Colonialism, Collapse, and Floods

by, Sarah Baires, Meghan Buchanan & Melissa Baltus



Cahokia hit the news recently, not because a highway was being constructed through it’s East St. Louis Precinct, but because new data came out regarding a flooding event hypothesized to have caused the collapse of this early city.  You may have seen the headlines or shared one of the articles on Facebook:  “Did a Mega-Flood Doom Ancient American City of Cahokia?” or “Megafloods Spurred Collapse of Ancient City of Cahokia, New Study Finds”. For decades, archaeologists have pondered what led to the abandonment of Cahokia, the largest Native American city north of Mexico.  Theories proposed include population decline due to warfare, drought, the onset of the Little Ice Age, and chiefly cycling (ie. the rise, fall, and reemergence of complex societies), among other things (see examples Anderson 1994; Iseminger 1997; Milner 1998; Woods 2004).  These theories are widely accepted and target topics easily digestible by academics and the general public. And further these theories focus on ideals easily attributed to pre-Columbian Native American peoples perceived as lacking agency: violent behavior in the form of warfare and environmental dependence.

The research that these most recent sensational headlines were based upon was published by Munoz et al. in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (and an earlier publication featured in the journal Geology, vol 42(6), 2014). Munoz et. al’s article was instantly picked up by multiple news outlets and blogs framing their data as the solution to the complex puzzle of Cahokia’s collapse.  Such outlets, and the authors themselves, state that Cahokia’s collapse was attributed to a large scale flood that would have demolished households and farm fields, and that the “disintegration and dissolution of Cahokia may be, in part, societal responses to enhanced hydrological variability in the form of high-magnitude flooding” (Munoz et al. 2015: 1). In the following we address additional points we were unable to tackle in our response to their PNAS article elaborating on several endemic issues related to knowledge production in the discipline of archaeology.  We pose the following questions:

1. How does settler colonialism affect collapse narratives?

2.  How do collapse narratives marginalize Indigenous histories? and finally

3.  What does the archaeological record suggest actually happened at Cahokia?

In posing and addressing these questions we emphasize the political stakes of archaeological research and publication.  In a day and age when funding to social sciences is being drastically cut (see recent proposed cuts to NSF funding for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences) we often strive to make our work relevant, to make it popularly consumable, and to emphasize the fact that our work matters.  But, we must also consider the broader implications of our work and ask the question ‘at whose expense’?  By perpetuating narratives surrounding collapse of pre-industrial agricultural societies due to environmental disasters we are perpetuating stereotype and dismissing historical narratives.  Whose version of the past should be privileged and further how do we make that judgement?

1. Common (mis)perceptions about Native North American peoples run the gamut from the violent savage to the ecological Indian with archaeologists (intentionally or not) playing a supportive role in perpetuating these stereotypes.  Archaeologists often write Indigenous individuals (intentionally or not) out of the archaeological narrative discussing places, events, materials, and bodies as static and singular, devoid of personhood or humanness.   Complexity and collapse theories often play on these perceptions discussing societal collapse, especially in Native North America, as something with agency that acts upon persons who have none.  The environment, disease, warfare, etc. are attributed with the ability to act collectively to destroy complex societies, while Native American persons are passively acted upon seemingly with little or no control over the outcome of a particular situation. Publications like Jared Diamond’s Collapse have done much to popularize these kinds of accounts, often with little reference to detailed archaeological and anthropological data. In fact, the anthropologists who contributed to the volume Questioning Collapse argued that Diamond’s book(s) gain such popularity in part because they reflect our current concerns with climate change.  Anthropological/archaeological data are shoehorned into those fears by stripping all historical data and human agency/creativity/resilience from case studies. Approximately 10 years ago, the narratives of collapse were concerned with drought (Diamond attributes the collapse of many societies to drought and environmental degradation) – now the fear is flood. Will we see a reemergence of drought in another 10 years?

Such perspectives that cut human agency out of the historical narrative are vectors of settler colonialism. Holdovers from the days of the first explorers who documented and drew Native persons as things and as “other”.  Focusing on Native American persons as objects to be studied (especially from an archaeological perspective) intentionally removes them from the historical narrative and separates person from places and practices.  This strips persons of agency, making the colonial process easier for the colonizer– land devoid of agentic people is ‘easier’ to take, for example.  This is the colonial process in action whereby (predominantly) white academics serve to deconstruct past (and contemporary) historical contexts through categorical analyses that privilege science-based knowledge over relational and animate ontological theories (see Watts 2013).  This practice of privileging one kind of knowledge over another has significant implications for sovereignty, tribal recognition, and legislation that governs Native American tribal rights and access to sacred sites, ancestral remains, and lands (see the recent debates surrounding Kennewick Man for example).

