Lessons From Prehistory

Friday, April 25th, 2014 (date first posted)

by Betsy, Chair of the The Center for Spirituality and Sustainability Board

On Monday, April 14, 2014 the Center for Spirituality & Sustainability hosted a joint program meeting with the Piasa Palisades Chapter of Sierra Club. About 35 people gathered to hear Dr. Julie Zimmerman Holt, a professor of Anthropology at SIUE, talk about her research on the emergence and decline of the civilization at Cahokia, or Cahokia Mounds as it is popularly known. In her career she has focused her research on the prehistory of western Illinois, particularly the American Bottom (the portion of the Mississippi River valley that stretches from Alton to Chester) and the Illinois Valley.

Dr. Holt has said that one of the greatest contributions archaeology can make to contemporary society is to show how past societies used and sometimes abused their environments and to take lessons from past successes as well as failures.

Her talk, titled Cahokia: A prehistoric Piasa Palisades, traced the development of the Cahokia civilization from the Archaic Period (3400 – 900 BC) – when our hominid ancestors were hunter-gatherers – through the Woodland and Mississippian Periods as the population grew and prospered, domesticating vegetation by gardening and building villages. Cahokia was the earliest and largest of Mississippian cultures.

Until about 1050 Ad, the population continued to grow and the culture flourished, indicated by findings of pottery, other domestic and artistic crafts, as well as indications of thriving trade with settlements outside of their own. However, beginning in that year a downward spiral began, which ended with the collapse of Cahokia sometime during the 14th century AD.

Dr. Holt did not explicitly address the lessons to be taken from the rise and fall of Cahokia. Rather she left it to those in the audience to draw their own conclusions from her detailed account. For this particular audience member, the lessons couldn’t have been clearer. Her descriptions of the characteristics of Cahokia as it grew in size and complexity – and then declined – immediately brought to mind parallels with contemporary civilization. In my opinion, the main difference between then and now is that she was describing a single culture, contained in a regional locale, whereas today the same characteristics are present globally.

Looking at the characteristics of Cahokia as it began to decline circa 1050 AD, the parallels to the global environmental crises of today are stark:

  • Overpopulation and the over-hunting and fishing required by it
  • Extreme exploitation of natural resources
  • Deforestation – for fuel, construction and expansion of agriculture
  • Status hierarchies demonstrated by the building of walls to keep “the others” out
  • An unstable agricultural system brought about by fewer fallow periods, the monoculture of maize (corn), soil depletion, and hydrologic changes causing rapid run-off.
  • Drought
  • Disease
  • Some indications of warfare

If these points were to be put into a chart showing “then” and “now,” only a slight updating of language might be needed to describe the “now.” One of Dr. Holt’s Power Point slides brought us closer to current times, featuring an advertisement dating to the 1940s, encouraging “the housewife” to use corn by-products in everything she conjured up in the kitchen. Eventually advertisements targeting individuals weren’t needed since food product manufacturers began including some form of corn in so many of the products they put on the market.

According to Dr. Holt’s timeline, the collapse of the Cahokia civilization took several hundred years. Based on some climate science predictions, it won’t take much longer than that for the current demise of our civilization to be complete. The changes we hominids are making to the earth are moving much faster than they did during the “prehistory” periods Dr. Holt studies.

Our wake-up call to preserving the future of our planet sits right in our own back yard.