How Ancient Poop Debunked Myth of Native American Lost Civilization

Cahokia Mounds

Modern picture of Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in Collinsville, Illinois, directly across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, Missouri.

New study debunks myth of Cahokia’s Native American lost civilization: ancient poop levels point to repopulation of iconic pre-Columbian metropolis.

A University of California, Berkeley, archaeologist has dug up ancient human feces, among other demographic clues, to challenge the narrative around the legendary demise of Cahokia, North America’s most iconic pre-Columbian metropolis.

In its heyday in the 1100s, Cahokia — located in what is now southern Illinois — was the center for Mississippian culture and home to tens of thousands of Native Americans who farmed, fished, traded and built giant ritual mounds.

By the 1400s, Cahokia had been abandoned due to floods, droughts, resource scarcity and other drivers of depopulation. But contrary to romanticized notions of Cahokia’s lost civilization, the exodus was short-lived, according to a new UC Berkeley study.

The study takes on the “myth of the vanishing Indian” that favors decline and disappearance over Native American resilience and persistence, said lead author A.J. White, a UC Berkeley doctoral student in anthropology.

“One would think the Cahokia region was a ghost town at the time of European contact, based on the archeological record,” White said. “But we were able to piece together a Native American presence in the area that endured for centuries.”

The findings, just published in the journal American Antiquity on January 24, 2020, make the case that a fresh wave of Native Americans repopulated the region in the 1500s and kept a steady presence there through the 1700s, when migrations, warfare, disease and environmental change led to a reduction in the local population.

White and fellow researchers at California State University, Long Beach, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Northeastern University analyzed fossil pollen, the remnants of ancient feces, charcoal and other clues to reconstruct a post-Mississippian lifestyle.

Their evidence paints a picture of communities built around maize farming, bison hunting and possibly even controlled burning in the grasslands, which is consistent with the practices of a network of tribes known as the Illinois Confederation.

Unlike the Mississippians who were firmly rooted in the Cahokia metropolis, the Illinois Confederation tribe members roamed further afield, tending small farms and gardens, hunting game and breaking off into smaller groups when resources became scarce.

The linchpin holding together the evidence of their presence in the region were “fecal stanols” derived from human waste preserved deep in the sediment under Horseshoe Lake, Cahokia’s main catchment area.

Fecal stanols are microscopic organic molecules produced in our gut when we digest food, especially meat. They are excreted in our feces and can be preserved in layers of sediment for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

Because humans produce fecal stanols in far greater quantities than animals, their levels can be used to gauge major changes in a region’s population.

To collect the evidence, White and colleagues paddled out into Horseshoe Lake, which is adjacent to Cahokia Mounds State Historical Site, and dug up core samples of mud some 10 feet below the lakebed. By measuring concentrations of fecal stanols, they were able to gauge population changes from the Mississippian period through European contact.

Fecal stanol data were also gauged in White’s study of Cahokia’s Mississippian Period demographic changes, published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal. It found that climate change in the form of back-to-back floods and droughts played a key role in the 13th century exodus of Cahokia’s Mississippian inhabitants.

But while many studies have focused on the reasons for Cahokia’s decline, few have looked at the region following the exodus of Mississippians, whose culture is estimated to have spread through the Midwestern, Southeastern and Eastern United States from 700 A.D. to the 1500s.

White’s latest study sought to fill those gaps in the Cahokia area’s history.

“There’s very little archaeological evidence for an indigenous population past Cahokia, but we were able to fill in the gaps through historical, climatic and ecological data, and the linchpin was the fecal stanol evidence,” White said.

Overall, the results suggest that the Mississippian decline did not mark the end of a Native American presence in the Cahokia region, but rather reveal a complex series of migrations, warfare and ecological changes in the 1500s and 1600s, before Europeans arrived on the scene, White said.

“The story of Cahokia was a lot more complex than, ‘Goodbye, Native Americans. Hello,  Europeans,’ and our study uses innovative and unusual evidence to show that,” White said.

