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Was Cahokia fried, drowned or was it something else?

Was Cahokia fried, drowned or was it something else?


Trondheim, Norway seems to hold the answer to the riddle of Cahokia’s decline.

The official “story” of Cahokia has changed radically over the past 20 years as North American archaeologists have focused much more attention on the massive town site rather than relying on speculations or “what my professor taught me.”  Until around 2004, all references and most professors taught what my professor in “Introduction to North American Archaeology,” Dr. Lewis Larsen*, taught us . . . that Cahokia was founded around 600 AD and that the larger mounds were constructed around 800 AD and that the Mississippian Culture began there . . . hence the name, Mississippian.  The first construction of large platform mounds . . . the first large scale cultivation of corn, beans and squash . . . the first “everything” that defined advanced indigenous civilization, north of Mexico, were attributed Cahokia.

*I remembered asking Dr. Larsen how corn could jump 1,400 miles from Central Mexico to Cahokia, without being transported by people from Mexico.  He just smiled and said, “Well, obviously it did, but there is no connection between the Pre-Columbian cultures in Mexico and Cahokia.”  His partner in the 1954-56 excavation of Etowah Mounds, Dr. Arthur Kelly, vigorously disagreed with Larsen on that account, but by then Kelly was considered a pariah by most of his peers in Georgia.  

Even in 2004, as Cahokia’s archaeological guru, Dr. Timothy Pauteket, was dropping the bomb that the “advanced culture” of Cahokia actually began around 1050 AD, there was still disdain for what might have been going on elsewhere. Pauteket described Ocmulgee National Monument (c. 900 AD) as “a small mound site in the middle of nowhere.  One wonders why it even existed.”   His book’s map of Mississippian Period mound sites in the United States did not even show Etowah Mounds or the string of large towns with multiple large mounds on the Chattahoochee River.  It also left out most of the large towns with mounds in Tennessee and Mississippi, but did show Moundville, Alabama . . . without much comment.

In a few weeks, Ocmulgee Mounds, on the shoals of the Ocmulgee River in Macon, GA will become the 2,800 acre Ocmulgee National Historical Park.   In its next expansion, the National Park will expand to encompassing a 38 mile long corridor along the Ocmulgee River in order to include all of the towns and villages of the Ocmulgee Megapolis . . . out in the middle of nowhere.  Ocmulgee’s large mounds were built about 150 years BEFORE those at Cahokia. <wink>.

We now know that from 600 AD – 800 AD, there was a small village at the Cahokia site of local Woodland Culture natives. Around 800 AD, some people arrived with cultural traits like those at the Toltec Site on the Arkansas River or much earlier at Kolomoki Mounds in southwest Georgia.  These newcomers built “keyhole houses” and “woodhenges” like those at Kolomoki, but they were not mound builders. Their settlement expanded into being a large village.  Around 1050 AD, an elite group arrived from “somewhere,” who constructed a massive planned town adjacent to the existing village then demolished the existing village.

The big mound towns were generally failures

Until around 2008, Wikipedia told readers that Cahokia declined in the 1300s and was completely abandoned by 1400 AD.  From 2008 until recently, Wikipedia stated that Cahokia began declining in the late 1200s and was abandoned around 1350 AD.  Very recently, someone modified the Wikipedia Cahokia article to say that the city declined throughout the 1200s and was completely abandoned by 1300 AD . . . that’s a grand total of 150 years occupation.  It’s a drop in the bucket compared to the Nacoochee Valley, where I live, which was densely occupied from around 1000 BC (maybe much earlier) till the 1696 AD smallpox epidemic. The Nacoochee had dozens of mounds, but only two, the Kenimer and Nacoochee Mounds, approach the scale of those at Cahokia, Moundville and Etowah. Cahokia’s life story is more akin to that of a Western gold mining boom-bust town.

Moundville, Alabama was founded around 1000 AD like many other towns in the Southeast. That is just a few years after the diaspora of the Itza commoners from Chichen Itza, when it was conquered by invaders from Central Mexico. However, significant mound construction did not begin until around 1200 AD. The town was abandoned around 1350 AD, but remained a ceremonial site for about another 1000 years.  So, the intensive occupation of the town lasted the same length of time as Cahokia . . . 150 years.

