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Did a Magnificent Civilization Fail for Lack of Beans?

Did a Magnificent Civilization Fail for Lack of Beans?
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  • Did a Magnificent Civilization Fail for Lack of Beans?

    Post #1 - August 11th, 2013, 9:16 am
    Post #1 - August 11th, 2013, 9:16 am Post #1 - August 11th, 2013, 9:16 am
    Did a Magnificent Civilization Fail for Lack of Beans?

    We drove to the St. Louis area specifically to check out Cahokia, the site of the largest pre-Colombian urban area north of the great Aztec, Mayan and Zapotec cities in what is now Mexico. At one point in the 13th century, the larger “metro” area of this Mississippian civic complex had about 20K inhabitants, big or bigger than then-contemporary Paris and London.

    Unlike the pyramid structures of Tenochtitlan or Chichen Itza, the residents of Cahokia built their huge structures of earth rather than rock. Their “mounds” are reminiscent of the slope-panel structures of Monte Alban, but bigger. Overall, Cahokia is an awe-inspiring place, and like all ruins of great civilizations, both magnificent and sad.

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    No one knows why Cahokia was abandoned. One possible reason that we overheard a park guide suggest is that they ran out of food, which is one of several speculative reasons given for the abandonment of the great Mayan cities. Like those cities, Cahokia was abandoned long before Europeans arrived with their highly developed diseases, which were largely responsible for eradicating native populations throughout the Americas.

    The lack of food, however, seems an odd and inexplicable reason for Cahokia’s demise. The Mississippi river runs within eye-shot of the ancient city, and there must have been a lot of fish in there. The woods were full of venison and birds (though it seems, based on the few remaining pieces of physical culture, that these people held birds in particularly high regard, so maybe they didn’t eat them).

    There was also a lot of stuff growing wild (nuts, berries, lamb’s quarters) and some cultivated crops, including squash and corn. And that’s where things get weird.

    Corn likely originated in Central Mexico, and it’s presence in our part of the world suggests there was commerce between Mexico and the Mississippians, who could have traveled down the river to the Gulf. Sea shells in some graves indicates they made it down to the ocean, which isn’t at all surprising, and it was probably on trips down there that they brought back corn.

    “But they didn’t have beans?,” The Wife wondered.

    It is odd. The Three Sisters – squash, corn, and beans – grew and grow all over Mexico, and they work well together, complementing each other in so many ways. The beans fix nitrogen in the soil; corn uses that nitrogen, and the beans twine up the corn stalks, while the squash creates natural mulch and holds the moisture in with their big leaves. These vegetables seem made for one another, and they also complement one another nutritionally.

    Corn by itself is actually not such a wonderful food source, as eating it in the absence of other foods can lead to pellagra,

    So why did this Mississippian civilization, which was so advanced in so many ways, have no beans? Even if the lack of food was not the main reason for their abandonment of their city, it’s just darn odd that the people who built this great city didn’t have beans, which seem an almost unavoidable crop and are enjoyed everywhere in the world.

    Unless they just didn’t like beans…which is also unthinkable.
    “Nobody exists on purpose. Nobody belongs anywhere. Everybody’s gonna die. Come watch TV?”
  • Post #2 - August 11th, 2013, 9:54 am
    Post #2 - August 11th, 2013, 9:54 am Post #2 - August 11th, 2013, 9:54 am
    I don't know why there is no evidence for beans at Cahokia. Beans were already cultivated in New York state at that time.

    However, I wanted to point out that recent work suggests that the collapse of Cahokia was due to political/social upheaval and not an environmental crisis. That is, looking at the ethnobotanical record and examining skeletal remains shows "little evidence of nutritional stress."

    http://s3.amazonaws.com/academia.edu.do ... ion=inline
  • Post #3 - August 11th, 2013, 10:05 am
    Post #3 - August 11th, 2013, 10:05 am Post #3 - August 11th, 2013, 10:05 am
    Amata wrote:I don't know why there is no evidence for beans at Cahokia. Beans were already cultivated in New York state at that time.

