Cahokia’s Collapse: Climate Hypothesis

By: Hudson Double

Fig 1: Cahokian Mounds Photographed by Ko Hon Chiu Vincent

Nearly 1000 years ago a new city was founded and would eventually grow to a size of between 10-20,000 people over the coming years (Pauketat 2009). This great city, known as Cahokia, was not in Europe, but sat on the banks of the Mississippi, just a few miles away from what has since become St. Louis. Around the year 1050 CE, the city quickly expanded, growing into the largest city ever in North America up to that point in time, but just a few hundred years later, from 1250-1350 CE, the city would quickly unravel (Pauketat 2009: 138). Though there are multiple theories behind the collapse of Cahokia, through this post I intend to examine the idea of climate change acting as the catalyst for the collapse of the city.

Fig 2: Settlements Around Cahokia

To begin, this theory which has been discussed in the media repeatedly over the past few years essentially states that Cahokia both formed and collapsed as a result of environmental factors. Starting with the methodological approach, the primary way by which climate records on the region were gathered was by collecting samples of mud from the bed of lake Martin. By examining the calcium carbonate crystals between the stratigraphic layers, they were able to create an accurate record of rainfall over specific periods of time. These records showed that there was increased rainfall starting about 100 years before the foundation of the city in 900 CE (Chen 2017). Increased temperatures and rainfall as a result of the Medieval Climatic Anomaly—also known as the Medieval Warm Period—resulted in increased fertility, allowing for corn to thrive. As a result, isotopes found in corn began being found in the Skeletons of Mississippian skeletons within decades, and continued through until the foundation of the city (Chen 2017).

Fig 3: The Famous Monks Mound and Central Plaza

Following the foundation of the city, the climate remained fairly active and fertile for the following centuries, before rapidly cooling around the year 1200 CE (Chen 2017). Furthermore, starting around the year 1150 CE there had been a series of droughts which had seriously impacted the farming potential of Cahokia, and continued through the following centuries as the climate cooled (Benson 2009: 467). Evidence coming from analyzing fecal particles in Horseshoe lake, just north of Cahokia, lends further evidence for the idea the city may have been struggling to effectively produce food, leading to an exodus of people before 1350 CE (White 2019). Overall, though there is no way to know for sure what caused the collapse of Cahokian civilization, there is considerable evidence lending credence to the idea of climate factors ushering in the end of the civilization. While there are several other environmental theories, mainly surrounding overharvesting of resources, the evidence provided by the analysis of particles in nearby lakes and more provides profound insight into the events that took place in the great city of Cahokia.


  • University of Wisconsin-Madison. (2019, February 25). Climate change contributed to fall of Cahokia. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 23, 2023 from link
  • Vincent, Ko Hon Chiu. “Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site.” Cahokia Gallery – UNESCO World Heritage Centre, UNESCO World Heritage Centre, Gallery. Accessed 24 Nov. 2023. 
  • “Monumental Grandeur of the Mississippi Valley”: The Mounds of Native North America – Scientific Figure on ResearchGate. Available from: Link [accessed 24 Nov, 2023]
  • Benson, L. V., Pauketat, T. R., & Cook, E. R. (2009). Cahokia’s Boom and Bust in the Context of Climate Change. American Antiquity74(3), 467-483.
  • Everding, Gerry. “Women Shaped Cuisine, Culture of Ancient Cahokia – the Source – Washington University in St. Louis.” The Source, Washington University St.Louis, 13 Nov. 2020, Source
  • Shukla, Priya. “Human Poop Reveals That Climate Change Caused the Fall of Cahokia, a Medieval Native American City.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 12 Apr. 2019, Forbes
  • White, A.J., and Lora R Stevens. “Fecal Stanols Show Simultaneous Flooding and Seasonal Precipitation Change Correlate with Cahokia’s Population Decline.” PNAS, Northwestern University, Feb. 2019, link
  • Chen, Angus. “1,000 Years Ago, Corn Made This Society Big. Then, a Changing Climate Destroyed It.” NPR, NPR, 10 Feb. 2017, NPR

Image References

  • Fig 1: Vincent, Ko Hon Chiu. “Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site.” Cahokia Gallery – UNESCO World Heritage Centre, UNESCO World Heritage Centre, Accessed 24 Nov. 2023.
  • Fig 2: Benson, L. V., Pauketat, T. R., & Cook, E. R. (2009). Cahokia’s Boom and Bust in the Context of Climate Change. American Antiquity, 74(3), 467-483.
  • Fig 3: “Monumental Grandeur of the Mississippi Valley”: The Mounds of Native North America – Scientific Figure on ResearchGate. Available from: [accessed 24 Nov, 2023]

