Cahokia and the American Bottom White-Tailed Deer

While Cahokia was an agricultural society, bone chemistry data and faunal remains indicate that farming did not restrict or diminish their hunting, fishing, and foraging. Rather, agricultural crops supplemented the meat, fish, and native plants in their diets, not vice versa (Yerkes 2005). Although seasonality affected the abundance of which species were being gathered and consumed, Cahokia residents never solely relied on their crops. 

Most of the game that was hunted, in particular, the white-tailed deer, may have preferred the oak/hickory forest habitats, however, they were not restricted to these areas. They would often move from the upland forests to floodplain prairies and fields throughout the year as their favorite food sources changed with the seasons (Yerkes 2005). This interface of habitats, forests and grasslands, is where the highest population densities of animals like deer occur (Kelly 2000, 26). That being said, the expansion of farmland in Cahokia, including burning and clearing parts of forests for planting crops, might have improved the habitat for deer as the interface increased. The deer population would not have been negatively impacted as deer were never abundant on the floodplains in general (Kelly 2000, 26). Looking at the white-tailed deer population, had the Cahokians not hunted them, they would have been overpopulated and overgrazed their habitat leaving them vulnerable to disease and famine (Yerkes 2005). By analyzing deer frequencies in the American Bottom, studies have shown that deer populations were stable during Cahokia and largely contributed to the diet of Cahokia people.

Figure 1. Map of the American Bottom showing creeks and lakes. Cahokia is shown as a diamond and triangles indicate smaller mounds. 

As mentioned earlier, stable isotope ratios and bone chemistry data suggest that residents of Cahokia consumed less maize and ate more meat than the inhabitants of outlying sites, and interestingly, Cahokian elites ate more meat than the commoners (Yerkes 2005). Excavations of refuse pits and middens at Cahokia revealed that the faunal and floral material found is quite variable, and a key reason is that trash deposits changed with seasons (Yerkes 2005). Deer were often hunted and consumed during the fall and winter seasons so the prevalence of deer assemblages in refuse pits would increase during these times when compared to the spring and summer months. When fewer deer were found in refused pits, meat from other game (such as birds, fish, and even reptiles) was often found in larger quantities, which may indicate the season of which the pit was filled with trash but also further proves that meat was a large component of Cahokian diet (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Frequencies of identified mammal, fish, bird, and reptile bone fragments in faunal samples from locations in the central area of the Cahokia site. doi:10.2307/40035703.

Once we understand the seasonal patterns in refuse disposal, we can then use “the abundance of the identified food remains to reconstruct the subsistence cycle, evaluate the evidence for provisioning and feasting, and assess the levels of social ranking and leadership in prehistoric chiefdoms and tribes” (Yerkes 2005). 


Fritz, Gayle J. 2019. “Feeding Cahokia: Early Agriculture in the North America Heartland.” Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press. 

Kelly, Lucretia Starr Schryver. “Social Implications of Faunal Provisioning for the Cahokia Site: Initial Mississippian, Lohmann Phase.” Order No. 9972676, Washington University in St. Louis, 2000.

Pauketat, Timothy R. 2009. Cahokia: Ancient America’s Great City on the Mississippi. New York, N.Y., Viking.

Yerkes, Richard W. “Bone Chemistry, Body Parts, and Growth Marks: Evaluating Ohio Hopewell and Cahokia Mississippian Seasonality, Subsistence, Ritual, and Feasting.” American Antiquity 70, no. 2 (2005): 241–65. doi:10.2307/40035703.

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