    However, I wanted to point out that recent work suggests that the collapse of Cahokia was due to political/social upheaval and not an environmental crisis. That is, looking at the ethnobotanical record and examining skeletal remains shows "little evidence of nutritional stress."

    http://s3.amazonaws.com/academia.edu.do ... ion=inline


    Amy,

    We were dubious, as noted, about the speculation that they "ran out of food." Cahokia is on the fertile banks of the Mississippi, with loads of food possibilities. Still, it seems strange, doesn't it, that at least so far, no beans remnants have turned up at this site. I'm not sure if there was commerce between those of Cahokia and the former inhabitants of New York state, but it does seem likely there was interaction with the bean-loving peoples of current day Mexico.

    I'm already planning my next trip there, and I have a lot of reading to do before then, so thanks for the link.
    “Nobody exists on purpose. Nobody belongs anywhere. Everybody’s gonna die. Come watch TV?”
  • Post #4 - August 11th, 2013, 10:18 am
    Post #4 - August 11th, 2013, 10:18 am Post #4 - August 11th, 2013, 10:18 am
    I hope Diannie will jump in here -- this is more her area of expertise.

    As I understand it, there are plenty of links between Cahokia and the Southeast, and parts of the Southeast show a strong Mesoamerican influence. But I'm not sure about direct contact between Cahokia and Mesoamerica.
  • Post #5 - August 11th, 2013, 3:48 pm
    Post #5 - August 11th, 2013, 3:48 pm Post #5 - August 11th, 2013, 3:48 pm
    Caveat: It has been a few years since I worked in this part of Illinois and I have not really kept up with the research reports, however I did a little bit of work near by.

    Mississippian people ate beans. Legumes were found at the Koster site. They certainly relied on the big three of corn, beans and squash. As for what's exactly happening at Cahokia...sorry I can't say but....

    It's my understanding that Cahokia failed slowly over time and archaeologists don't point to one single cause. As I recall, the city's growing population had to range farther and farther out for resources because they used things up faster than they could be replenished. Couple this with political upheaval, climate change and diseases that thrive in crowded urban conditions and you get civilization collapse.

    Perhaps David only caught part of the guide's explanation. I can easily believe the population outgrew its ability to procure high quality, nutritious food. They did eat food from the Mississippi, great mounds of spent mussel shells have been excavated in the area for example. And they did trade with Mexico as evidenced by turkey bones, among other things. But Cahokia was a big city sucking resources from a huge area...it's not hard for me to believe they over fished, over hunted and over forraged the surrounding landscape.

    Cahokia was huge and was occupied for 700 years. It's population was somewhere between that of modern Dixon and Glen Ellyn (10 to 20K) and those people had to go pretty far for firewood, building material, and food. Agriculture, particularly corn production, made this population growth possible but corn eventually depleted soil nutrients plus it doesn't provide people with complete nutrition...so you get a slow downward spiral of smaller crop yields and a less healthy (and larger) population. There's skeletal evidence of nutritional stress among low status individuals from Mississippian sites so I'm not sure what Amy's refering to. I tried clicking the link but it didn't bring me anywhere.

    Hope this helps.
    "The only thing I have to eat is Yoo-hoo and Cocoa puffs so if you want anything else, you have to bring it with you."
  • Post #6 - August 11th, 2013, 5:05 pm
    Post #6 - August 11th, 2013, 5:05 pm Post #6 - August 11th, 2013, 5:05 pm
    Diannie wrote:.... I'm not sure what Amy's refering to. I tried clicking the link but it didn't bring me anywhere.

    Sorry, Diannie and everyone. I thought that link was to an open source.

    The article I tried to link to was:

    AN INTRODUCTION TO CAHOKIA 2002: DIVERSITY, COMPLEXITY, AND HISTORY
    Thomas E. Emerson
    Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 27, No. 2, Cahokia 2002: Diversity,
    Complexity, and History (Fall, 2002), pp. 127-148

    (Emerson is the director of the Illinois State Archaeological Survey.)

