Annalee Newitz: Finding North America’s lost medieval city

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of Ordinary Times. Relapsed Lawyer, admitted to practice law (under his real name) in California and Oregon. On Twitter, to his frequent regret, at @burtlikko. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.

Related Post Roulette

34 Responses

  1. Damon says:

    Don’t recall any of this in my American history class. Fascinating.Report

  2. LeeEsq says:

    Settled civilizations existed in North America to. The Native Americans were less rustic than most people thing. The Amazon Rain Forest also has a lot of ruins showing human tinkering with the environment. It might have supported a population of five million before contact with the Europeans. Five million.Report

    • Kim in reply to LeeEsq says:

      Five Million? That’s peanuts. Really, it is. 300 million in America, and that’s not even really thickly populated.Report

      • Burt Likko in reply to Kim says:

        Well, we do have the benefit of the most advanced and extensive industrialization the world has yet seen. That tends to boost population levels. Five million pre-industrial people in a particular geographic area is pretty impressive. Which is why I’m so impressed with the city described in the linked article — thirty thousand urban pre-industrial people suggests a high level of cultural sophistication and environmental know-how. In fact, it seems they had very little metal, and yet were still able to support a city of that size.Report

        • Kim in reply to Burt Likko says:

          1300: 5,500,000 (Source: John Langdon and James Masschaele, “Commercial Activity and Population Growth in Medieval England”, p. 65)

          I’m pretty sure the Amazon RainForest is about 50 times the area of england.

          Sparsely populated, I say.

          (and yes, North America had far better capacity than the Amazonian Rainforest. People live better (and are smarter) at particular temperatures — see Carrier’s research on the subject).Report

        • Joe Sal in reply to Burt Likko says:

          There is evidence copper was previously traded heavily in the area:

          Processing stone to make/maintain basic tools can be relatively efficient and fast.

          The item that suprises me is the use of stone in agricultural tools, but considering it’s mostly soft clay, I can see why they went that route.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Kim says:

        Compared to the number of Native Americans that we previously believed lived in the Amazon before contact, somewhere in the low hundreds of thousands, five million is staggering. It suggests that the hi-ball figures for pre-contact numbers is correct and the death caused by contact with humans one of the biggest genocides in human history.Report

        • Kim in reply to LeeEsq says:

          Excellent comment.Report

        • Mike Dwyer in reply to LeeEsq says:


          “…the death caused by contact with humans one of the biggest genocides in human history.”

          I would caution you on two items:

          1) The population totals of pre-Columbian American Indians are highly disputed. They range widely because it is extremely hard to verify for any number of reasons. Not saying your number is wrong, but historians have been disagreeing about this for decades.

          2) Deaths from diseases do not qualify as ‘genocide’. That’s an important distinction to make when considering the history of European/American Indian contact.Report

  3. PD Shaw says:

    I live 100 miles from the site and have been there multiple times. Interestingly, but not surprising, relatively few people visit from Illinois; the usual visitor comes from afar or other countries. One of the things I like about the interpretive center is that at the end of the exhibits it gives the visitors to select what they believe happened.

    My two cents. Last year findings were published from analysis of nearby lake sediment cores, showing that the depopulation of Cahokia corresponded with a major flood event. The site was within a flood plain, and as the city and its suburbs grew and the intensity of maize agriculture increased (through burning of the river valley vegetation), the limitations of the bottomland were vulnerable to such a flood. (It could have been made worse if it is true as some believe that the Cahokians diverted a creek to the central area, a significant engineering feat).

