Population nucleation, intensive agriculture, and environmental degradation: The Cahokia example

Abstract

Cahokia, the largest pre-European settlement in North America, was situated on the Middle Mississippi River floodplain and flourished for approximately three hundred years from the 10th century AD onward. The site was favorably located from an environmental standpoint, being proximal to a diversity of microhabitats including expanses of open water and marshes from which the essential, renewable fish protein could be procured. More importantly, the largest local zone of soils characterized as optimal for prehistoric hoe cultivation lay immediately to the east. Here, on the floodplain and along its bordering alluvial fans, the large maize outfields were situated, while the multi-crop house gardens were placed within the habitation zone on soils that had often been culturally enriched by prior occupation. As successful as this strategy might have been for small, dispersed populations in such a plentiful environment, nucleation of large numbers of people at Cahokia provided a different adaptive context that ultimately led to ruinous consequences. The seeds for the city's destruction centered anthropogenically produced environmental degradation. Demands on wood resources for fuel and construction were enormous and agricultural field clearance was in forested rather than prairie settings. The resultant watershed deforestation produced greatly increased rates of erosion, runoff, and unseasonable downstream flooding during the summer growing season. The economic and social consequences of declining production and localized crop failures proved disastrous for this city of farmers.

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Woods, W.I. Population nucleation, intensive agriculture, and environmental degradation: The Cahokia example. Agriculture and Human Values 21, 255–261 (2004). https://doi.org/10.1023/B:AHUM.0000029398.01906.5e

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  • Eastern North America
  • Prehistoric Agriculture
  • Soils