Etula (Etowah Mounds) didn’t do as well. The seven+* occupations of Etula lasted from around 800 BC to 1696 AD (Smallpox Epidemic).  However, it was the occupation of Etula between c. 1250 AD and c. 1375 AD in which Mound A was frantically built to a height of about 105 feet** then the town was temporarily abandoned. That’s 125 years. For details and citations for the following footnotes, see:

*At least five mound sites are now located on the south side of the Etowah River, but were part of the main town of Etula until a catastrophic flood occurred around 1200 AD.  Both John P. Rogan (1884) and Robert Wauchope (1939) excavated these mounds and found artifacts as old as 800 BC (Early Deptford) but also Cartersville (100 BC-200 AD), Swift Creek (200 AD-600 AD), Napier (600-800 AD), Woodstock (800-1000 AD), Etowah I (1000-1200 AD), Etowah II (1250 AD-1375 AD), Etowah III (1400-1600 AD) and Etowah IV (1600-1700 AD) artifacts.  French maps show the area around Etowah occupied by the Conchakee-Creeks until after the American Revolution. 

Upon arriving at the Etowah Site in 1954, Dr. Arthur Kelly directed state employees to scrape off the later of alluvial sand on the main plaza, east of Mound A.  This revealed numerous building footprints typical of the Apalache Kingdom (c. 1400-1606 AD) – direct ancestors of the Creek Indians – and proto-Creek artifacts. These footprints were photographed from the air and their photographs was accessible online until 2012.  The Georgia Historic Preservation Division and University of Georgia Archaeological Lab  refused to allow me to see or purchase copies of these photos.  However, many of the building footprints are still visible in the late fall and winter as darker circles and rectangles of grass.

In the 1990s, many of Georgia’s most powerful archaeologists were on the payroll of developers, who wanted to build “Cherokee casinos” or even the Eastern Band of Cherokees, themselves. When the exhibits at the Etowah Museum were “renovated” under the supervision of these archaeologists, references to the earlier and later occupations of the site were deleted.  A fraudulent exhibit was constructed, which showed the famous Etowah marble statues being hurriedly buried at the top of Mound C as an enemy (Cherokees?) approached in 1585 AD. Actually, the statues were found in a collapsed temple at the base of Mound C!  The US Forest Service even put up a sign in its Brasstown Museum, which stated, “No one knows who built the mounds in Georgia. A mysterious band of mound builders were only in the state for about 200 years then disappeared.”

** Only 65 feet of Mound A is now visible. Fifteen feet of the base of Mound A is concealed by alluvial soil that was deposited during a flood in 1886.  When Yale professor, Elias Cornelius, measured Mound A in 1818, it had three ramps and was about 25 feet taller with the ruins of a round temple on top. During the 1800s, the owners of Etowah Mounds allowed art collectors to dig there for $200 a week.  The original form of Mound A was quite different than what you see today.

Conflicting interpretations of Cahokia

Google “Decline and abandonment of Cahokia” and you will see a list of recent articles in the popular media. All are summaries of research reports by PhD’s from highly respected universities . . . but each also has a very different conclusion.  They include:

  • Ancient bones, teeth, tell story of strife at Cahokia!
  • Catastrophic floods caused abandonment of Cahokia!
  • Long term drought caused Cahokia to decline!
  • Ancient poop helps show climate change helped cause decline of Cahokia!
  • Deforestation and loss of soil fertility caused abandonment of Cahokia!
  • Environmental damage caused by humans made Cahokia unlivable!

We will let you be the judge of which of these studies are valid, but there is another possibility, which I first came across many years ago while living in Scandinavia.

The historic waterfront in Trondheim, Norway

Montezuma’s Revenge in Trondheim, Norway

The common rat, which infests North American cities, is called the Norway Rat or Brown Rat. One is told that it was not in North America until around 1750, but if you follow the trail of citations, it comes down to the speculations of a late 19th century German biologist . . . whom everybody since then have quoted. The fleas on a Brown Rat definitely brought the bubonic plague microbe, Yersinia pestis, to the door steps of Europe, possibly several times as new strains mutated in China and then spread westward.  However, now biologists are suggesting that once in Europe, the plague was spread by humans. No one can explain how Yersinia pestis became established in prairie dog populations, west of the Mississippi River, but is almost non-existent east of the Mississippi.  Was the Bubonic Plague in the New World before Columbus?