    Here is the final paragraph in his section on Cahokian Collapse:
    At this point we feel that we have made significant progress through the Cahokia
    Collapse Project in understanding the nature of the decline of political and social
    complexity at Cahokia. There seems to be little evidence of nutritional stress in
    the Moorehead phase. This seems contrary to our expectations if Cahokia was
    being affected by severe environmental degradation and the declining reliability
    of maize. Instead, both the ethnobotanical and the stable isotope data have shown
    that significant maize consumption continued throughout this period. The post
    A.D. 1300 Mississippian Sand Prairie occupation of the American Bottom was
    very sparse, which may indicate the end of any centralized power in the area.
    Reexamining the available data, the precipitous and abrupt decline of the Cahokian
    polity at about A.D. 1300 seems most likely due to political and social collapse.
    We now know that Cahokia started with a "bang" – we suspect it may have ended
    the same way.


    Anyway, this is just one archaeologist's opinion and I am sure this and many other issues regarding Cahokia remain controversial.
  • Post #7 - August 11th, 2013, 8:17 pm
    Post #7 - August 11th, 2013, 8:17 pm Post #7 - August 11th, 2013, 8:17 pm
    Amata wrote:
    Diannie wrote:.... I'm not sure what Amy's refering to. I tried clicking the link but it didn't bring me anywhere.

    Sorry, Diannie and everyone. I thought that link was to an open source.


    So odd. When I clicked the link earlier today, I went to the article. Now, nothing. Odd.
    “Nobody exists on purpose. Nobody belongs anywhere. Everybody’s gonna die. Come watch TV?”
  • Post #8 - August 12th, 2013, 8:25 am
    Post #8 - August 12th, 2013, 8:25 am Post #8 - August 12th, 2013, 8:25 am
    Diannie wrote:Perhaps David only caught part of the guide's explanation.


    Definitely didn't stay for the guide's presentation, but "ran out of food" was the phrase I picked up, though "resource depletion" is probably the more general and perhaps more accurate way to term it.

    I'm always amazed to hear that, for instance, the locals around the Mayan or Egyptian ruins pillaged the ancient sites for building materials. But reading last night, I was equally amazed to see that not long ago there was a tract home community on the site of Cahokia. Of course, too, many of the mounds in the area were bulldozed for one reason or another.
    “Nobody exists on purpose. Nobody belongs anywhere. Everybody’s gonna die. Come watch TV?”
  • Post #9 - April 8th, 2019, 3:56 pm
    Post #9 - April 8th, 2019, 3:56 pm Post #9 - April 8th, 2019, 3:56 pm
    Came across this thread while planning my recent trip to Cahokia. I had also just finished reading the book 1491, and the chapter on Cahokia offers a couple of insights. Food definitely seems to have been part of it (deer and bison had been hunted almost to extinction, even before Cahokia arose). In the museum at Cahokia, they mention that people became so dependent on corn that health was negatively affected, which could be seen in recovered skeletons (corn is a nice side dish but not enough to subsist on). The book then mentions that the people of Cahokia diverted a stream to bring more water into the city -- which resulted later in a flood that was made worse by extensive deforestation. The flood destroyed the original Monk's Mound, but that was rebuilt. But Cahokia apparently didn't fully recover.

    Another factor not mentioned in the book or at the museum is that the mid-1300s marked the beginning of the Little Ice Age. It could be that it just got too cold for people to hang around. It was shattering in Europe, where shorter growing seasons meant many starved. Why wouldn't it have a similar impact on Cahokia?

    So no definitive answers, but a few reasonable theories.

    Oh -- and a wonderful place to visit. The grounds and museum are both remarkable.
    "All great change in America begins at the dinner table." Ronald Reagan

    http://midwestmaize.wordpress.com

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