1257 AD Eruption of Indonesian Volcano Caused Stark Climatic and Cultural Changes in the Southeast
An international research team has recently discovered that the explosive eruption of the Samalas Caldera on Lombok Island in Indonesia caused a volcanic winter between 1258 through 1261 throughout most of the Earth. It was by far the largest volcanic eruption since the end of the last Ice Age about 10,000 years. The volcanic winter caused massive famines in Western Europe, a drought that ultimately wiped out the Chaco Canyon, Cahokia and Moundville Cultures, plus brought heavy snows and torrential rains to the Lower Southeast. It ushered in a period, known as the Little Ice Age.
During the late 20th century, archaeologists working on sites throughout the United States and Mesoamerica noticed that at several points during the past 2000 years, there were synchronized cultural changes throughout North America and Mesoamerica. In other words, civilizations rose and fell at the same time. The explosive growth of Teotihuacan in Central Mexico, the Classic Maya Civilization, the Swift Creek Culture towns in South Georgia and the Hopewell Culture in Ohio began at around 200 AD and then collapsed around 550-600 AD.
The Mayas rose again. Teotihuacan, the Hopewell Culture and the Swift Creek Culture did not. The Swift Creek towns north of the Georgia Fall Line continued for about 50-100 years, but were ultimately abandoned. However, the Swift Creek Culture peoples were still around because their pottery traditions continued to evolve. They were the ancestors of several branches of the Creek Indians.
The founding of the Toltec capital of Tula, the founding of a trading town on the Ocmulgee River, the arrival of an advanced people in Chaco Canyon and formation of a single advanced culture in the southern tip of Florida all occurred around 900 AD. All four of these cultures collapsed around 1150 AD.
In the early 21st century scientists finally explained the collapse of cultures around 550 AD and 1150 AD. In 539 AD, a 100+ feet high tsunami from a asteroid or comet, striking the Atlantic off the coast of Cape Canaveral, Florida sent flood waters deep into the coastal plain of Georgia and erased the barrier islands of north Florida. Along the Georgia Coast one can still see the debris ridge from the tsunami. It is over 85 feet high near Darien, GA.
Volcanoes are the culprits in most of these cultural changes. The eruptions of several large volcanoes in Iceland, Mexico and Central America closely followed the tsunami. They caused volcanic winters in the Northern hemisphere, which then caused poor crop-growing conditions, famines and plagues. The Justinian Plague (541 AD – 543 AD) killed about 25% of the Eastern Roman Empire. The eruption of the Chichon Supervolcano in 800 AD incinerated Palenque and wiped out the food growing capacity of the Chiapas Highlands . . . causing the surviving Itza Mayas to disperse across their known world. Volcanoes in central and northern Mexico triggered a drought and social instability in northern Mexico and the Southwestern United States around 1150 AD. Somehow, this cultural instability also caused the abandonment of the acropolis at Ocmulgee and all of the towns around Lake Okeechobee, Florida.
Unexplained contradictions in climate and cultural change
There was another stark change in what is now the United States between around 1150 AD and 1375 AD, which until recently could not be explained. Advanced indigenous cultures began collapsing in northern New Mexico around 1150 AD. The line of the grim reaper moved steadily eastward to reach Cahokia by around 1250 AD. Astonishingly, archaeologists now believe that the “big boom” at Cahokia around 1150 AD was caused by a spreading drought from the west, which minimized the great floods, typical of the Mississippi Basin. Catastrophic floods began hitting Cahokia, but then that period was followed by droughts and the Middle Mississippi Basin’s ultimate abandonment.
The drought hit Moundville, Alabama about 50 years later. For a period of time, when Cahokia was virtually abandoned, Moundville was the largest town north of central Mexico. Biologists, who have studied tree rings in North America, now know that the Great Drought never went farther than a line running north-south through central Tennessee and central Alabama. In Georgia, geologists have found the presences of massive floods around 1250 AD which destroyed the heart of the first town at Etula (Etowah Mounds) and turned both Etula and Ichesi (Lamar Village in Macon) into islands. Mound A at Etowah is located at the northern edge of the original town.
Here is the mystery. While the western part of North America and the Middle Mississippi Basin stagnated, the Lower Mississippi Basin, eastern Tennessee, western North Carolina, most of Georgia and the Florida Panhandle became the most advanced cultures north of central Mexico. The mounds were much more modest in scale in the Southeast at this time, but agricultural technology became more sophisticated and diversified. The people wore woven cloths. Metal tools and weapons were common. Leaders wore copper breast plates into battle, while soldiers in North Georgia wore leather helmets with copper crests and carried shields.
Then around 1500 AD, most of the towns in the North Carolina Mountains, north of what is now Cherokee, NC were abandoned. Many large towns in the Piedmont and Southern Highlands were abandoned between around 1585 and 1600 AD. This phenomenon has been interpreted by archaeologists as being caused by European plagues. Perhaps, but in fact, the “glory days” of the Apalache Kingdom in Northeast Georgia occurred between then and around 1670 . . . then the Apalache Kingdom suddenly disappeared from the maps in 1690 AD. The end was so sudden and complete that 20th century anthropologists couldn’t believe it ever existed.
