Sunday, January 15, 2012

Cahokia: "America's Lost City"

"America's Lost City" is the title of a very nice article on Cahokia in the NewsFocus section of Science Magazine (23 Dec, 2012). The article, by science writer Andrew Lawler, describes current archaeological research at Cahokia and related sites, and he interviews many of the relevant archaeologists(Lawler 2011). This is a great supplement and follow-up to my earlier post, "Cahokia: Native American Urban Center on the Mississippi." The experts interviewed by Lawler seem to agree that Cahokia was clearly an urban settlement. The fact that they make a big deal out of this issue suggests that there must still be those who doubt such a classification.

John Clark, a Mesoamericanist, notes, "If you found this [Cahokia] in the Mayan lowlands, there would be no doubt that this was a city. It would be in the top 10 of all Mesoamerican cities."  That is a good way to describe the situation. We know the Mayas and Aztecs built cities, and no one would question the urban status of this site if it were located in Mesoamerica. But since it is in North America, where ancient native societies have generally been viewed as "less complex" than their cousins to the south, people need more convincing that Cahokia was, indeed, a city.

One interesting topic discussed by Lawler is population size. There are debates between archaeologists about whether Cahokia should be considered a single settlement within a larger area of many settlements, or whether the entire zone (east and west of the Mississippi River) should be considered a single dispersed settlement. To me, this is not a productive argument. How one classifies settlements depends on one's goals, and there is no absolute right or wrong answer here. For some purposes it is most useful to view Cahokia as a single settlement, and for other purposes it makes sense to consider the distribution of settlement over the entire area. But in discussing the issue, Lawler paraphrases Timothy Schilling as noting that Cahokia or the region "did not have the concentrated density of European of Mayan cities" (p.1622). I think he is wrong here, and that Cahokia probably had a higher population density than Maya cities.

Now I don't know the demographic data for Cahokia and its hinterland, but I think the population density within the Cahokia urban center was probably HIGHER than within Maya cities, but the population density of the "Greater Cahokia" region was most likely lower than that of the Maya lowlands.

Maya cities had very low URBAN population densities (even compared to a sprawling modern city like Phoenix):
  • Tikal (Maya):    600 persons per square kilometer
  • New York City:  9,400
  • Phoenix:    1,900
But the Maya lowlands had a very high  REGIONAL population densities:

  • Maya lowlands:  180 persons per sq. km
  • New York State:   150
  • Illinois:   80
  • Arizona:  17
The high density of Maya regional populations (how many people lived on the landscape, whether in large or small settlements) is one of the remarkable features of ancient Maya society. I'd be interested to see how Cahokia fits in comparison with these figures. But in any case, there is no doubt that Cahokia was an urban settlement.

For more discussion of some of the issues of how archaeologists (and others) define cities, see some of my prior posts, What is a City? Definitions of the Urban, or Defining Cities and Urbanism (again).


Lawler, Andrew  (2011)  America's Lost City. Science 334:1618-1623.

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