Further Reading

Dietary Archaeology of Durrington Walls

At Durrington Walls, a permanent settlement in Britain dating back to 2500 B.C.E., evidence of feasts offers a new understanding of pilgrimages to nearby monuments(Mowbray 2023). The large site, illustrated in figure 1, is believed to have been the home of those building Stonehenge, which were visited by those from around the British Aisles (Mowbray 2023). The nearby circular gathering site of Marden is also tied to Durrington Walls, displaying the settlement’s significance in early Britain’s culture around pilgrimage, gathering, and celebration (Romey 2019).

Figure 1. Drawn reconstruction of the Durrington Walls site. Illustration by Peter Lorimer.

At the site, many artifacts of the feasts remain, including 8,500 animal bones, mainly those of pigs (Romey 2019). Researchers found through isotope analysis of pig teeth and jaws that those who gathered at these sites brought livestock from their own regions for the feasts (Morris 2019). While the attendees could’ve reasonably raised the pigs near the feast site, it is presumed that these travelers were required to bring their own food for the feast in order to attend (Morris 2019). It is important to understand the implications of pigs being the animal of choice, as they are considered difficult to travel with (Romey 2019). The difficulty of this journey, which was dozens to hundreds of miles long, makes it more significant that these were pan-British gatherings, not just individual community celebrations or gatherings between neighboring villages (Romey 2019). This offers insight into the organization of the event, as people from far reaching areas of the British Isles were aware of and interested in making the pilgrimage to these stone structures around Durrington Walls.

Figure 2. A Capillariid worm egg from Durrington Walls. Photograph by Evilena Anastasiou.

Further research has been done on the diets of those feasting at Durrington Walls involving coprolites, which are fossilized feces (Bonner 2022). In this study, which focused on humans and dogs, researchers found the eggs of several intestinal parasites (pictured in figure 2) which indicate that animal organs were eaten at these feasts, not just the muscular meat (Mitchell 2022). One parasite was found to be a fish worm, which indicates that a dog had eaten a fish (Bonner 2022). This is a surprising finding as not much evidence has been found of fishing during the Late Neolithic period in Britain (Mitchell 2022).

Through multiple means of analysis of the Durrington Walls site’s feast remains, researchers find more than they would through one method. Bone and tooth isotope analysis offers more information on the original locations of those attending pilgrimages, and the coprolite analysis found that people were eating organs and possibly fished, for which there is less traditional evidence (Mitchell 2022). This research of Durrington Walls and its food waste shows how various methodologies can come together to create a better understanding of how and why people made these pilgrimages.


Bonner, Laure. 2022. “Prehistoric Faeces Reveal Parasites from Feasting at Stonehenge.” University of Cambridge Department of Archaeology.

Mitchell, Piers D, Evilena Anastasiou, Helen L. Whelton, Ian D. Bull, Mike Parker Pearson and Lisa-Marie Shillito. 2022. “Intestinal Parasites in the Neolithic Population who Built Stonehenge (Durrington Walls, 2500 BCE).” Cambridge University Press.

Morris, Steven. 2019. “Ancient Britons Travelled Hundreds of Miles to Stone Circle Feasts.” The Gaurdian.

Mowbray, Sean. 2023. “What the Stonehenge Builders Liked to Eat.” Discover Magazine.

Romey, Kristin. 2019. “Stonehenge-Era Pig Roasts United Ancient Britain, Scientists Say.” National Geographic.

Further reading:

Brewing Before the Vassar Brewers

Booze and the ethanol within is something that humanity has embraced for millennia, and is still great choice for starting the weekend today. But when examining what ethanol provides the human body, evolving the ability to digest it seems a misstep – causing arrhythmias, cancers, and a weak immune system to name a few (Alcohol’s Effects, 2021). In short it seems that it was entirely random! One mutation millions of years ago led to the Viking’s mead and today’s Holiday Budweisers (Choi, 2014). This evolution has gained more logic in recent time, other theories built on the idea that small amounts of alcohol consumption had benefits (which is found not to be true), and so the consumption of rotten fruit laced with ethanol could provide utility for early humans (Choi, 2014). Where humans sourced their alcohol in the first place is another debate. One theory is that early man discovered alcohol along with agriculture. About 10,000 years ago, while humanity was domesticating grain some of it was used to ferment and brew beer (and some studies indicate it was brewed before it was made into bread!). This beer was likely long before any spirits waltzed their way onto the scene (those arose just 2,000 years ago) and their low percentage (and likely low resources) would have kept our ancestors drinking limited to a more moderate level, and important decisions were re-checked when sober (Kahn, 2013).