Academicians also tend to not believe the 16th, 17th and 18th century descriptions of the Lower Southeast. The North Georgia Mountains were called the Snowy Mountains by the Creeks because they received some of the heaviest snowfall in eastern North America. When the snow melted, South Georgia flooded like the Amazon Basin. This is why the rivers had very different channels than today. Even as late as 1776, William Bartram reported that the Okefenokee Swamp tripled in size during the spring and that the Satilla River connected the Altamaha River with the Atlantic Ocean. He identified and cultivated several flowering shrubs there that no longer exist in the wild. Meanwhile, a broad swath of southern South Carolina was arid and uninhabitable. Early colonists called it the Saluda Desert.
Most academicians have consistently dissed the portrayal of large lakes along the Fall Lines of Georgia and South Carolina on 16th and 17th century maps. Yet there are several reliable eyewitness accounts of these lakes. Their remnants remain today as swamps. They were probably created by the 539 AD tsunami or the catastrophic rains of around 1250 AD. The most likely explanation is that violent storms deposited log jams, which turned into natural dams.
It was the Little Ice Age
The scientific team that identified the 1257 AD eruption of the Samalas Super-volcano now realize that its dust and sulfur laden aerosol was so devastating to the world’s climatic systems that they could not recover enough to bounce back from later volcanic eruptions. The world’s median temperature dropped 2° C. Wind patterns changed, which isolated sections of the Southeast into very different climatic zones like snow belts, rain forests and sandy deserts. .
South Georgia became semi-tropical, while North Georgia and Western North Carolina had climates like the Snowbelt today 600 miles to the north. In contrast the Mid-Atlantic States experienced extremely dry conditions . . . unfortunately at the same time between 1585 and 1610, when England was trying to establish a colony in Virginia. The abandonment of agricultural towns in the more northerly North Carolina Mountains around 1500 AD was due to a chilling of the weather, which made it impossible to grow corn, beans and squash.
The dates for peak periods of cold weather or drought in eastern North America correspond exactly to stark cultural changes among indigenous peoples in the Southeastern United States . . . 1250 AD – 1375 AD – 1500 AD – 1585 AD – 1670 AD – 1780 AD. After then the climate began to warm rapidly and returned to the patterns we had until about 25 years ago. The peak weekend for leaf color in the Southern Appalachians is no longer October 16. It is now about November 10.
Can it happen again?
Yep . . . Mount St. Helens erupted in 1984. The winter of 1984-1985 in the Southern Appalachians was unbelievable. Snow stayed on the pasture of our farm in the Reems Creek Valley near Asheville for four months. On February 15, 1985 our thermometer read -25° F. It was -43° F. a few miles to the north on Mt. Mitchell. We had 24 inches of snow on May 8 and snow flurries on June 6. Our first frost was on September 6. That translates into a 92 day growing season, which would have been too short for Indian corn and squash.
The year of 1985 was apocalyptic. We had no measurable precipitation from February 11 (I inch of snow) until June 19. The leaves did not come on the trees until the last week in June. Twenty-six out of the 29 cow dairies in Buncombe County, NC went out of business. Our licensed goat cheese creamy stayed in business because I daily hiked the goats up to the high pasture (3,200 feet) where “Last of the Mohicans” would be filmed five years later. Early morning fogs kept the grass on the high pasture alive. I also harvested kudzu vines, wherever I could find them.
The two year combination of a short growing season and drought, would have been more than sufficient to drive out all Native American agricultural peoples from the French Broad Valley. I think that is what happened in 1500 AD.
Mount Pinatubo erupted in the Philippine Islands from 1991 to 1992. In mid-March 1993 a counter cyclone winter hurricane formed over the Gulf of Mexico then marched northeastward along the Appalachian Mountains. Its “engine” was driven, not by warm, moist air, but by super-cold air sucked down from the stratosphere. Regions of Dixie that rarely even see snow flurries were plastered by 12-24” snow covers and hurricane force winds. Dozens of hikers were trapped in the mountains, wearing only tee shirts and shorts. Twenty-four died. A total of 208 people were killed by the storm. Mount LeConte in the Smokey Mountains had 69” of snow.
Our farm in the Shenandoah Valley had 38” of snow, plus 15 feet drifts against the barn. Numerous lightning bolts struck the pastures, while the blinding snow was blowing at up to 60 mph. My tractor was completely covered in snow for a week, even though it was under a shed. We couldn’t get off the farm for two weeks, except on cross country ski’s, because the county snow scrapers had deposited a 12 feet high snow bank at our driveway entrance.
Modern mankind has deceived itself. Mother Nature is still the boss on this planet! Ask the folks in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico.
Latest posts by Richard Thornton (see all)
- What you are never told at New Echota National Historic Landmark - September 23, 2018
- Fall 2018-Spring 2019 POOF Research Project . . . Pre-1700 AD Mound & Stone Architecture Survey of the Nacoochee and Soque Valleys - September 21, 2018
- Once upon a time at a Chevy Chase Christmas Party - September 20, 2018
- News Update: Quapaw and Mandan were at Ocmulgee! - September 18, 2018
- Example of why doing Native American history research is so difficult - September 16, 2018