Cahokia’s emergence and decline coincided with shifts of flood frequency on the Mississippi River. Munoz et al. 2015

Samuel E. Munoz, Kristine E. Gruley, Ashtin Massie, David A. Fike, Sissel Schroeder, and John W. Williams
2015 Cahokia’s emergence and decline coincided with shifts of flood frequency on the Mississippi River. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science 112(20):6319–6324.


Our paper evaluates the role that flooding played in the emergence and decline of Cahokia—the largest prehistoric settlement in the Americas north of Mexico that emerged in the floodplain of the Mississippi River around A.D. 1050. We use sediment cores to examine the timing of major Mississippi River floods over the last 1,800 y. These data show that Cahokia emerged during a period of reduced megaflood frequency associated with heightened aridity across midcontinental North America, and that its decline and abandonment followed the return of large floods. We conclude that shifts in flood frequency and magnitude facilitated both the formation and the breakdown of Cahokia and may be important factors in the declines of other early agricultural societies.


Here we establish the timing of major flood events of the central Mississippi River over the last 1,800 y, using floodwater sediments deposited in two floodplain lakes. Shifts in the frequency of high-magnitude floods are mediated by moisture availability over midcontinental North America and correspond to the emergence and decline of Cahokia—a major late prehistoric settlement in the Mississippi River floodplain. The absence of large floods from A.D. 600 to A.D. 1200 facilitated agricultural intensification, population growth, and settlement expansion across the floodplain that are associated with the emergence of Cahokia as a regional center around A.D. 1050. The return of large floods after A.D. 1200, driven by waning midcontinental aridity, marks the onset of sociopolitical reorganization and depopulation that culminate in the abandonment of Cahokia and the surrounding region by A.D. 1350. Shifts in the frequency and magnitude of flooding may be an underappreciated but critical factor in the formation and dissolution of social complexity in early agricultural societies.


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