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Little evidence that “timber abuse” in Cahokia caused local floods and subsequent collapses

The ruins of the most sophisticated prehistoric indigenous civilizations in northern Mexico are preserved at the Kahokia Mounds State Historic Site. Credit: Joe Angeles / Washington University

Whatever caused the population to eventually abandon Cahokia, according to a new study at Washington University in St. Louis, it wasn’t because they felled too many trees.


Archaeologists at Arts & Sciences excavated around the burial mound, analyzed the core of the sediment, and described the collapse of Cahokia, a pre-Columbian native American city in southwestern Illinois, where more than 15,000 people once lived. I tested a permanent theory.

Many environmental and social explanations have been proposed, but no one knows why people left Cahokia. One of the frequently repeated theories is related to the exploitation of resources. Specifically, it was an environmental failure in which the densely populated Native Americans of Cahokia could destroy forests in the region, causing erosion and localized floods.

However, such ideas about self-harm disasters are outdated and not supported by physical evidence of the flood problem, scientists at the University of Washington said.

Katelyn Rankin, Assistant Research Scientist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said: She graduated from the University of Washington.

“When we actually revisited this, we didn’t see any evidence of the flood,” Rankin said.

“The looming concept of ecocide is incorporated into many ideas about the trajectory of the environment now and in the future,” said Tristram R. “TR” Kidder, a professor of anthropology at the University of Washington, Edward S. and Teddy Mathias. Says. “As the population grows and the number of feeding mouths increases, overconsumption of all resources is a real risk.

“Inevitably, people turn models of what happened into the past. Models to understand what caused changes on sites like Cahokia, and to understand their current potential. We critically evaluate a variety of ideas for use as a model, “added Kidder, who heads an ongoing archaeological research program at the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site. “Such work can screen out the possibilities, so aiming for variables that can help explain what happened in the past and see if there are any lessons that this can teach us about the future. I can do it.”

Little evidence that

Archaeologist Caitlin Rankin conducted an archaeological excavation at the Kahokia Mounds State Historic Site. Credit: Matt Gush

No signs of self-harm

Rankin and colleagues at Bryn Mawr College and Northern Illinois University described in the journal Geoarchaeology a recent archaeological excavation around the Mississippi era (AD 1050–1400) of the Cahokia Mound Floodplain.

Their new archaeological study, completed while Rankin was at the University of Washington, shows that the ground on which the mound was built was stable until industrialization.

The existence of a stable surface from the occupation of Mississippi to the mid-1800s does not support the expectations of the so-called “wood abuse” hypothesis, researchers said.

First proposed in 1993, this hypothesis is that logging in the highlands around Cahokia causes erosion, causing increasingly frequent and unpredictable floods in the local stream drainage canals of the floodplain where Cahokia was built. It suggests that.

Rankin pointed out that archaeologists have widely applied the ecocide story. This is the idea that society fails because it overuses or irreparably damages the natural resources that people depend on, and helps explain the collapse of past civilizations around the world.

Many researchers have moved beyond the classic ecocide story that prevailed in the 1990s and early 2000s, but Cahokia is one of those major archaeological sites where the untested hypothesis continues. It is one.

Little evidence that

Rankin is conducting an archaeological survey near Mound 5 of the Cahokia Mound State Historic Site. Credit: Matt Gush

“We need to be aware of the assumptions we incorporate into these stories,” Rankin said.

“In this case, there was evidence of the use of heavy wood,” she said. “But it doesn’t take into account the fact that people can reuse materials — you might recycle. We were automatically deforested, or deforestation caused this event. You should not assume that it caused. “

Kidder said: “This study conclusively shows that the overfishing hypothesis simply cannot be supported. This conclusion is important because the hypothesis in Cahokia and elsewhere makes sense to its face. People who built worthy sites know that they have cut down tens of thousands of trees to make their environment. Parisade, but can count the number of trees used to build and rebuild this feature. This is not an exaggerated estimate, as you can. Problem. “

The area’s forests may have been depleted, but even if they were depleted, they did not cause local floods.

“The hypothesis has come to be accepted as truth without testing,” Kidder said. “The study of Caitlin is important because she worked hard to test the hypothesis. I worked hard, and I mean work. In doing so, the claim was false. I argue that this is an exciting part. It’s basic science and basic science. By eliminating this possibility, we need to move towards other explanations and pursue other research tools. There is. ”


Internal discord cited as the reason for the dissolution of Cahokia


For more information:
Caitlin G. Rankin et al.Evaluation of the Ecocide Story by Stratigraphic Records of Kahokia Mounds State Historic Site, Illinois, USA Geoarchaeology (2021). DOI: 10.1002 / gea.21848

Courtesy of Washington University in St. Louis

Quote: “Wood Abuse” in Cahokia Causes Local Floods, Subsequent Collapse (April 8, 2021) April 8, 2021 https://phys.org/news/2021-04 -Slight evidence from scant-evidence-wood-overuse-cahokia.html

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Little evidence that “timber abuse” in Cahokia caused local floods and subsequent collapses

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