An early grain silo, where some of the first brews might have been born. Photograph by the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiques

The other leading theory is that our descent into alcohol degeneracy started with rotting fruit. This theory finds us all the way back 80 million years ago, when humans began walking on the ground and picking up rotten fruit (which our consumption of gives a key to when we began climbing out of the trees). This rotten fruit would not have been our first pick, but when we had to it’s calories brought alcohol along as a side effect. The alcohol content is low enough in rotten fruit that it only could’ve found a more prominent place once people started fermenting amidst agriculture, where higher ethanol content could be produced (Choi, 2014).

Butterflies getting drunk on rotten fruit as our ancestors did. Photograph by Phil Gates

But when examining other species, the hallmarks of alcohol that we might find off putting (the smell and taste of high ethanol content) to others is the smell of calories, and therefor survival. Treeshrews actively seek out high alcohol content fruit and nectar for its caloric content, with palm wine (from the tree’s nectar) enjoyed by our ancestors and still enjoyed today (Evans, 2016).

When examining our history with alcohol its easy to portray it as a plague that has followed us for millennia. But our ancestors habits gave us clues to how we ought to view our modern relationship with it: in good nature, in limited quantities, and a good bit of responsibility.


“Alcohol’s Effects on the Body.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2021, “Alcohol’s Effects on the Body.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2021,

Choi, Charles Q. “Origins of Human Alcohol Consumption Revealed.” LiveScience, Purch, 1 Dec. 2014,

Evans, Robert. “Ancient Alcohol in the Animal Kingdom.” A (Brief) History of Vice: How Bad Behavior Built Civilization, A Plume Book, New York, NY, 2016.

Kahn, Jeffrey P. “How Beer Gave Us Civilization.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 15 Mar. 2013,

Further Links:

Pilgrimage in Abu Mina

Travelers walked with one destination in mind, Abu Mina (Figure 1). Rumors foretold Abu Mina’s mythical healing powers which grew the attention of travelers from all over. The stories mentioned magical flasks that would somehow heal the sick and broken. These long adventures the sick and misfortuned took to reach this site connected their stories. No matter where they came from, wherever in the world, this journey was universal for so many. This may have created a sort of spiritual connection amongst all who took this pilgrimage. 

Figure 1 – Abu Mina’s Great Basilica. Photograph by Iris Fernandez (2009) 

The journey taken was one involving Menas Flasks (Figure 2) which derived power from Saint Menas. Menas was executed due to his faith, and his unchangeable faith may have given him a sort of magic quality (Anderson 2007). His power led to many miracles. 

Figure 2 – Flask of St. Menas. Photo by The Walter Arts Museum (2014) 

One miracle tells a story of a worker who was killed when the roof of a church fell onto him, his body was placed before the Saint’s relics, and the Saint resurrected the worker (Beshir 13). His relics became a sought after wonder that sparked a pilgrimage.

Another miracle is the story of a blind man whose sight could not be restored. This was until he reached the relics of the Saint and sent out prayers, and his sight was restored to him (Beshir 13-14). These stories sparked hope in the pilgrims that followed them, and though some may think that’s foolish, others may argue that’s the essence of pilgrimage. Pilgrimage involves following by faith, and faith is not guided by things that are easily proven.

 The world is a large place, and even with that, there are connections everywhere that unite us. The pilgrimage taken was for a miracle that could not have been proven, but it incited a stark hope in those that took the journey. Pilgrimage was seen as a religious requirement for some to find their salvation, so this in addition to the miracles could have been some of the most important aspects of their life on Earth. It was possible that without this pilgrimage, they may have never felt that they could have been saved, and they may have never built connections through their faith in such a widespread way.

A beauty of pilgrimage is that it can hold many different interpretations of the same event or place, and these different views don’t have to go well together, they can exist in their own places of the same world. Yet, at the same time, they coexist to create a beautiful blend of ideas in possibilities for the past, that all can better help us understand the events of our present. 


