Early warning signals of social transformation: A case study from the US southwest

Katherine A. Spielmann, Matthew Peeples, Donna M. Glowacki, Andrew Dugmore

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

22 Scopus citations


Recent research in ecology suggests that generic indicators, referred to as early warning signals (EWS), may occur before significant transformations, both critical and non-critical, in complex systems. Up to this point, research on EWS has largely focused on simple models and controlled experiments in ecology and climate science. When humans are considered in these arenas they are invariably seen as external sources of disturbance or management. In this article we explore ways to include societal components of socio-ecological systems directly in EWS analysis. Given the growing archaeological literature on 'collapses,' or transformations, in social systems, we investigate whether any early warning signals are apparent in the archaeological records of the build-up to two contemporaneous cases of social transformation in the prehistoric US Southwest, Mesa Verde and Zuni. The social transformations in these two cases differ in scope and severity, thus allowing us to explore the contexts under which warning signals may (or may not) emerge. In both cases our results show increasing variance in settlement size before the transformation, but increasing variance in social institutions only before the critical transformation in Mesa Verde. In the Zuni case, social institutions appear to have managed the process of significant social change. We conclude that variance is of broad relevance in anticipating social change, and the capacity of social institutions to mitigate transformation is critical to consider in EWS research on socio-ecological systems.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere0163685
JournalPloS one
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 2016

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences
  • General


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