UC Berkeley study challenges Cahokia narrative with archaeological evidence

A.J. White/Courtesy

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A recently published study about the Cahokia archaeological site challenges the narrative around the ancient city’s decline and abandonment.

The study, led by UC Berkeley anthropology graduate student A.J. White, was co-authored by University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Sissel Schroeder, Northeastern University assistant professor Samuel Muñoz and California State University at Long Beach professor Lora Stevens.

Cahokia is one of the most famous archaeological sites in the United States, according to White. The “bustling” city, located in present-day southern Illinois, began a little more than 1,000 years ago and was home to tens of thousands of people, White said.

The city had multiple neighborhoods, complex social and political organizations, craft specialists and “extensive” agricultural fields, Schroeder said.

The city’s population declined until about 1350, when it was abandoned, according to Schroeder. White said the abandonment of Cahokia, however, was relatively short.

“This period is not as well studied, but the study shows that indigenous peoples re-occupied this region and influenced its ecosystems through hunting, burning, and horticulture,” Muñoz said in an email.

Cahokia’s population grew in the mid-1500s and 1600s, according to Schroeder. Evidence used to analyze the indigenous presence after 1400 includes increases in grass pollen, fecal matter and charcoal, according to White.

The presence of grass decreased after the landscape was abandoned and increased again once the city was reinhabited, Schroeder added.

“We see around 1600 that the grass starts to pick up again, and that may be a sign that some of the landscape is being managed by humans,” Schroeder said.

Fecal stanols are organic molecules excreted in human feces that can be preserved for thousands of years in layers of sediment, according to a Berkeley News article. White said the research team used fecal matter found in sediment cores as an indication of the amount of people in the area.

The history of Cahokia is presented to the public as a lost city that experienced failure, White said.

“When we keep focusing on things like collapse and abandonment, it leaves the public with a sense of people going away,” White said. “What we show here is that it’s not the end of the story.”

Native American involvement in the area is ongoing, according to White. Tribes are engaged with the visitation, the local government, decisions made in the local area and how resources are handled.

According to Muñoz, Cahokia’s abandonment has been a major archaeological focus.

“By showing that there was a significant post-Cahokia presence of indigenous people in this area, our study demonstrates that indigenous populations were resilient in the face of change,” Muñoz said in the email. “We hope to shift the narrative … from one of indigenous disappearance towards one of persistence.”

Contact Maya Akkaraju at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @maya_akkaraju.