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.

Further Readings

Organic Residue Analysis From Ceramic Fragments Reveals Ancient Diet and More

Most archaeological excavations do not find golden statues or treasure troves, like what is portrayed in films, but rather ceramic shards. To the general public, this might not seem like an important find but these fragments offer a lot of information. Organic residues found on or in ceramic matrices or plasters (see Figure 1) are one feature, in particular, that contain valuable archaeological data. These residues represent precious history and the analysis of such residues can recover many aspects of ancient ways of life including diet, cooking, food storage, etc. (Pecci 2014).

Figure 1. Analyzed pottery fragment with an attached food residue.

So what exactly is organic residue analysis? It is a method that utilizes “analytical organic chemical techniques to identify the nature and origins of organic remains that cannot be characterized by using traditional techniques of archaeological investigation” (Evershed 2008). There are two main approaches used when performing residue analyses. The first is the analysis of lipids through identification of fatty acids by gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS), often coupled with the analysis of carbon stable isotopes (Pavelka 2016). The second is identifying source-specific proteins by either mass spectrometry or by more traditional immunological methods and using peptide mapping (Pavelka 2016). Both approaches have their advantages which should be taken into account. Lipids are less susceptible to “leaching” and “diagenetic degradation” than proteins but peptide mapping for proteins is very analogous and can detect distinct differences in amino acids for individual species (Pavelka 2016).

Many studies have been done on recovered ceramics using organic residue analysis to further study the diets of past societies and also show connections between them. A study conducted by Boyd et al. (2006), focused on the consumption of maize in North America through the analysis of food residue for starch and phytolith content. Their results showed that maize consumption was more widespread than believed. They examined small-scale societies living at the northern edge of the Great Plains (see Figure 2), where the role of domesticated plants in their diets was hidden due to little to no archaeological evidence using traditional methods. However, residue analysis from ceramic pieces in this area demonstrated that maize was evidently present and even became an important dietary. This then raised questions as to whether the maize presence was reflecting local production, trade, or both. Boyd et al. observed that one sample obtained from a large loop-handled pot, which was the only one recovered at that site, was similar to another location’s traditional style pot where maize was known to be grown locally; so it is reasonable to suspect that it was acquired through trade.

Figure 2. Location of study sites, and Middle Missouri region within the Great Plains (shaded in gray).

As the organic residue field further expands and develops, it can propose evidence to challenge many long-standing archaeological hypotheses (Evershed 2008). A critical step forward will be treating recovered ceramics as biological material that is susceptible to irreparable damage and contamination so that no potential information is lost (Pavelka 2016).


Further Readings



Boyd, M.,  T. Varney, C. Surette, and J. Surette. 2008. “Reassessing the Northern Limit of Maize Consumption in North America: Stable Isotope, Plant Microfossil, and Trace Element Content of Carbonized Food Residue.” Journal of Archaeological Science, 35: 2545-2556.

Evershed, Richard P. 2008. “Organic Residue Analysis in Archaeology: The Archaeological Biomarker Revolution*.” Archaeometry, 50: 895-924.  

Pavelka, Jaroslav, Ladislav Smejda, Radovan Hynek, and Stepanka Hrdlickova Kuckova. 2016. “Immunological Detection of Denatured Proteins as a Method for Rapid Identification of Food Residues on Archaeological Pottery.” Journal of Archaeological Science, 73: 25-35. 

Pecci, A. 2014. “Organic Residue Analysis in Archaeology.” In: Smith, C. (eds) Encyclopedia of Global Archaeology. Springer, New York, NY.