Scheffer, Marten; Egbert H. van Nes; Darcy Bird; R. Kyle Bocinsky and Timothy A. Kohler

Climate extremes are thought to have triggered large-scale transformations of various ancient societies, but they rarely seem to be the sole cause. It has been hypothesized that slow internal developments often made societies less resilient over time, setting them up for collapse. Here, we provide quantitative evidence for this idea. We use annual-resolution time series of building activity to demonstrate that repeated dramatic transformations of Pueblo cultures in the pre-Hispanic US Southwest were preceded by signals of critical slowing down, a dynamic hallmark of fragility. Declining stability of the status quo is consistent with archaeological evidence for increasing violence and in some cases, increasing wealth inequality toward the end of these periods. Our work thus supports the view that the cumulative impact of gradual processes may make societies more vulnerable through time, elevating the likelihood that a perturbation will trigger a large-scale transformation that includes radically rejecting the status quo and seeking alternative pathways.