants to send a “don’t mess with us” message. Cannibalism gets the point across. Word would spread and no one, no matter how desperate, would ever mess with that tribe.

It is so hard to imagine anyone would ever do this. If I take off my Pollyanna hat and put on my war helmet, I can see it’s a perfect strategy. But I still have to think they were ruthlessly protecting their families rather than proudly asserting themselves as the strongest tribe.

Great water management can prevent future atrocities

Carol Ward-Morris, Program Manager, Demand Management and Sustainability for Arizona Municipal Water Users Association piped in on the Tweet chat with some humor and hope:

@AMWUA Helping to avoid drought AND cannibalism… glad to do our part!

AMWUA says they advocate responsible water stewardship that supports economic prosperity and safeguards Arizona’s water supplies for future generations, but come on, that’s obviously just a more eloquent way of saying “we prevent cannibalism”. And they do a darn good job of it, too. Water management is a topic that can turn people away, but they find the most creative ways to get more people interested and involved every year (you may recognize Carol from her frequent photo ops with a life size walking toilet…).

We’re beyond cannibalism now, right?

Sure, we’ve come a long long way since the 1300′s, but drought still has the same effects: food scarcity and social change. Only now we have learned better ways to cope. When food is scarce, prices rise, we grow drought-resistant crops, we work smarter, we think more about water management. We band together with our neighbors and commit to conserving and protecting resources.

But we aren’t immune to fighting over water rights. Clean water is something a good portion of the population feels entitled to, while the rest of the population doesn’t even have access to clean water. As the entitled waste more, the desperate lose more. How long do you think that situation can last before it blows up? I think it’s up to us in the middle – the ones who have water and recognize its great value – to continue to innovate and educate to prevent a bad situation from getting worse. Are you with me?

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Martha Golea

A seasoned communicator and passionate water conservationist, Martha Golea tracks projects in progress and reports on usage of new and exploratory irrigation technology and water management strategies. In addition to contributing to customer newsletters and creating case studies of our work, Martha also creates tools that help educate customers and the community on landscape maintenance best practices. Martha also regularly contributes content on water management and conservation to Lawn & Landscape Magazine.

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