Anderson, William. “Menas flasks in the West: pilgrimage and trade at the end of antiquity.” Ancient West & East 6 (2007): 221-243.

Beshir, Victor. “The Discovery of a Christian Pilgrimage Center in the Western Desert of Egypt.”

Image Links:

Additional Links:

Rodziewicz, Mieczyslaw D. “Supplement to the Article Philoxenité‒Pilgrimage Harbour of Abu Mina BSAA 47, 2003, 27-47.” Bulletin de la Société archéologique d’Alexandrie 49, no. 1 (2015): p-195.

Collins-Kreiner, Noga. “Researching pilgrimage: Continuity and transformations.” Annals of tourism research 37, no. 2 (2010): 440-456.

The Importance of Woodhenge & Skywatchers

Cahokia is a city aligned five degrees off of true north. At first, this confused scientists as the rest of their society was so in tune with the stars, the sun, and every part of nature. After all, the city had four main plazas that indicated the four cardinal directions, so why wasn’t it perfectly aligned? This can be answered with the solar calendar. The city is perfectly aligned with the areas of the summer solstice, the lunar moonrise, and moonset maximums. 

Further evidence of this is the presence of at least five woodhenges in Cahokia, which aided in the religious observances and farming cycles of the Cahokian people. A woodhenge is a ring of cedar posts, all evenly spaced and about 20 feet tall, and could identify the equinox, and the summer and winter solstices. Aside from calendars, there are theories that the woodhenges also served as aligners for the community. Each post was painted red, after “traces of ochre [were] found by archeaologists in the ground at Woodhenge” (White). The woodhenges were not randomly placed, but perfectly aligned so that at equinox the sun would rise in the east, in line with Monks Mound, as seen in Figure 1.

Figure 1 – Woodhenge Alignment with Monks Mound (Saint Louis Bank)

According to Iseminger, the central post was offset from the true center of the woodhenge around 5.6 feet, “which makes it align better with the perimeter post marking the winter and summer solstice positions at this latitude” (Iseminger). No detail was too small for the Cahokians, and woodhenges were curated to ensure their community could live and farm effectively. Another intricate observation of the woodhenge is the sunrise from Monks Mound. This was the chief’s mound, and as the sun rose in line with the mound it gave the illusion that the sun emerged from the mound. This is believed to be why Cahokians referred to their chief as a “brother” of the sun or believed that he represented the sun deity as an earthly presence (Iseminger).

The direct correlation with the skies is thought to be an attempt to equate the patterns of heaven with those of earth, the manifestation of the belief systems of Cahokian religious practices. Skywatching, an ancient practice commonly used in Cahokia, established a sacred geography through aligning it to the deities. It also provided a material presence of religion and was essential when passing culture through each generation. Skywatchers were common in a majority of Native American societies. Every mound had a purpose and a specific position. One theory exists that Cahokia as a whole falls into the shape of the constellation Orion, seen in Figure 2. 

Figure 2 – Cahokia Mounds Map (Cahokia Mounds Museum Society)

Cahokia relied on the sun, moon, and stars to guide their way of life: from what they ate to whom they prayed to, and their vast knowledge of the sky’s interworking with the resources they had continues to fascinate researchers.



“Cahokia Mounds Map.” Cahokia Mounds Museum Society. Accessed 11 November 2023 

Iseminger, William R. “The Skywatchers of Cahokia.” Mexicolore, 2009. Accessed 10 November 2023

“The Real Name of Cahokia Mounds.” Saint Louis Bank, 2021. Accessed 10 November 2023. 

White, AJ. “Cahokia.” ORIAS, University of California, Berkeley. Accessed 9 November 2023,and%20Woodhenge%20marked%20the%20occasions

New Discoveries On The Origins of The Sacrifices in Mound 72

Cahokia was a major Precolombian city in modern-day Illinois near St. Louis, Missouri. It was the first major city in North America north of Mexico and stood for four centuries beginning in 950 CE – at its highest point, it reached a population of twenty to thirty thousand people in the year 1200 (Yates 2016). Despite being abandoned in the late twelfth century, Cahokia’s principal monuments–its mounds–still stand tall. The mounds were important to Cahokian religious and ritual life, and when their contents were unearthed, archaeologists found overwhelming evidence of human sacrifice. 