Reference: “After Cahokia: Indigenous Repopulation and Depopulation of the Horseshoe Lake Watershed AD 1400–1900” by A.J. White, Samuel E. Munoz, Sissel Schroeder and Lora R. Stevens, 24 January 2020, American Antiquity.
DOI: 10.1017/aaq.2019.103

Co-authors of the study are Samuel Munoz at Northeastern University, Sissel Schroeder at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Lora Stevens at California State University, Long Beach.


View Comments

  • Guess that's gonna stick in the Liberal craw. Those who wish to paint a portrait of Tribals being essentially peace-loving and perfect. Then came the Europeans (Oh No!). Seems to me that they warred among themselves and most tribes even considered it a large honor to steamroll in, kill and enslave, take all the losers stuff, including the land. But when Europeans came on the scene, and could wage war more effectively, suddenly the Tribals cried "Foul, stolen land". Give me a break.

    • I guess what would really stick in a "liberal" craw would be the senseless and meaningless conclusions drawn from a position of little to zero "actual" learning, understanding, or insight.

      There are excellent examples though of a "lovely civilization" being "wiped out" by evil Europeans. The Spanish catch a lot of flak for their treatment of and the eventual wiping out of the Aztecs. It's a cute narrative, but watching a "holy man" cut the heart out of living child slave or captured enemy as a sacrifice to their own cartoon gods is going to be shockingly horrific even to brutal war hardened soldiers.

      The Spaniards being proper Catholics are going to be stunned at the heresy, the savagery, the living demons, the "evil" witnessed providing a genuine this must be stopped reaction. Motivation may have been greed initially, but then they had righteous purpose, and nothing is more myopic, paternalistic and terrifyingly foolish as someone making decisions for you, "for your own good". (see modern liberal thought as an example.)

      Making it easier of course were the tribes who'd been stalked, oppressed and murdered by the Aztecs, having been the slave and sacrifice fodder for generations, all to happy to wipe out the Aztecs at the first opportunity, which they then did.

  • Human sacrifice was brought to the americas by the europeans who at the time practiced it at an astonishlu high level.. as for the other comment by the person who should probably finish high school before posting.. it wasnt warfare that killed off the natives it was the fact that the europeans had no concept of human hygiene and their medicine was inferior which made their life expectancy low.. they came here with lice in their hair, roaches and rats and over 95% of the native population was wiped out before any warfare whatsoever

    • Feerel
      You claimed, "Human sacrifice was brought to the americas by the europeans who at the time practiced it at an astonishlu high level.."

      Can you provide a citation for such an unlikely claim? Did you finish high school?

    • Feerel your imagination and your ignorance work hand in hand. Why do you bother showing off how you dropped out of grade school?

  • Kill rape and plunder. Been going on since the beginning of man. You wouldn't understand. It's a human thing.

  • I almost laugh, but cannot from the foolish comments from the likes of Dan. Usually those who claim that killing, raping and plunder are a human thing, yet they are usually the last to kill, rape and plunder. The conclusion is those making such comments are not part of the human race. The reality is raping, killing etc is not human nature, but the nature of unnatural class society. Elite class society exists, when one group of people organize others as a way of life, and the other group provides the necessities of survival. When this relationship exists, that is when the murdering, raping and pillaging start.

University of California - Berkeley

Recent Posts

Supermassive Black Hole Violently Rips Star Apart, Launches Relativistic Jet Toward Earth

Rare Sighting of Luminous Jet Spewed by Supermassive Black Hole Astronomers discover a bright optical…

December 1, 2022

NASA’s BioSentinel Mission Underway After Successful Lunar Flyby

NASA’s BioSentinel – a shoebox-sized CubeSat designed to learn what happens to life in deep…

November 30, 2022

Prehistoric Superpredator: Weird Whatcheeria Was the “T. rex of Its Time”

Ancient Iowan superpredator got big by front-loading its growth in its youth. Fossils found only…

November 30, 2022

Depression Risk Increases With Hours Worked in Stressful Jobs

Longer work weeks were strongly associated with a higher increase in depression symptoms in an…

November 30, 2022

Fighting Cancer With Magnetic Bacteria

Researchers are working to determine the best way for anti-cancer drugs to get to the…

November 30, 2022

Startling News: A Certain Type of Stroke Is on the Rise

The stroke affects Black people at a disproportionately high rate. According to a study recently…

November 30, 2022