At its height in the twelfth century, Cahokia, located in what is now southern Illinois, was the center of Mississippi culture and the home of tens of thousands of natives Americans who cultivated, fished, traded and built giant ritual mounds.
By the fifteenth century, Cahokia had been abandoned due to floods, droughts, resource shortages and other depopulation factors. But, contrary to the romantic notions of the lost civilization of Cahokia, the exodus was not lasting, according to a new study by UC Berkeley.
The study addresses the “Myth of the missing Indian” which favors the decline and disappearance of the resistance and persistence of Native Americans, according to the principal author A.J. White, a doctoral student in anthropology at the University of California Berkeley.
“One would think that the Cahokia region was a ghost town at the time of European contact, according to the archaeological record”, says White in a statement. “But we were able to rebuild a Native American presence in the area that lasted for centuries,” he adds.
The findings, recently published in the magazine ‘American Antiquity’, show that a new wave of Native Americans repopulated the region in the sixteenth century and maintained a constant presence there during the eighteenth century, when migration, war, disease and environmental change led to a reduction in the local population.
White and other researchers from California State University, Long Beach, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Northeastern University analyzed fossil pollen, the remains of ancient feces, coal and other clues to reconstruct a post-Mississippi lifestyle.
His evidence paints an image of communities built around corn cultivation, bison hunting and possibly even controlled burning in grasslands, which is consistent with the practices of a network of tribes known as the Illinois Confederation.
Unlike the Mississippians who were firmly rooted in the metropolis of Cahokia, members of the Illinois Confederation tribe wandered further, tending to small farms and gardens, hunting and dividing into smaller groups when resources were scarcen.
The key piece that held together the evidence of its presence in the region were the “fecal stanols” derived from human waste preserved in the depths of the sediment under Lake Horseshoe, the main catchment area of Cahokia.
Fecal stanols are microscopic organic molecules produced in our intestines when we digest food, especially meat. They are excreted in our feces and can be stored in layers of sediment for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
Because humans produce fecal stanols in much larger quantities than animals, their levels can be used to measure important changes in the population of a region.
To gather the evidence, White and his colleagues paddled at Lake Horseshoe, which is adjacent to the Cahokia Mounds state historic site, and extracted mud samples about three meters below the lake bed. By measuring fecal stannel concentrations, they were able to measure changes in the population since the Mississippian period through European contact.
Fecal stanol data were also measured in White’s first study on the demographic changes of the Mississippiian period of Cahokia, published last year in the journal ‘Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences’. He discovered that climate change in the form of consecutive floods and droughts played a key role in the exodus of the Mississippi inhabitants of Cahokia.
But while many studies have focused on the reasons for Cahokia’s decline, few have examined the region after the Mississippi exodus, whose culture is estimated to have spread throughout the Midwest, Southeast and Eastern United States from 700 AD to the 16th century.
White’s latest study sought to fill those gaps in the history of the Cahokia area. “There is very little archaeological evidence of an indigenous population beyond Cahokia, but we were able to fill the gaps through historical, climatic and ecological data, and the key was the evidence of faecal sealing,” says White.
In general, the results suggest that the decline of the Mississippi culture did not mark the end of a Native American presence in the Cahokia region, but that reveals a complex series of migrations, wars and ecological changes in the 1500s and 1600s, before Europeans arrived on the scene, as he explains.
“The story of Cahokia was much more complex than” goodbye, Native Americans, hello, Europeans, “and our study uses innovative and unusual evidence to prove it,” concludes White. Ep