In Mound 72, archaeologists unearthed a mass grave of two hundred and seventy-two teenage girls and young women. The bodies of the women, for the most part, showed no signs of blunt-force trauma (Pauketat 2010). They were also not buried all at once–Pauketat estimates that based on how they were buried, at least one group of girls was sacrificed every generation, meaning there must have been something in their tradition that required a large number of young women to be sacrificed periodically. The age and state of the women suggest that their sacrifice was a ritual surrounding fertility (Isselhardt 2022).

Figure 1: A layout of the burials in mound 72 (Yates 2016)

Pauketat suggests in his book Cahokia: Ancient America’s Great City on The Mississippi, that the sheer number of girls sacrificed in this ritual may have caused political unrest and points towards the excavation of the upland Halliday site with more feminine-oriented artifacts as a possible source for the young women used for these grand sacrifices. The hypothesis of this theory makes sense in the context of the book–a study on the teeth of the sacrificed women compared to the teeth of the human remains found in the Halliday site suggests that the Halliday citizens, much like some women who were sacrificed, had a diet high in maize and low in protein, meaning they were less healthy than inner-city Cahokians. (Pauketat 2010)

Figure 2: Location of the Halliday and Cahokia sites (Pauketat 2005)

However, the idea that the sacrificed women were immigrants or non-locals has come into question. Using dental morphology, strontium isotope analyses, and dental metrics, a team of scientists was able to determine that the young women in the mass graves had a high degree of relatedness, for the most part, and came from the centralized Cahokia area. Strontium isotopes on the teeth confirmed that the crops they were eating were grown in the same regions as the crops eaten by the greater population of the city (Thompson 2015). This does not mean that Pauketat was entirely wrong, however. The group of women buried in one mound together called F229-lower had a slightly different morphology than the other women, especially in F229-higher, who showed a higher degree of relatedness with each other (Thompson 2015). 

The investigation has raised more questions than provided answers. These would have been the daughters of the city and they would be at a large loss sacrificing so many young women. Only future research can tell us what we need to know about the sacrifice of the women at Mound 72.

Additional Information:

Strontium-isotope analysis:,the%20decay%20of%2087Rb

Dental Morphology:

Works Cited:

Isselhardt, Tiffany. “Girlhood and the Downfall of Cahokia.” Medium, February 27, 2022. 

Pauketat, Timothy R. Cahokia: Ancient America’s Great City on the Mississippi. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2010. 

Pauketat, Timothy  R. “Agency in a Postmold? Physicality and the Archaeology of Culture-Making.” Research Gate, September 2005. 

Thompson, Andrew R. “New Dental and Isotope Evidence of Biological Distance and Place of Origin for Mass Burial Groups at Cahokia’s Mound 72.” Wiley Online Library, July 14, 2015. 

Yates, Diana. “Ancient Bones, Teeth, Tell Story of Strife at Cahokia.” ILLINOIS, August 4, 2016.

Beyond Walls: The Hopewell Earthworks in Chillicothe, Ohio

In the 1700’s Europeans were astounded at the Hopewell Earthwork in Chillicothe, Ohio (“Hopewell Mound Group”, n.d.). They were given this name due to the burial mounds in Chillicothe, later turned into a farm owned by Mordecai Hopewell (“Who Were the Hopewell?”, n.d.). The Hopewell were assumed to have built these mounds and enclosures for defense purposes, declared by an early archeologist in 1820; however, this assumption would later be dispelled (“Hopewell Mound Group”, n.d.). 

The Hopewell Mound Site could be described as a parallelogram, measuring 900 feet by 950 feet, one big circle measuring 1,050 feet in diameter, and two smaller circles of land measuring 200 and 250 feet in diameter. The wall around the parallelogram was 12 feet tall and 50 feet wide at the base. As for the circles, their walls were 5 feet high. These measurements were taken in 1848 from the remnants of the site, four miles north of Chillicothe, OH (“Archeology at Hopewell”, n.d.). Several mounds remain at the Hopewell Earthwork preserved and kept safe by its designation as a World Heritage Site (“Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks” n.d.). However, no remnants of the walls remain on the Chillicothe land, and in the time that funds were being acquired to purchase the land by the National park Service (10 years), due to annual cultivation and the rising popularity of high-powered tractors, the mounds began to downsize (“Archeology at Hopewell”, n.n.). Over time, the walls were left to ruin too. 

E.G. Squier and E.H. Davis rendition of the Hopeton Earthworks from 1848 (“Archaeology at Hopewell”).

