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When I meet Pauketat at Cahokia to see the site through his eyes, he's more interested in showing me what he's found in the uplands several miles to the east: signs that Cahokians held sway over outlying laborer communities that supplied food to the city and its elites—evidence, Pauketat argues, that Cahokia's political economy was centralized and broad reaching. This is a controversial theory, because the research supporting it hasn't been published yet, and because it goes to the heart of the argument about just what kind of society Cahokia was.

Gayle Fritz at Washington University in St. Louis says that if Cahokia was a city, it wasn't the kind we usually think of, but one full of farmers growing their own food in nearby fields. Otherwise there would be more signs of storage facilities. It's this sort of practical limit on the size of a subsistence-based agricultural community that leads minimalists like Penn State's George Milner to argue that population estimates for Cahokia—currently ranging between 10,000 and 15,000 for the city proper and another 20,000 to 30,000 in the surrounding areas—are inflated by a factor of two or more and that characterizations of Cahokia as something like a protostate are way off base. But with less than one percent of Cahokia excavated, speculation by every camp remains in higher supply than evidence. Washington University's John Kelly, a longtime stalwart of Cahokian archaeology, sums up the present understanding of Cahokia nicely: "People aren't really sure what it is."

Nor do people know what happened to it. Cahokia was a ghost town by the time Columbus landed in the New World, and the American Bottom and substantial parts of the Mississippi and Ohio River Valleys were so depopulated they are referred to as the Vacant Quarter. Cahokia's demise is perhaps an even greater mystery than its emergence, but there are a few clues. The city grew to prominence during an especially favorable climate phase and began shrinking around the time the climate became cooler, drier, and less predictable. For an agricultural community dependent on regular crop yields, the changing conditions could have been anything from stressful to catastrophic.

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