After exploring the Swedish, Finnish and Norwegian sections of Lapland for a couple of weeks, I headed down the coast of Norway on an amazing railroad car view of the Norwegian fjords. I planned just to spend the afternoon in Trondheim then take the train to Oslo the next morning.  Trondheim was not even mentioned in the brief history of Scandinavia that I got in my college world history class, but it was actually founded during the Viking Period and was the capital of Norway until 1217.  It is also the place where the Christianization of Norway began and the location of St. Olaf’s burial.  Trondheim is a beautiful, 1000-year-old city at the mouth of spectacular Trondheim fjord.  I ended up staying there three days.

Trondheim’s dead were stacked in layers.

While walking around the Gammel Stad (Old Town) I came upon an archaeological site in which hundreds of skeletons were visible.  I had a long chat with a historic preservation architect, who was the supervisor of the overall project . . .  reconstruction of one of Norway’s earliest monasteries. He told me that I was looking at one LAYER of the mass burials that occurred in 1349 during the time of the Black Death. After the plague had finished its macabre work, only one of the city’s 13 churches remained open.  There were barely enough priests still alive to keep it going.

He told me that in 1970, at a nearby construction site, archeologists had made a puzzling discovery.  There, they found another mass burial, but that cemetery was radiocarbon dated to around 1200 AD, not 1349 AD.  Church records stated that the people in this plague had also died within a day of showing symptoms, but there is no mention of the Black Death striking other parts of Europe during that era.

A street in Medieval Trondheim

Our conversation then shifted to Scandinavian exploration of North America. Royal court records from the period of time when Trondheim was the capital and seat of the archbishop had convinced the architect that cargo ships from Trondheim regularly traded with Iceland, Greenland and North America in the period between 1100 and 1350. For unknown reasons, trade with the New World quickly petered out after then.  He also was convinced that Vinland was somewhere on the coast of the Southeastern United States, not in Canada or New England. He said that Vinland was described in sagas and sporadic royal court records as having no ice in winter and many grapes. Trondheim was interesting, but its memory was parked in the far recesses of my mind until I read a recent article about pandemics in Early Colonial Mexico then I became curious about the weather in Trondheim.

Mother Earth went bonkers in the year 1200 AD

In 1200 AD the Etowah River in northwest Georgia and the Ocmulgee River in Central Georgia flooded at an unimaginable scale. Flood waters swept over the towns of Itzasi (Itza descendants ~ the Lamar Village) and Etula (Etowah).  Afterward, what was left of the towns were on islands. This is why so much of the original town of Etula is now on the south side of the Etowah River.

Out of curiosity, I looked the weather in northwestern Europe that year.  Well-l-l, the coldest winter that anyone could remember in the British Isles and Scandinavia was followed by endless torrential rains and catastrophic floods, which prevent most farmers from growing or harvesting crops. Concurrent with the torrential rains in Trondheim was an epidemic that killed its victims in as little as 12 hours.


The cocoliztli and matlazahuatl epidemics in Mexico

The lucky ones had someone to bury their body.

The indigenous population of Mexico declined by about 90% during the 1500s due to a series of plagues.  Smallpox ripped through Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital as the Spaniards and their Native allies were laying siege. However, far more devastating were diseases that the Nahua speakers called cocoliztli, which means “pest” and “matlazahuatl,” which means “net rash.”

Cocoliztli only affected indigenous peoples in the Mexican Highlands.  The first cocoliztli epidemic killed 85% of the indigenous peoples in the highlands, but very few in the lowlands and no Spaniards. It seemed to appear when there were droughts in the Highlands.

Matlazahuatl affected peoples of all races and economic status.  Victims were covered with a rash, but otherwise would have symptoms similar to that of cocoliztli.   This disease generally appeared in period of heavy rains and floods.

