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In the discussion thread: Did Corn Fuel Cahokia's Rise? [View all]

Response to Judi Lynn (Original post)

Sat Jul 4, 2020, 08:07 PM

3. How Did Cahokian Farmers Feed North America's Largest Indigenous City?

Native American farming was more sophisticated than your history textbook told you.

MARCH 28, 2019

Monks Mound at Cahokia. ETHAJEK/PUBLIC DOMAIN

JUST OUTSIDE ST. LOUIS, VISITORS can witness the monumental earthen mounds that mark Cahokia, the largest indigenous city north of Mexico. There’s a persistent myth that the original inhabitants of what is now the United States were all hunter-gatherers living in small communities. Yet these mounds—likely used for ceremonial and housing purposes by people of the Mississippian Culture—reveal an often-neglected history: an organized, socially diverse, Pre-Columbian city.

Experts disagree about Cahokia’s exact population—and most other aspects of its society. Yet many archaeologists estimate that at its peak around the year 1100, Cahokia housed 10,000 to 20,000 people, with up to 50,000 inhabitants living in the surrounding area—a population size rivalling or surpassing concurrent European cities. Yet conventional theories of Native American agriculture, which is depicted as relatively non-productive and reliant on a classic trio of corn, squash, and beans, fail to account for a fundamental question: How did the Cahokians feed so many people?

Monks Mound at Cahokia. ETHAJEK/PUBLIC DOMAIN

Gayle Fritz has an answer. Archaeologists have long argued that Cahokians, like other indigenous North American cultures, relied heavily on corn. That’s true, says Fritz, a paleoethnobotanist and emeritus professor at Washington University in St. Louis. But in her new book, Feeding Cahokia, Fritz uses data from more recent seed flotation studies to argue that Cahokian crops were much more diverse than previously believed. This supports interpretations of Cahokia as a densely populated, prosperous city—and challenges older assumptions about the simplicity of Native American farming.

For hundreds of years, scholars argued that pre-Columbian North Americans did little to reshape the environment. In the past decades, however, more recent scholarship has argued that pre-Columbian American societies were not only equally or more sophisticated than those of the so-called Old World—but that indigenous people used large-scale agriculture to reshape the Americas into what Charles C. Mann, author of 1491, calls “the world’s largest garden.”

A 1887 illustration of Monks Mound. PUBLIC DOMAIN


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