NPS - National Park Service

11/30/2020 | Press release | Distributed by Public on 11/30/2020 12:55

USF-led Geosciences Team Discovers Ancestral Puebloans Harvested Ice Melt Water from Lava Tubes in El Malpais National Monument

November 30, 2020
Contact:Steve Baumann, 505-285-4641 ext. 35

Grants, NM: For more than 10,000 years, the people who lived on the arid landscape of modern-day western New Mexico were renowned for their complex societies, unique architecture and early economic and political systems. New research in a landscape the Spanish explorers would later name El Malpais, or the 'bad lands,' reveal ingenuity now being explained for the first time by an international geosciences team led by the University of South Florida (USF).

Dating back as far as AD 150 to 950, people seeking water left behind charred material in caves indicating they started fires to melt perennial ice, collecting water for drinking or for religious purposes. Working in collaboration with colleagues from the National Park Service, the University of Minnesota and a research institute from Romania, the team published its discovery in Scientific Reports.

This study characterizes five drought periods over an 800-year period when Ancestral Puebloans harvested ice from lava tubes, and it sheds light on one of the many human-environment interactions in the Southwest at a time when climate change forced people to find water resources in unexpected places. The geological conditions that supported the discovery are now threatened by modern climate change as researchers and the NPS race against the clock to try to preserve, protect and study the fragile and significant geological evidence before it disappears.

The research was led by Dr. Bogdan P. Onac, geosciences professor at the USF. Joining Dr. Onac were Dylan S. Parmenter, whose master's degree at USF was on the topic and is now a doctoral student at the University of Minnesota, Steven Baumann and Eric Weaver of the National Park Service, and Tiberiu B. Sava of the Horia Hulubei National Institute for Physics and Nuclear Engineering in Romania. The research was funded by the National Park Service and the National Science Foundation.