THEN, in 2018 bio-geneticists announced an astonishing discovery. They compared the DNA profile of the bacteria found in the human remains of cocoliztli victims. It matched exactly the DNA of a salmonella paratyphoid microbes in the remains of a young woman in Trondheim, Norway, who died in 1200 AD

Not only that . . . that disease which just about killed me the first night in Mexico in 1970 was also this paratyphoid organism.  The reason I know is that I had a severe infection from a tick bite in 1987 that just kept on getting worse and worse until a pathologist analyzed seven vials of my blood in 1990. In addition to several active tickborne diseases, he found high levels of antibodies to that same salmonella paratyphoid organism.  Shazam!  My life keeps on going in circles. Here is one of the online articles on the paratyphoid discovery.

It appears that the geneticists actually analyzed the microbes of a victim of the Matlazahuatl plague in Mexico.  I read the original professional article and those scientists don’t think like us architect-planners.  No one checked on the weather in Trondheim in 1200 AD.  It was wet and extremely cold.  Spanish records state that Cocoliztli epidemics coincided with droughts and hot dry weather, but Matlazahuatl plagues coincided with cold, wet weather.

The twin sisters of indigenous American apocalypses?

It could well be that these salmonella pathogens were originally one organism, which was adapted to cool climate of western and northern Scandinavia.  That would explain why the Cocoliztli mainly killed people in the highlands, while when the weather got wet and cool in the lowlands, the Matlazahuatl struck the general population.

One group of scientists say that droughts helped cause the decline of Cahokia, while another says that floods helped cause the decline of Cahokia.  Maybe when it was excessively wet or excessively dry, Cahokia received a double whammy from microbes. The use of human urine for fertilizer is still an important part of Creek gardening techniques.  Urine was undoubtedly used at Cahokia and probably, human feces also.  With so many people crowded together, there would not been many other options for disposing of human wastes. 

The Salmonella organism is an enteric bacterium, which is easily spread by polluted water.***  This is how it gets on fruits and vegetables today . . . occasionally requiring mass recalls of produce from supermarkets. Droughts cause the organism to concentrate in available drinking water, while floods spread it across the landscape.  The association between droughts and Cocoliztli might be explained by pollution of drinking water sources, used by indigenous peoples.  The association of Matlazahuatl with floods and widespread occurrence of the disease among all classes of people might be the presence of the pathogen throughout the community.

*** In order to get a federal license for our goat cheese creamery, I had to take courses in sanitation and bacteriology. Also, much of my architecture practice involved the design of restaurants, wineries and food processing plants.

Thus, it appears that the rather rapid decline of Cahokia was due to a combination of factors, which made the city increasingly an undesirable place to live.   Extremes in weather conditions magnified the inherent difficulty of feeding humans in a pre-industrial city by establishing large colonies of pathogenic bacteria.

In contrast to the short life expectencies of such spectacular Native American towns as Cahokia, the real Apalache, who became known as “Creek Indians” to the British, always built their towns next to fast running, clear rivers or else shoals.  Apalache towns could stretch a long as three miles along fast flowing rivers.  They did not usually build super-sized, pyramidal mounds like in Cahokia, but archaeologist Robert Wauchope found that these sites were occupied for many, many centuries . . . often crossing through many series of pottery styles and architectural traditions.  This is certainly the case of the Chattahoochee, Oconee, Upper Etowah and Soque River Valleys in Northeast Georgia, which are drained by whitewater rivers and creeks in which trout thrive even today.  The key ingredient of their success seems to have been clean drinking water.

A 3 x 1 mile (5 x 1.7 km) Apalache/Creek town site on the North Oconee River in Northeast Georgia. It was occupied from c. 1200 BC to 1785 AD.



The following two tabs change content below.
Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history. Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.



    Richard: it’s important to note that Arthur Kelly was then “considered a pariah by most of his peers in Georgia “ because his reputation and career had been deliberately, fraudulently sabotaged by those same peers in a departmental coup d’etat at the U of GA. A shameful chapter you and I watched, first hand.

    • I wished I had got to know him better. Although he wanted me to get a PhD in Anthropology after I finished my commitment to the Navy, I never did . . . never dreaming what I would be doing professionally in the 21st century.


