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New Study Challenges 'Myth' Of Cahokia's Lost Civilization

Photo courtesy Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site

In the popular imagination, Cahokia seems to represent a cautionary tale. What today remains only as a series of mounds outside Collinsville, Illinois, used to be a thriving city — bigger than London in the mid-13th century. There may have been as many as 40,000 people living there. Yet in the years that followed, the population faced rapid decline. By 1400, what was a city had become a wasteland. 

A new paper suggests that narrative is at best incomplete, and at worst inaccurate. Published Monday in American Antiquity, the study uses fecal deposits to show that the exodus from the site was short-lived. A fresh wave of native people settled in Cahokia and repopulated the area from 1500 to 1700. It was only after European settlers made their way to the area that Cahokia’s ultimate abandonment began.  

On Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air, A.J. White discussed the paper and how the longer timeline of his study destroys “the myth of Cahokia’s Native American lost civilization.” A doctoral student in anthropology at the University of California-Berkeley, White is the study’s lead author.

White said the study rests on the “fecal record” in nearby Horseshoe Lake. He discussed how he and a team of researchers gathered the samples, and what they show.

Being able to prove indigenous people remained in the area dispels some long-held myths, he said.

“There’s this concept of the disappearing Indian,” he said. “The way that Native American history has been presented to most of the American public is one that focuses on decline as opposed to persistence. I imagine most schoolchildren would be able to talk about the impact that disease had on indigenous peoples, but would they know about the Native American rights movement in the ’60s, or even Standing Rock more recently? The fact of the matter is, there’s millions of Native Americans around today, and yet the history books don’t exactly make that obvious.”

He added: “Cahokia as an archaeological site does seem to be pretty vacant after 1400. But that’s not the end of an indigenous presence in this region. ... There’s this continuity that can be drawn all the way to present with those that are around today. Rather than seeing this as a closed book, I’d like to open up the chapters a little more.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The engineer is Aaron Doerr, and production assistance is provided by Charlie McDonald.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.

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