    The opposing view given mention in the piece is that correlation does not equal causation, and someone dug some holes and couldn’t find flood debris. That doesn’t refute the evidence preserved in the nearby lake of major flooding; it merely indicates that either flooding did not occur in those spots or the evidence of flooding was not preserved there.Report

    • Joe Sal in reply to PD Shaw says:

      I noticed there was no mention of disease. Usually in a cascade failure disease is one of the parameters that moves along the collapse. This situation may be one of the few that wasn’t a quick downfall, just a relatively slow depopulation.Report

      • PD Shaw in reply to Joe Sal says:

        I’ve not heard a lot about disease, but certainly decline could have multiple contributing factors. It was larger than London, which had disease problems, but the impression I have is that Cahokia was nowhere near as dense. There are large open spaces/ promenades that may have served ritual purposes, some parts of Cahokia might be characterized as suburbs, and there were farms and orchards nearby. This may have led to less sanitation-originating diseases.Report

  4. Mike Dwyer says:

    Cahokia is a fantastic site, and one I wish I had time to visit more regularly (only a few hours from Louisville). You can still climb one of the largest mounds. I’ll echo @pd-shaw by saying the visitor’s center is fantastic. Interestingly, many early scholars in the the United States (including Thomas Jefferson) believed the mound-builders to be another race (lost tribe of Israel?) because they did not think American Indians were capable of that kind of work.

    One of the things that I think is very unfortunate is how few people understand the complex and rich history of American Indians in what would become the United States, especially in the Eastern U.S. You have a very robust Mississippian culture from roughly 800 CE to 1600 CE. It was a fascinating period. I’ve been very lucky to work at and visit some of those sites.

    As a native of Kentucky, I’ve always loved the Eastern tribes, but they mostly get ignored. Even the American Indian Museum in Washington DC mostly fails with the Eastern tribes. We are so indoctrinated in Hollywood’s idea of the American Indian…headress-wearing Plains Indians…that people just assume they were all like that. Some movies still do them justice (Jeremiah Johnson, Last of the Mohicans) but I wish there was more . It saddens me greatly to see the remnant tribes (Shawnee, Cherokee, etc) that have adopted this very generic ‘Indian’ culture that in no way reflects their history.

    Sorry. I’ll get off my soapbox now…. Just to repeat though, Cahokia is awesome and worth a visit if you like that kind of stuff.Report

    • Kazzy in reply to Mike Dwyer says:


      Have you read 1491? The Stuff You Should Know guys reference it often. Would be curious to hear your take if you have, especially w/r/t readability for a history layperson.Report

    • Kolohe in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

      The main thing contributing to people not paying to Eastern tribes is, imo, the out of sight, out of mind. The Eastern tribes have a sliver of a fraction of both the population and the sovereign territory that tribes West of the Mississippi river have (for well known historical reasons). Even among the federally recognized Eastern tribes, that recognition came comparatively late – the only federally recognized tribe in Virginia was only granted that status last year.Report

  5. Brent F says:

    I have a big pet peave with comparing medival London and Paris to cities in the other part of the world. Both of them weren’t first rank centers in Europe until late in the middle ages. Paris starts becoming a big deal in the 13th century, while medieval London was never even a first rate urban center in the English Channel region (being considerably smaller than the Flemish cities like Bruges and Ghent).

    As a rule of thumb, if someone is making a historical comparison to London at the same age, they are probably trying to pull wool over your eyes about how impressive that urban area is compared to the rest of the world at that time.Report

    • Kim in reply to Brent F says:

      Noted. Will pull some numbers for the Hanseatic League, simply because you’ve made me curious.Report

    • Burt Likko in reply to Brent F says:

      A valid point, one to take into account. In 1100 the European cities one would have found more impressive would have been Constantinople, Venice, or in Moorish Spain.

      With that said, I take the comparison to London and Paris a bit differently: it’s an invitation to consider what might have been. If London and Paris grew from towns of ten to twenty thousand souls each into globally important megalopolises, each able to state a reasonable claim for “Caput Mundi” at some point in their histories, what would things have been like had Cahoika been able to follow a similar path?Report

      • Brent F in reply to Burt Likko says:

        That’s a valid point, but its likewise important to consider that the societies Paris and London sprung from were unusually rural based for their level of technoligical and social sophistication. The Latin Catholic culture that sprung up under the Franks and spread outward focused its growth on villages and small towns. Thus when economic conditions began to favour large cities in W. Europe (roughly 13th century at eariliest but it really started going in the 15th) they shot up like weeds due to the huge spare capacity for urbanization that had been built up.Report