We (archaeologists) often look to things to make meaning out of various contexts.  We often examine materials of depositional practice, monumental construction, burials, and agricultural practices as devoid of the people that populate the past.  We seek meaning in models of behavior (not agency) and organizations of households, while forgetting the actual persons who constructed and lived in those houses.  The relational ontological turn has worked to change this perspective engaging with persons (both human and otherwise) as entangled with multiple places, other persons, and materials moving us beyond a representationalist interpretation of the past.  This turn has brought to the forefront other ways of being in the world that greatly impact current scholarly work in the Indigenous Americas (see Zoe Todd for comments on said ontological turn).

But, there is always more room for improvement.  We still face a discipline that largely ignores Native American histories, which in turn perpetuates the epistemological biases that segregates science from other ‘ways of knowing’.  We struggle with the legacy of a discipline that privileges Euro American narratives of ‘science’ over Indigenous voices (Mann 2003) where separating history from science from economics from politics and from religion create the beginnings of a ‘great’ archaeological analytical system.  What if we put such categories aside?  Opening our minds to engage with a different perspective, one that emphasizes the relational qualities of the many ‘ways of knowing’ that considers politics, religion, economics, the social and the intellectual as ‘simultaneous’; as Vine Deloria Jr. says  “[h]istory is not divided into categories” (Deloria 2003 [1973]).  So, why do we persist to do so in our analyses of the past?

1927 Mississippi River flood, Cairo, Illinois

“1927 Mississippi flood Mounds-Cairo IL highway” by Archival Photography by Steve Nicklas, NOS, NGS – NOAA photo library filename wea00735: originally at [1] (now at [2]). Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

2. Such collapse narratives like those recently publicized about Cahokia, suggest (intentionally or not) that the inhabitants of this agriculturally-based city could not or would not have persisted through a ‘large-scale’ flood event, if such an event happened. Consider the following statement:

In contrast to the large Mississippi River floods of the 19th century that fostered resilience and motivated legislation aimed at preventing damage from flooding, Cahokia’s leaders appear to have been unable to maintain the impression of security and stability following the economic upheaval created by the return of large floods” (Munoz et al. 2015: 4).

This implies that Cahokians could not have met large-scale flooding events with the same resilience of “modern” peoples.  This perpetuates an ethnocentric understanding of technological know-how, social resilience, and political integration of past Native American peoples that harkens back to the outdated Myth of the Moundbuilders.  Ignoring serious data indicating the skill with which Cahokia’s inhabitants modified the natural topography to mitigate the presence of water (see Dalan et. al 2003) disregards Indigenous technological know-how.  Picking when to champion past Native American builders for their earth moving skills ignores agency and the capacity for change!  It relegates Native American persons to a historical narrative that is written by Western academics, for Western academics.  This is a form of colonialism.

Further, we must consider the importance of water to many Indigenous persons in the Americas; removing this aspect from the conversation ignores the ontological significance of water.  Water is a a place of creation, a place of life, and a place of death (see Echo-Hawk 2009).  Water, for some southeastern and plains peoples, is the genesis of the living world (see Baires 2015 for a review).  Water was not only life giving in the form of potable water and water for crops but truly life giving in that it is/was literally the beginning of the world.  Why, then, are we so quick to assume that Native American persons living at Cahokia would vacate their community as a result of a singular flood event? One that there is no archaeological evidence for?  This is a dichotomy of place and practice that separates persons from the land.  This is a colonial and Western conceptualization.  The land was not just something to support agricultural practice but was (and is) a social agent with the capacity for action.

Ramey Vessel

Ramey Pottery Vessel

Ramey Pottery Vessel

Ramey incised vessel, Photo by Michael Fuller

Let’s consider an alternate perspective.  An overabundance of water may have been one of the significant reasons as to why Native American people chose to build Cahokia in a foodplain.  Water was presenced not only by the Mississippi River that runs along the western edge of Cahokia but also in marine shell beads and materials buried with the dead, causeways constructed through marshy lowlands connecting mounds and plazas, and in a series of ditches likely constructed to channel water away from neighborhoods (see Baires 2015; Dalan et. al 2003). Ramey Incised pottery, an important religious vessel type, was frequently decorated with symbolic motifs evoking water (Pauketat and Emerson 1991). Recently, excavations at sites in Cahokia’s uplands have documented multiple instances in which structures were left exposed to the elements, infilled with water laid silts, and then re-excavated and reused by the inhabitants of places like Pfeffer and Emerald (Pauketat 2013).