    Thank you for posting the research about the salmonella strain in Cahokia. My sister took an archaeology class during the summer of 76? through Sangamon State University, and the class involved spending two weeks digging at Cahokia. Almost ALL of the participants came down with a severe stomach virus. They called it the “Cahokia Crud”. All recovered, but they were convinced at the time that something in the soil had to be causing their sickness. Keep up the interesting articles! I live in Upstate SC and have hiked to many of the destinations you write about.

    • Now that is interesting Sara! Did anybody among the professional staff think of culturing the pathogen? Someone in the hallowed halls of ivy needs to know about your sister’s experience at Cahokia!


    Lake Sediment and Ancient Poop Track Environmental Changes at Cahokia” was in the Smithsonian “E-Newsletter” today. More to read!


    Howdy, Two questions are the photos available to persons outside of Georgia? Have they ever been presented in archaeology conferences?”

    • The photos should have been kept online. Obviously, there is a clique of archaeologists that do not want anyone to see them. They are the property of the State of Georgia and therefore belong to its citizens.


    The Y. pestis connection between Europe and NA is very interesting. The arrival of anthrax in North America is another enigma that DNA analysis is now helping to solve.

    According to 2 studies A. branch Western North American (WNA) anthrax arrived on the continent between 3,500 and 7,000 years ago, a second study suggested it’s arrival 10,000+ years ago along with the Beringian hordes. It is a disease that restricts itself primarily to herd animals and does not naturally travel far. There is little doubt it was spread around the globe by humans. WNA anthrax descends from transeurasian (TEA) anthrax whose closest matching strains today exists in Western Europe, (France, Spain, Italy) and the eastern Mediterranean into the near Middle East.

    The fact that nothing today resembles it in Eastern Asia once again calls into question the current Beringian hypothesis

    • That is very interesting. I have never heard about the Eastern Asia anthrax being different from the American one.


        Anthrax is beginning to look like another turd that will not flush for our anthropologists.

        At first the A Branch radiation event that immediately preceded the arrival of WNA anthrax was deemed by Van Ert 2007 to have happened 3000 to 6000 years ago. In 2010 Kenefic decided the event occurred 13000 years ago which then made it a Beringian importation. Next Vergnaud suggested that it occurred during the Hundred Years War in the 14th century and was spread to the interior of the North American continent by French farmers in the late 17th century. As of December 2018 a Russian/French collaboration (Timofeev/Vergnaud) on anthrax found in the Yamal and the Yakut district of eastern Russia has Vergnaud now suggesting a that the A Branch was spread by the Mongols back in the 13th century. But there are big problems with this particular hypothesis.

        First of all the WNA branch wasn’t the only anthrax branch that entered the Americas from Europe at that time. Secondly the Ames strain that entered Galveston in the early 1800’s has averaged 8 new SNPs since it’s arrival 200 years ago. This would suggest that the WNA strains with 110+ SNPs since their arrival are at least 2500 years old and probably older since anthrax reproduces at a slower rate in northern climes.

        The new Russian report is such a disaster I don’t know where to start. In sampling the area where two 50,000 year old lion cubs found in permafrost at 6 meters depth, they found 2 seperate strains closely related to the French and WNA strains at 2 and 3 meters depth. Below that at 4 meters depth they found a strain that matched a recent outbreak in the Yamal thousands of kilometers away. This B Branch strain at 4 meters depth however was much more ‘recent’ since it had way more SNPs. Now they have an epic clusterfuck on their hands.

        I don’t know how they are going to try to extracate themselves from this mess but they are going to have to find a way to connect the French/Russian to the Senegalese branch in West Africa that broke early after the A Branch radition at the same time as WNA. Senegal also has 5000 year old shell middens and the Cape Verde islands are the preferred destination to sail across the Atlantic from since it’s the closest point to South America and where westerly winds are reliable and hurricanes can be avoided. The coast of South America also has 5000 year old middens btw.

        The single largest turd yet to be discussed is how on earth the oldest most isolated strains of anthrax that exists today… the C Branch strains found only in North America (Actually Louisiana)… ended up there at all.

        Watson Brake or Poverty Point anyone?


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