The Ancient Melting Pot

by Dave Schuler on April 16, 2014

Examination of the chemical composition of the teeth of people interred in ancient Cahokia has determined that a considerable portion of the population grew up elsewhere:

Teeth that form in infancy, for example, like the first permanent molars, will reveal a person’s location as a newborn, while those that form in the early teens, like the third molars, will bear the chemical traces of their home in adolescence.

Armed with this technique, Slater’s team studied 133 teeth from 87 people, found in 13 different burial contexts throughout American Bottom.

The results showed that 38 of the teeth, about 29 percent, had strontium ratios that were outside the local range, indicating that those people had been born and raised elsewhere and migrated to Cahokia as adults.

Interestingly, the remains of those believed to have been sacrificial offerings are more likely to be those of locals than other remains.

The Cahokia mounds, which flourished between about 600 BCE to 1400 CE, constitute the largest and most complex pre-Columbian North American city north of Mexico. Artifacts found there suggest that it traded over an enormous area, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes. And, as we are learning, it may have attracted people from an equally great range.

If you ever find yourself in downstate Illinois, it’s well worth a visit.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Jimbino April 16, 2014 at 4:59 pm

Interesting that all those skulls the archeologists find have a fine set of teeth. Better not to brush, floss and especially pay for dentists, it seems.

PD Shaw April 16, 2014 at 5:21 pm

We were there a few years ago on Mother’s Day, and one of the guides told us that a surprisingly few number of Illinoisans visit; more from nearby Missouri, but really its a national/global attraction. I still recall climbing down the largest mound on the marked steps and watched in horror as a group of young adults took off down an unimproved slope, lost control and tried digging their heals into the sensitive archaeological site. Signs clearly marked; they should have been shot.

I found the “woodhenge” at Cahokia just as interesting; it looked very similar to similar early henges in England.

Passed by the Fort Walton Mounds earlier today; once you’ve seen [the] one . . .

PD Shaw April 16, 2014 at 5:27 pm

One of the interesting displays in the Cahokia museum gave people the opportunity to “vote” for what was responsible for the decline of the Cahokia situation. It was interesting in that the displays had given information supporting different possibilities — history as mystery. IIRC environmental change was the most popular; I think I choose that the population had exceeded the ability of the local environment to support it and/or an internal religious conflict.

Dave Schuler April 16, 2014 at 5:32 pm

I think that environmental degradation and/or related disease is a pretty likely explanation. It’s pretty hard to keep a city of 50,000 people healthy without good sanitation facilities.

PD Shaw April 16, 2014 at 6:00 pm

Particularly as the city had suburbs. I think they are still discovering new satellites.

Ben Wolf April 16, 2014 at 6:44 pm

To which strontium isotope are they referring? The entire planet was contaminated with a number of them during the nuclear testing in the mid-twentieth century.

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