The contiguous river basins that flowed in Tlaxcala and San Juan Teotihuacan formed part of the agricultural heart of central Mexico. As the colonial project rose to a crescendo in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Indigenous farmers of central Mexico faced long-term problems standard historical treatments had attributed to drought and soil degradation set off by Old World agriculture. Instead, Bradley Skopyk argues that a global climate event called the Little Ice Age brought cold temperatures and elevated rainfall to the watersheds of Tlaxcala and Teotihuacan. With the climatic shift came cataclysmic changes: great floods, human adaptations to these deluges, and then silted wetlands and massive soil erosion.
Colonial Cataclysms chases water and soil across the colonial Mexican landscape, through the fields and towns of New Spain's Native subjects, and in and out of some of the strongest climate anomalies of the last thousand or more years. The pursuit identifies and explains the making of two unique ecological crises, the product of the interplay between climatic and anthropogenic processes. It charts how Native farmers responded to the challenges posed by these ecological rifts with creative use of plants and animals from the Old and New Worlds, environmental engineering, and conflict within and beyond the courts. With a new reading of the colonial climate and by paying close attention to land, water, and agrarian ecologies forged by farmers, Skopyk argues that colonial cataclysms – forged during a critical conjuncture of truly unprecedented proportions, a crucible of human and natural forces – unhinged the customary ways in which humans organized, thought about, and used the Mexican environment.
Colonial Cataclysms inserts climate, earth, water, and ecology as significant forces shaping colonial affairs and challenges us to rethink both the environmental consequences of Spanish imperialism and the role of Indigenous peoples in shaping them.
"This excellently researched study contributes innovative arguments to important ecological and historical debates around climate change and landscapes related to the Little Ice Age and its human and economic consequences for two riversheds in the central region of colonial New Spain. It integrates scientific methods for data analysis with historical methods for the cultural interpretation of diverse primary sources to weave a good story."
– Cynthia Radding, author of Wandering Peoples: Colonialism, Ethnic Spaces, and Ecological Frontiers in Northwestern Mexico, 1700–1850