National Geographic : 2011 Jan
• characterizations of Cahokia as little more than an especially large Mississippian town whose residents had a talent for making big piles of dirt. But as usual, most of the action happens in the middle area between those poles. Right now the discussion is being spear- headed by Tim Pauketat at the University of Illinois, who with his colleague Tom Emerson argues that Cahokia's big bang was the product of a visionary moment: A leader, prophet, or group cast a vision for a new way of living that attracted people from far and near, creating a rapidly expanding cultural movement. When I meet Pauketat at Cahokia to see the site through his eyes, he's more interested in showing me what he's found in the uplands sev- eral miles to the east: signs that Cahokians held sway over outlying laborer communities that supplied food to the city and its elites---evidence, Pauketat argues, that Cahokia's political econo- my was centralized and broad reaching. is is a controversial theory, because the research sup- porting it hasn't been published yet, and because it goes to the heart of the argument about just what kind of society Cahokia was. Gayle Fritz at Washington University in St. Louis says that if Cahokia was a city, it wasn't the kind we usually think of, but one full of farmers growing their own food in nearby elds. Otherwise there would be more signs of storage facilities. It's this sort of practical limit on the size of a subsistence-based agricultural community that leads minimalists like Penn State's George Milner to argue that population estimates for Cahokia---currently ranging be- tween 10,000 and 15,000 for the city proper and another 20,000 to 30,000 in the surrounding areas---are in ated by a factor of two or more and that characterizations of Cahokia as some- thing like a protostate are way o base. But with less than one percent of Cahokia excavated, speculation by every camp remains in higher supply than evidence. Washington University's John Kelly, a longtime stalwart of Cahokian archaeology, sums up the present understand- ing of Cahokia nicely: "People aren't really sure what it is." Nor do people know what happened to it. Cahokia was a ghost town by the time Columbus landed in the New World, and the American Bottom and substantial parts of the Mississippi and Ohio River Valleys were so depopulated they are referred to as the Vacant Quarter. Ca- hokia's demise is perhaps an even greater mys- tery than its emergence, but there are a few clues. e city grew to prominence during an espe- cially favorable climate phase and began shrink- ing around the time the climate became cooler, drier, and less predictable. For an agricultural community dependent on regular crop yields, the changing conditions could have been any- thing from stressful to catastrophic. e fact that between 1175 and 1275 Cahokia's inhabitants built---and rebuilt, several times---a stockade encircling the main part of the city sug- gests that con ict or the threat of con ict had become a standard feature of life in the region, perhaps because there were fewer resources. Furthermore, dense populations create envi- ronmental problems as a matter of course---de- forestation, erosion, pollution, disease---that can be di cult to counter and that have been the downfall of many a society. at Cahokia lasted for only some 300 years, and was at the peak of its power for half that at most, should not come as a surprise. "If you A cobblestone memorial in north St. Louis (bottom) marks the site of Big Mound, which until the mid-1800s was one of the largest Indian burial mounds in the United States. Photographs of its destruction (top) later helped fuel a movement to save Cahokia's mounds from a similar fate. Cahokia was a ghost town by the time Columbus landed. Its demise is perhaps an even greater mystery than its emergence.