Undermining the theory of defense and aversion to foreigners are the artifacts found in the Hopewell burial mounds and around the site. Most notably, were the remnants of obsidian found in the region, all traced back to Yellowstone in Wyoming (“Hopewell Culture Obsidian”, n.d.). Other artifacts found in the Scotio River Valley and the Hopewell Earthworks, were fossilized shark teeth from the Gulf Coast, jewelry made from copper and silver of the Great Lakes, and mica from the Appalachian Mountains (Langdon, n.d.). However, there was little evidence of obsidian, specifically, as one travels from Wyoming to Chillicothe, indicating that the obtainment of these materials was not through trade (Langdon, n.d.). Archaeologists believe Hopewell Earthworks to be a cultural and ritualistic center that brought people of other tribes, other cultures, and other regions on a pilgrimage-like journey similar to that which many made to Cahokia of the Mississippi (Langdon, n.d.). Thus, these walls were not created to keep people away from mounds, the presence of gates and breaks like a welcome message. The presence of foreign artifacts found buried in these mounds represents a sense of respect the Hopewell people had for those who found solace in the ritualistic center it was and for what they could provide. 

More current aerial view of the Hopewell Earthworks, designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site (Blank 2003).


“Archeology at Hopewell Culture National Historical Park (U.S.” 2020. National Park Service.

Blank, John. 2003. “Document – Mound City: Aerial View.” UNESCO World Heritage Centre.

“Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks – Hopewell Culture National Historical Park (U.S.” n.d. National Park Service. Accessed November 12, 2023.

“Hopewell Culture Obsidian (U.S.” 2022. National Park Service.

“Hopewell Mound Group – Hopewell Culture National Historical Park (U.S.” 2023. National Park Service.

Langdon, W. n.d. “Intriguing Interactions.” National Geographic Society. Accessed November 12, 2023.

“Who Were the Hopewell?” n.d. Archaeology Magazine Archive. Accessed November 12, 2023.


The Origins Of Farming

12,000 years ago hunter-gathers abandoned their long standing nomadic lifestyle and ventured towards a more efficient means of gathering food, that means came to be known as farming. (Chatterjee, 2016) 

Figure 1: A map of the Fertile Crescent that includes the location of ancient Mesopotamia between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. ( Astroskiandhike, 2018)

The Fertile Crescent, as seen in Figure 1, is a region that spans through present day Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan. The geographic features of the region allowed for the area to become a pinnacle of agricultural production dating back more than 11,000 years ago. (Chatterjee, 2016) The Tigris, Euphrates, as well as the Nile River, each traverse through the region. The convergence of these rivers helped to produce fertile soil, which is necessary for agriculture. Additionally, the rivers played an integral role in the development of irrigation, which is a necessary tool for the production of agricultural goods. Likewise, the easy access to the large waterways led to the development of trade routes. These trade routes not only transported goods and people, but also allowed for the interaction and confluence of diverse cultures and ideas. As the traders traveled back to their homeland, they transported these cultures and ideas. In essence, the Fertile Crescent become a melting pot for ideas, education and culture. These intangibles were exported along with the tangible agricultural products and goods. (Zimmer, 2016) 

Research has exhibited that no one central location in the Fertile Crescent can take credit for the invention of farming. Instead, evidence suggests that a number of smaller sites within the Fertile Crescent simultaneously practiced farming separate and apart from other groups. Researchers have examined the DNA of multiple groups that inhabited the Fertile Crescent in various locations. The DNA of individuals within those groups indicted that the groups were in no way related. Therefore, one can conclude that farming developed concurrently, at or around the same time, by various individual groups that were not interrelated. (Zimmer, 2016)   

Figure 2: Map of Jordan showing locations of ‘Ain Ghazal (Andrew N. Garrard, 2019)

One of the first locations farming was found to appear was the village of Ain Ghazal. That villages that lies in central Jordan, as seen in Figure 2, which is located in the Fertile Crescent. An analysis of the site evidences the progression from a nomadic society to more agricultural based society. Specific examples of this progression can be seen in the fact that crops were raised, animals were domesticated and tools were created for farming. The farmers of the village would raise barley, wheat, chickpeas and lentils. Additionally, they would herd sheep and goats in the nearby hillsides. Another site examined was located on the coast of the Sea of Galilee. That site revealed huts that contained the remnants of 150,000 charred seeds and fruits, along with olives, almonds and grapes. Also located at the site were tools used to harvest cereals (Zimmer 2016). The totality of the findings at these sites indicate a society well on its way to transition itself from the nomadic lifestyle to an agriculturally based society. 


