(p. D3) A thousand years ago, a city rose on the banks of the Mississippi River, near what eventually became the city of St. Louis. Sprawling over miles of rich farms, public plazas and earthen mounds, the city — known today as Cahokia — was a thriving hub of immigrants, lavish feasting and religious ceremony. At its peak in the 1100s, Cahokia housed 20,000 people, greater than contemporaneous Paris.
By 1350, Cahokia had largely been abandoned, and why people left the city is one of the greatest mysteries of North American archaeology.
Now, some scientists are arguing that one popular explanation — Cahokia had committed ecocide by destroying its environment, and thus destroyed itself — can be rejected out of hand. Recent excavations at Cahokia led by Caitlin Rankin, an archaeologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, show that there is no evidence at the site of human-caused erosion or flooding in the city.
Her team’s research, published in the May/June issue of Geoarchaeology suggests that stories of great civilizations seemingly laid low by ecological hubris may say more about our current anxieties and assumptions than the archaeological record.
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“We do see some negative consequences of land clearance early on,” Dr. Rankin said, “but people deal with it somehow and keep investing their time and energy into the space.”
Rather than absolutely ruining the landscape, she added, Cahokians seem to have re-engineered it into something more stable.
That finding is in keeping with our knowledge of Cahokian agriculture, says Jane Mt. Pleasant, professor emeritus of agricultural science at Cornell University, who was not involved in the study. While Cahokians cleared some land in the uplands, Dr. Mt. Pleasant said, the amount of land used remained stable. While heavy plow techniques quickly exhausted soil and led to the clearing of forests for new farmland, hand tool-wielding Cahokians managed their rich landscape carefully.
Dr. Mt. Pleasant, who is of Tuscarora ancestry, said that for most academics, there is an assumption “that Indigenous peoples did everything wrong.” But she said, “There’s just no indication that Cahokian farmers caused any sort of environmental trauma.”
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(Note: the online version of the story was updated May 3, 2020, and has the title “What Doomed a Sprawling City Near St. Louis 1,000 Years Ago?”)