Repopulating a ghost town
For about a century after the city’s demise, the surrounding region looked like a ghost town, according to the sediment cores . Then, around CE, more coprostanol started washing into the lake again — people were back. But they were living in a very different landscape than the old Cahokians; these layers of sediment contain more pollen from trees and grasses, suggesting that woods and prairie had started to reclaim the former maize fields.
The grasslands were good news for the newcomers, because they offered perfect habitat for bison. Charcoal particles in the lake sediment may suggest that local people burned the grass as a form of game management. Burning prairie grass in the early spring helps new, fresh grass grow in its place — and that tasty new growth is like a magnet for hungry bison.
Overall, that way of life sounds remarkably similar to an indigenous group called the Illinois Confederation, who lived in the area by . The Illinois settled in villages during the spring and fall, where they worked small farms and gardens. Most of the village packed up to follow the bison herds during the summer, and in winter everyone split up into smaller camps to weather the leaner months. There’s not enough evidence to say whether the Illinois were the first people to repopulate the land around Cahokia, but White and his colleagues say that whoever did probably had a pretty similar lifestyle.
It’s no surprise that this phase of life in the area hasn’t yielded much archaeological evidence; Smaller, more mobile groups of people would have left fewer obvious traces behind, and the sites that have been found don’t often contain artifacts clearly linking them to the post-Cahokia period.
A survival story, not a lost civilization
The population around Cahokia kept increasing until around – which is surprising given what was happening elsewhere in North America. Historical records describe devastating epidemics in Canada, the Caribbean, Mexico, and the eastern United States around the same time that populations in the so-called Vacant Quarter were thriving. That could mean that the interior of the US was a bit more isolated from the spread of European disease — at least temporarily.
– just a year after the first French religious mission showed up in the area — the population around Horseshoe Lake started to shrink. That’s eerily apparent in the sudden decrease in coprostanol in the sediment core. Grass pollen also starts to get a bit scarcer around 1700, which could suggest that the prairie, which once supported great bison hunts, was also shrinking. And historical records describe smallpox and measles outbreaks in the area, along with war with adjudged Iroquois groups (who were also facing pressure from encroaching Europeans).
A small Illinois population was still holding in by the early s, when the US government forcibly moved many of them to Oklahoma. Today, the survivors of that relocation are officially known the Peoria Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma: a sovereign political entity with nearly 3, people — including some who still live in Illinois.
White says the coprostanol study provides an important example of indigenous peoples’ resilience and persistence in the face of social upheaval and environmental challenges. “Throughout the history of archaeological research, Native American disappearance has been emphasized more than Native American persistence,” he and his colleagues wrote. That’s especially true at Cahokia, where so much attention has focused on the city’s abandonment.
American Antiquity, (DOI: https://doi.org/ / aaq.
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