Astrohikeandski. 2018.“File:Fertile Crescent.Svg – Wikipedia.” 2018. December 14, 2018.

Chatterjee, Rhitu. 2016. “Where Did Agriculture Begin? Oh Boy, It’s Complicated.” NPR, July 15, 2016, sec. Food For Thought.

Garrard, Andrew. 2019. “Figure 1 Map of Jordan Showing Locations of ’Ain Ghazal, Wisad Pools…” ResearchGate. August 2019.

Zimmer, Carl. 2016. “How the First Farmers Changed History.” The New York Times, October 17, 2016, sec. Science.

Further Research Links:


Food Production in Cahokia: A Parallel to Modern-Day Overconsumption

With undeniable evidence that proved that Native Americans, too, built great civilizations – achieving amazing architectural feats and forming complex societies with centralized governments – Cahokia challenged people’s preconceptions of ancient Native Americans. Contrary to popular belief, Native Americans also dealt with overpopulation and overexploitation of their natural resources. With such a massive population, which boomed around 1050 AD, Cahokia needed to produce much more food than they had before. Thanks to modern technology and advancements in archaeology, such as water flotation techniques, archaeologists are able to get better insight into Cahokia’s food production and Cahokian diet.

Cahokia was a highly centralized society conveniently placed in very fertile farmland (Figure 1); around the great urban center, farmers worked hard to feed the demanding population (Seppa, 1997). Cahokian rulers deliberately established the upland and bottomland farming villages. Having both upland and bottomland farming environments proved vital in food production, providing a larger variety of food and enhancing the security of food supply; if one area failed, Cahokians still had another area to draw resources from. For instance, if the bottom fields flooded, the upland fields would still thrive. On the other hand, if there was not enough rain one year, the upland fields would be too dry to sustain crops, but the bottom fields would still hold enough moisture to succeed (Tainter, 2019). 

Figure 1. An aeriel view of what Cahokia would have looked like. It shows the great urban center and the surround farming villages around it (Anwar, 2020).

Before the rise of Cahokia, people depended primarily on diverse plant foods and consumed animals in lesser amounts. However, as the population grew, their dependence on certain foods changed. Fish, which used to be a staple food, went from 77% to 10% in consumption. Mammals, on the other hand, went from 10% to 67% in consumption, which is indicated by the increase in deer remains. The most significant staple food for the Cahokians was maize; originally domesticated in Mexico, it made its way up to the American Southwest where it became more than just a staple food – but a religiously significant crop (Tainter, 2019). Cahokians also shifted from horticulture to mass-producing agriculture. They cultivated goosefoot, amaranth, canary grass, and starchy seeds; they were able to mass produce these by storing seeds in communal granaries (Figure 2), which were uncovered during excavations (Seppa, 1997). 

Figure 2. A pot filled with seeds, which will be stored in a granary (Tumblr, n.d.).

The end of Cahokia still remains a great mystery, but it seemed to occur around the time when descendants of the upland farmers left their farms in 1150 AD, throwing Cahokia’s government and economy into turmoil (Pauketat, 2009). This goes to show how farmers were the foundation of this grand civilization. As we covered in class, the Cahokians aimed to produce the maximum to survive, which is ultimately unsustainable and is the reason for their end. This parallels overconsumption today, which is one of the biggest problems of society today. We should take our knowledge of this ancient civilization as a warning to what could happen if we continue to overexploit our resources and mass-produce. 


Anwar, Yasmine. January 27, 2020. “New Study Debunks Myth of Cahokia’s Native American Lost Civilization.” Berkeley News.

Everding, Gerry. March 21, 2019. “Women Shaped Cuisine, Culture of Ancient Cahokia.” The Source.,the%20society%2C%E2%80%9D%20she%20said

Pauketat, Timothy R. 2009. “Digging for the Goddess.” In Cahokia: Ancient America’s Great City on the Mississippi. pp. 123-128. Penguin Group: Viking Penguin.

Seppa, Nathan. March 12, 1997. “Metropolitan Life on the Mississippi.” The Washington Post.,grass%20and%20other%20starchy%20seeds

Tainter, Joseph A. December 3, 2019. “Cahokia: Urbanization, Metabolism, and Collapse.” Frontiers.   

Tumblr. “Mike Ruggeri’s Ancient Cahokia.” n.d. 

