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Climate change–induced population pressure drives high rates of lethal violence in the Prehispanic central Andes

university of utah logoAuthors:

Weston C. McCool, Brian F. Codding, Kenneth B. Vernon, Kurt M. Wilson, Peter M. Yaworsky, Norbert Marwan, and Douglas J. Kennet



Understanding the influence of climate change and population pressure on human conflict remains a critically important topic in the social sciences. Long-term records that evaluate these dynamics across multiple centuries and outside the range of modern climatic variation are especially capable of elucidating the relative effect of—and the interaction between—climate and demography. This is crucial given that climate change may structure population growth and carrying capacity, while both climate and population influence per capita resource availability. This study couples paleoclimatic and demographic data with osteological evaluations of lethal trauma from 149 directly accelerator mass spectrometry 14C-dated individuals from the Nasca highland region of Peru. Multiple local and supraregional precipitation proxies are combined with a summed probability distribution of 149 14C dates to estimate population dynamics during a 700-y study window. Counter to previous findings, our analysis reveals a precipitous increase in violent deaths associated with a period of productive and stable climate, but volatile population dynamics. We conclude that favorable local climate conditions fostered population growth that put pressure on the marginal and highly circumscribed resource base, resulting in violent resource competition that manifested in over 450 y of internecine warfare. These findings help support a general theory of intergroup violence, indicating that relative resource scarcity—whether driven by reduced resource abundance or increased competition—can lead to violence in subsistence societies when the outcome is lower per capita resource availability.

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Last Updated: 12/20/22