When we consider the functional and relational qualities of water together with the persistence of the Cahokian community beyond the 13th century an entirely new image of this city emerges.  One of resilience and persistence rather than destruction and collapse.

Additionally, the archaeological record at Cahokia does not support the conclusion that a large-scale flood brought about collapse.  We contend that there is no archaeological evidence of a massive flood at Cahokia. Suggestions have been made that there is evidence at Cahokia’s Merrell Tract and that other evidence “…may not preserve well in terrestrial archaeological contexts due to erosion, bioturbation, and pedogenesis…” (Munoz et. al 2015), but these possible data do not align with what we see archaeological on the macroscale.  The in-filling sequences of the later Merrell Tract households reveal evidence of silt deposits likely as the result of periodic rainfall, not catastrophic flooding (similar to those identified at the Pfeffer and Emerald sites) (Salzer 1975).

Flood Radiocarbon Dates, adapted from Munoz et. al 2015 (click to enlarge)

Further, the proposed dates or collapse due to flooding do not align with the archaeological evidence.  Plain and simple.  People remained at Cahokia until the 1400s changing the landscape, re-building neighborhoods and mounds while influencing surrounding Native American communities in Oklahoma and into the deep south.  While populations at Cahokia dropped during the 13th century, people still continued to migrate into the American Bottom, mounds were constructed, large villages persisted, Cahokians were still engaged in wide ranging networks of exchange.  The classic Braden style of the Mississippian Art and Ceremonial Complex was developed at Cahokia. Persistence was the name of the game.

By dismissing this complex civilization with a narrative about a hypothetical flood– with no archaeological basis– stereotypes are perpetuated.

Intentionally or not Cahokia and its population have been relegated to the realm of passivity.  The stereotype of the ecological Indian persists all in the attempt to push forward a narrative that capitalizes on our own contemporary fears: fear of societal collapse, fear of the changing environment, and fear of state-engineered environmental disaster.  Consider the political stakes!  Theories like this have real impacts, they shape narratives and contemporary understandings of who Native American peoples are/were. Even now, the city of St. Louis is planning on constructing a new stadium atop the location of the St. Louis Mound group. It becomes easy for politicians to dismiss the concerns of descendant communities when archaeological narratives paint their ancestors as people who destroyed their environment, or whose societies were destroyed by warfare and/or the environment, or who abandoned their lands only to have them claimed by Europeans later.  When engaging in archaeological work that looks for answers to the reasons behind societal change (especially in the Indigenous Americas) we must be diligent in our practice considering how our theories may impact communities.  We must also incorporate Indigenous ontologies and Indigenous scholars into our work and seriously engage with them.  Only then will we produce research that productively engages with the past and the future.


Anderson, David G. (1994)  Savannah River Chiefdoms: Political Change in the Late Prehistoric Southeast.  University of Alabama Press.

Baires, Sarah E. (2015)  The role of water in the emergence of the pre-Columbian Native American City Cahokia.  WiresWater doi: 10:1002/wat2.1094.

Dalan, Rinita A., William I. Woods, John A. Koepke, George R. Holley Jr., and Harold W. Watters. (2003)  Envisioning Cahokia: A Landscape Perspective.  Northern Illinois University Press.

Deloria Jr., Vine (2003)  God is Red: A Native View of Religion, 30th Anniversary Edition.  Fulcrum Publishing.

Echo-Hawk, Walter R. (2009)  Under Native American Skies.  Ethnography in the National Park Service 26(3): 58-79.

Iseminger, William (1997)  Culture and Environment in the American Bottom: The Rise and Fall of Cahokia Mounds. In Common Fields: An Environmental History of St. Louis, edited by Andrew Hurley, pp. 38-57. Missouri Historical Society Press, St. Louis.

Mann, Barbara A. (2003)  Native Americans, Archaeologists, and the Mounds.  Peter Lang Publishers.

Milner, George R. (1998)  The Cahokia Chiefdom: The Archaeology of a Mississippian Society.  Smithsonian Institution Press.

