Native American Cahokia Was The Country's First 'Melting Pot'
March 4, 2014

Native American Cahokia Was The Country’s First ‘Melting Pot’

Lee Rannals for - Your Universe Online

Researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have discovered new evidence that establishes a Native American city as America’s first “melting pot.”

The team found that Cahokia, a pre-Columbian city that sat between the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, hosted a large population of immigrants. Previously, researchers believed this city consisted of a homogenous, stable population drawn from the area. However, new studies have revealed a different scenario.

"But increasingly archaeologists are realizing that Cahokia at AD 1100 was very likely an urban center with as many as 20,000 inhabitants," Thomas Emerson, Illinois state archaeologist and the director of the Illinois State Archaeological Survey at the University of Illinois, who led the new analysis, said in a statement. "Such early centers around the world grow by immigration, not by birthrate."

The team tested the chemical composition of 133 teeth from 87 people who were buried at Cahokia during its heyday. They looked at strontium isotope ratios in the teeth and in the remains of small mammals from the same area.

"Strontium isotope ratios in rock, soil, groundwater and vegetation vary according to the underlying geology of a region," the researchers wrote in a paper published in the Journal of Archaeological Research. "As an animal eats and drinks, the local strontium isotope composition of the water, plants and animals consumed is recorded in its skeletal tissues."

Emerson said the ratios of strontium signatures found in a person's teeth can be compared to those of plants and animals in the immediate environment.

"Teeth retain the isotopic signature of an individual's diet at various periods of life depending on the tooth type sampled, ranging from in utero to approximately 16 years of age," the researchers wrote.

The signatures found in the teeth can be compared to a person’s place of burial to help determine whether the person lived in only that vicinity. Early teeth and later teeth could have different strontium signatures, which would indicate that a person emigrated from another location.

The researchers analyzed the teeth of those buried in locations around Cahokia and found that immigrants formed a third of the population of the city throughout its history.

"This indicates that Cahokia as a political, social and religious center was extremely fluid and dynamic, with a constantly fluctuating composition," Emerson said.

He said the findings contradict traditional thoughts about Cahokian society that have been built on analogies with 19th-century Native American groups.

"Cahokia, because it was multiethnic and perhaps even multilingual, must have been a virtual 'melting pot' that fostered new ways of living, new political and social patterns and perhaps even new religious beliefs," he said in a statement.