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Cahokia: A cautionary tale

Artist's rendition of Cahokia.

Cahokia was an ill-fated, American Indian settlement near present-day St. Louis.  When the city was settled around 1,000 A.D., Indian populations had grown to such a level in the eastern United States that game was becoming scarce.  Luckily, maize (corn) was making its way north from Central and South America, allowing the Indians to replace their hunting lifestyle with a more agricultural one.

Maize One visionary leader realized that changing to a lifestyle centered around maize would require building granaries to store the kernels over the winter.  He figured the best way to go about it would be to create a huge communal granary so that the combined might of the community could protect the maize from depradations by neighboring groups.  Some 15,000 people joined this unnamed leader in his quest to construct a giant city --- the largest north of the Rio Grande --- and to plant vast fields of maize.

Unfortunately, the population of Cahokia grew so large that the water from the stream  flowing by the city couldn't support the city's people.  So the Cahokians channeled a nearby stream from its normal path, rerouting the water to join their existing stream and turning their water supply into a river.  More water!  More maize!  More people!

The Cahokians continued to clear the surrounding land, cutting down trees as building material, for fires, and to open up land to grow more maize.  Eventually, disaster struck.  Heavy storms which would have been soaked up by forest quickly ran off the agricultural fields, bloating the river, and causing floods and mudslides in the city of Cahokia.  A subsequent earthquake was the last straw which broke Cahokia's back.  Within a few hundred years of its inception, the city had dissolved back into the earth.

The story sounds astoundingly familiar.  Clearcutting, stream channelization, monoculture, and overpopulation leading to flooding and ecological collapse --- it could be set next door to my house.  The end of the story, though, is something I only see dimly in modern agriculture's future.  The Indians fled the city and developed a more sustainable agricultural system based on small fields of maize surrounded by managed forests of fruit and nuts.  Maybe those Noble Savages were pretty smart after all.



This post is part of our American Indian Permaculture lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:


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