1,000 years ago, what made a sprawling city near St. Louis fail?


A thousand years ago a city emerged on the banks of the Mississippi near what would later become St. Louis. Over miles of rich farms, public squares, and mounds of earth, the city – now known as Cahokia – was a thriving center for immigrants, lavish festivals, and religious ceremonies. At its height in the 11th century, Cahokia lived 20,000 people, more than in present-day Paris.

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A thousand years ago a city emerged on the banks of the Mississippi near what would later become St. Louis. Over miles of rich farms, public squares, and mounds of earth, the city – now known as Cahokia – was a thriving center for immigrants, lavish festivals, and religious ceremonies. At its height in the 11th century, Cahokia lived 20,000 people, more than in present-day Paris.

By 1350, Cahokia had been largely abandoned, and why people left the city is one of the greatest mysteries of North American archeology.

Now some scientists argue that a popular explanation – Cahokia committed ecocide by destroying his environment and self-destructing – can be immediately rejected. Recent excavations at Cahokia, led by Caitlin Rankin, an archaeologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, show that there is no man-made erosion or flooding in the city on site.

Her team’s research, published in the May / June issue of Geoarchaeology, suggests that stories of great civilizations seemingly crushed by ecological hubris tell more about our current fears and assumptions than the archaeological records.

In the 1990s, interpretations of archaeological research led to the suggestion that at the height of their city’s population, the Cahokians had cut many trees in the area. This practice has led to widespread deforestation, erosion and increasingly severe and unpredictable local flooding.

Rankin and her colleagues set out to learn more about how Cahokia’s environment has changed over the course of its development, and hoped that they would test whether this hypothesis was true. They dug in the North Plaza in Cahokia – a neighborhood in the city’s central district – and dug on the edge of two separate hills and along the local creek, using preserved layers of soil to reconstruct the land 1,000 years ago. This area had the lowest elevation and they suspected it would have endured the worst flooding.

These layers of soil showed that during the flooding at the beginning of urban development after the hills were built, the surrounding floodplain was largely spared from major floods until the industrial age.

“We see some negative effects of land clearance early on,” said Rankin, “but people sort of deal with it and keep investing their time and energy in the space.”

Instead of ruining the country, the Cahokians seem to have turned it into something more stable.

That finding is in line with our knowledge of Kahokian agriculture, said Jane Mt. Angenehm, an emeritus professor of agricultural sciences at Cornell University who was not involved in the study. While the Cahokians cleared some land in the highlands, Mt. Pleasant said the amount of land used remained stable. While heavy plowing techniques quickly depleted the soil and led to the clearing of forests for new farmland, hand tool-making Cahokians carefully managed their rich landscape.

Mt. Pleasant, who is from Tuscarora, said that most academics believed “tribal peoples did everything wrong”. But she said, “There is simply no evidence that Cahokian farmers caused any kind of environmental trauma.”

If anything, said John E. Kelly, an archaeologist at Washington University in St. Louis, the explanation of a Cahokia ravaged by exposed cliffs and flooding actually mirrors how later European settlers used the region’s land. In the 1860s, cliffs upstream of Cahokia were cleared for coal mining, resulting in enough localized flooding to bury some sites of the settlement. Deforestation in Europe created a deep layer of eroded sediments that differed from the soils of the pre-contacted floodplain.

“What Caitlin did in a very simple way is to look at the evidence, and there is very little evidence to support the Western view of what the Native Americans are doing,” Kelly said.

Then why did Cahokia disappear? Environmental factors such as the Little Ice Age drought (1303-1860) may have played a role in the city’s slow abandonment. But changes in the politics and culture of the residents should not be overlooked. Said pleasantly. By the 1300s, many of the great hills of central Cahokia were deserted, and city life seemed to have shifted to something more decentralized. The peoples of Cahokia did not disappear either; Some eventually became the Osage Nation.

Aside from natural disasters like the volcanic eruption that destroyed Pompeii, Rankin tends not to interfere with a city’s abandonment all at once. It is more of a natural development when people slowly move out of an urban environment that no longer meets their needs.

“It doesn’t mean something terrible happened there,” said Rankin. “It could be that people elsewhere have found other options or decided that a different way of life is better.”

The view of Cahokia as a place plagued by self-inflicted natural disasters speaks more to Western ideas about humanity’s relationship with nature, said Rankin, which humans typically see as a separate plague on the countryside and a source of endless, racist exploitation of resources considered. But while this narrative reverberates at a time of great deforestation, pollution, and climate change, she said it was a mistake to assume that such practices were universal.

“We’re not really thinking about how we can learn from people who have conservation strategies built into their culture and land-use practices,” Rankin said. “We shouldn’t project our own problems onto the past. Just because we are like this doesn’t mean that everyone was or is like this. “

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