Munoz, Samuel E., Kristine E. Gruley, Ashtin Massie, David A. Fike, Sissel Schroeder, John W. Williams. (2015)  Cahokia’s emergence and decline coincided with shifts in flood frequency on the Mississippi River.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 112(20): 1-6.

Pauketat, Timothy R. (2013)  An Archaeology of the Cosmos: Rethinking Agency and Religion in Ancient America.  Routledge.

Pauketat, Timothy R. and Thomas E. Emerson (1991) Ideology of Authority and the Power of the Pot.  American Anthropologist 93(4): 919-941.

Salzer, Robert J. (1975)  Excavations at the Merrell Tract of the Cahokia Site: Summary Field Report, 1973.  Illinois State Museum Research Series: Papers in Anthropology 3: 1-8.

Watts, Vanessa (2013)  Indigenous place-thought & agency amongst humans and non-humans (First Woman and Sky Woman go on a European world tour!).  Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 2(1): 20-34.

Woods, William I. (2004)  Population Nucleation, Intensive Agriculture, and Environmental Degradation: The Cahokia Example. Agriculture and Human Values 21:255-261.

4 thoughts on “Colonialism, Collapse, and Floods

  1. Hi. I read the exchange of letters in PNAS with interest. While I am somewhat sympathetic with your motivations, the fact is that your critique was rather poor.

    For instance, at one point you make the rather shocking statement: “The A.D. 1200 date provided is a midpoint and not statistically meaningful.” But look at the distribution itself. 1200 is the highest point on the curve. In other words, it is the point in time that has the highest probability for being the ‘true’ date. So in other words, this is very statistically meaningful.

    Second, you point to the ‘inversion’ of dates at particular sites. But this is simply a fall-out from sampling theory. A certain proportion of your dates will be outliers for this or that reason. So, ideally, you try and get as many dates (or as large a sample) as possible AND you use a sophisticated Bayesian model — which the authors did. In fact, this can correct for the ‘old wood’ problem to some extent. Perhaps a better critique from your position might be to see if the sample was, indeed, large enough. However, I am impressed that there dates for the 1844 flood do seem to be converging on the true date . . . with a couple more samples, it would probably reflect the documented evidence well.

    Third, it is unclear that saying that massive floods contributed to the decline of the American Bottom is a ‘denial of agency’ for Native Peoples. Why isn’t it a denial when Dr. Pauketat cites drought instead of flood?

    There may be a better avenue of critique. The method by which the two cores were aligned was interesting, but it requires a leap of faith. A sophisticated statistical method (PCA) was used to try and determine which aspects of the sediments were the artifacts of local deposition and which were the results of large scale flooding events affecting the entire Mississippi system. Looking at their graphs, it seems reasonable to me. However, it still seems to be a weak point in the paper.

    The fact is that the study that you are critiquing seems to be a very sound, strong, and interesting paper. It was written by geologists and climatologists who, presumably, are experts in their domain. It may or may not be supported by future research. but referring to it as ‘colonial” (as you do in this blog’) is an attempt to undermine the authors credibility using ad hominem. I would expect more from promising young archaeologists than this.


  2. I think the long occupation of the site could accommodate both a preference for a riverine location / importance of water early in the history of the site, but a late and ultimate evacuation of the site due to uncontrollable circumstances. Either flooding could be controlled or it could not. To suggest Cahokia fell due to uncontrollable environmental circumstances does not necessarily imply they were failed engineers. Clearly, the construction and maintenance of the settlement for several centuries demonstrates a high level of engineering competence. How many U.S. cities in similar environments have lasted a century, two centuries, without a catastrophe? Even in the case the flooding was not the cause for the site’s abandonment, who cares? Native values changed in the past as they do today. Remember, the value and significance of places (Cahokia) and their properties (water) changes over time. In fact, to suggest that these values did not change after 100 or 200 years implies a culture lacking “agency”. In my admittedly uninformed opinion, the null hypothesis for Cahokia “collapse” should be that the place and what it represented became obsolete in the realm of cultural production ( and reproduction). The attendant economic functions of this center went away with the value system that propelled it. Historic and prehistoric examples of such shifts in values / land use are abundant.


  3. The real reason for Cahokia’s collapse is that it was visited by a Chinese expedition in 1433 that brought smallpox. Record of this expedition is currently in last stages of translation by my wife, Laurie Bonner-Nickless. Record runs several hundred pages and describes Cahokia’s physical layout, culture, religion, animals and plants in fine detail. Some of this material has been presented at the Royal Geographic Society, London.


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