Further Reading:

Chen, Angus. February 10, 2017. “1,000 Years Ago, Corn Made This Society Big. Then, A Changing Climate Destroyed It.” npr

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

Knox, Pam. March 30, 2019. “How did Cahokian farmers feed such a large city?” UGA Cooperative Extension.

The Impact of Astronomy on Cahokia and Mesoamerican Societies

Throughout history, the study and interpretation of celestial bodies and movements has played a pivotal role in shaping cultures around the world. By interpreting the heavens, these civilizations have made numerous discoveries that impact the lives of everyday citizens. The influences of astronomy is reflected through agricultural practices, religious beliefs, and the establishment of societal hierarchies

In Mesoamerica, particular attention was paid to the movements of the moon and Venus, both of which were important for agricultural practices. Venus, also known as the Evening Star, was predominant in Mesoamerican cultures as its movements signified the beginning and end of the rainy seasons (Sprajc, 2011). To normal citizens, knowledge of the cosmos and the ability to predict future occurrences in the region could be interpreted as divine providence; indeed, the ability to predict celestial events may have very well been used to legitimize the privileges given to religious figures and the social elite. In turn, religious figures were likened to men-gods, who performed rituals and sacrifices to ensure the cosmos was in balance (Šprajc, 2011).

The use of astronomy to create social hierarchy is not unique to Mesoamerica. The Mississippi River civilization of Cahokia shared similar astronomical discoveries and cultural expressions with Mesoamerican civilizations. In 1961, Warren Wittry discovered Woodhenge, akin to Stonhenge in Great Britain, that acted as an observatory and calendar (Pauketat, 2010). Large poles made of a sacred wood, red cedar, ringed a central pole made of the same material. The most important of these were the poles that marked the summer and winter solstice, and the pole that marked the equinox (Keller, Young, Kronk 2022). This allowed for farmers and religious leaders to more accurately determine the best time to undertake certain activities, including the planting of crops.

Fig 1. Diagram of the woodhenge at Cahokia. This details the paths in which certain celestial events cast shadows on this monument (Crozier, 2018).

Aside from the practical applications of astronomy, the study of the heavens was also used to demonstrate status differences and religious beliefs. In Cahokia, there is a particular burial mound, designated as Mound 72, that is oriented to align with the solstices. Inside were the remains of two figures, one on top of the other, who were adorned with pelts and were buried alongside thousands of shell beads (Pauketat,  2010). The unique orientation of this mound, alongside evidence of numerous sacrifices in the area and the expensive goods in the mound, indicate that these two figures were of extreme importance.

Fig 2. Map of Mound 72 burial features at Cahokia (Thompson, Hedman, Slater, 2015).

The evidence of ritual killings in the presence of burial mounds, similar to other Mesoamerican cultures, alludes to these events being public displays of power. It is likely that, “with sacrifices, leaders could eliminate some rival claimants to office, impress the viewing public, and reaffirm the balance of the cosmos all at once” (Pauketat, 2010). Moreover, these public killings demonstrate how astronomy could influence and shape civilizations. Leaders of respective civilizations were able to utilize this valuable astronomical knowledge to establish a strict social hierarchy, and in the process, create religious justifications to reinforce their divine right to rule.


Šprajc, Ivan. 2011. “Astronomy and Its Role in Ancient Mesoamerica: Proceedings of the International Astronomical Union.” Cambridge Core, Cambridge University Press. June 29, 2011.

Crozier, Elizabeth. 2018. “The Stonehenge of Illinois Is a Man Made Wonder Few Know About.” OnlyInYourState®. March 21, 2018.

Keller, Ken, Eric Young, Gary Kronk. 2022. “Woodhenge”. Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site and Cahokia Mounds Museum Society.

Thompson, Andrew R, Kristin M Hedman, and Philip A Slater. 2015. “New Dental and Isotope Evidence of Biological Distance and Place of Origin for Mass Burial Groups at Cahokia’s Mound 72.” Wiley Online Library, July 14, 2015.

Pauketat, Timothy R. 2009. Cahokia: Ancient America’s Great City on the Mississippi. Penguin Books.

Other Readings:

Aldana, Gerardo. 2022. “Maya Calendar and Mesoamerican Astronomy.” Encyclopedia of the History of Science, February 10, 2022.

Kropf, Evyn, Francesca Schironi, John Steele, Julia Falkovitch-Khain, and Pablo Alvarez. 2023. “Early Astronomy in the University of Michigan Collections.” Early Astronomy in the University of Michigan Collections | Home.