Variable effects of cinder-cone eruptions on prehistoric agrarian human populations in the American southwest

Michael H. Ort, Mark D. Elson, Kirk C. Anderson, Wendell A. Duffield, Terry L. Samples

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

32 Scopus citations


Two ∼ 900 BP cinder-cone eruptions in the American Southwest affected prehistoric human populations in different ways, mostly because of differences in the eruption styles and area affected. Primary pre-eruption cultural factors that may have led to successful adaptation to the eruptions include decision-making at the family or household level, low investment in site structures, dispersion of agricultural sites in varied environments, and settlement spread over a large area so that those who were less affected could shelter and feed evacuees. Sunset Crater, near Flagstaff, Arizona, produced about 8 km2 lava flow fields and a ∼ 2300-km2 tephra blanket in an area that had been settled by prehistoric groups for at least 1000 years. Local subsistence relied on agriculture, primarily maize, and > 30 cm tephra cover rendered 265 km2 of prime land unfarmable. This area was apparently abandoned for at least several generations. A > 500-km2 area was probably marked by collapsed roofs and other structural damage from the fallout. If the eruption occurred during the agricultural season, the fallout would also have significantly damaged crops. The eruption did have some benefits to local groups because lower elevation land, which had previously been too dry to farm, became agriculturally productive due to 3-8 cm of tephra 'mulch' and some temporary soil nutrient improvements. This previously uninhabited land became the site of significant year-round settlement and farming, eventually containing some of the largest pueblo structures ever built in the region. New agricultural techniques were developed to manage the fallout mulch. The eruption also affected ceramic production and trading patterns, and volcano-related ritual behavior - the production of maize-impressed lava-spatter agglutinate - was initiated. Little Springs Volcano, about 200 km northwest of Sunset Crater, is a small spatter rampart around a series of vents that produced about 5 km2 of lava flow fields, about 1 km2 of land severely affected by ballistic fall, and no significant tephra fall. The small area affected resulted in much less disruption of human activities than at Sunset Crater. Farming was still possible right up to the edge of the lava flows, which became attractive sites for settlements. Most sites along the lava flows have habitation and storage structures at the base of the flow and a series of small, apparently little-used, structures on the blocky lava flow above. These lava surface structures may have been defensive in nature. In addition, trails were constructed on the blocky lava flow surface. These trails, whose access points are difficult to recognize from below, appear to have been used for rapid movement across the flows, and may also have been defensive in nature. Spatter-agglutinate blocks containing ceramic sherds within them, similar to the maize-impressed spatter agglutinate at Sunset Crater, were made at Little Springs and carried to a nearby habitation site. In arid and semiarid lands such as northern Arizona, tephra fall is a mixed blessing. Thick cinder blankets (> 20-30 cm) render land uninhabitable, but thinner (3-8 cm) deposits can serve to conserve soil moisture, regulate soil temperature (thus lengthening the growing season), and, by lowering soil pH, provide a temporary (decades to a century or two) increase in available phosphorus, an important nutrient for growth. The mulch opened up new lands for settlement but likely only lasted for a century or two before reworking reduced its effects.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)363-376
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research
Issue number3
StatePublished - Oct 1 2008


  • Little Springs volcano
  • Sunset Crater
  • agriculture
  • archaeology
  • cinder cone eruptions
  • soils
  • volcanic risk

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geophysics
  • Geochemistry and Petrology


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