Isotopic Confirmation of the Timing and Intensity of Maize Consumption in Greater Cahokia

Thomas E. Emerson, Kristin M. Hedman, Mary L. Simon, Mathew A. Fort, Kelsey E. Witt

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


The history of maize (Zea mays L.) in the eastern Woodlands remains an important study topic. As currently understood, these histories appear to vary regionally and include scenarios positing an early introduction and an increase in use over hundreds of, if not a thousand, years. In this article, we address the history of maize in the American Bottom region of Illinois and its importance in the development of regional Mississippian societies, specifically in the Cahokian polity located in the central Mississippi River valley. We present new lines of evidence that confirm subsistence-level maize use at Cahokia was introduced rather abruptly at about AD 900 and increased rapidly over the following centuries. Directly dated archaeobotanical maize remains, human and dog skeletal carbon isotope values, and a revised interpretation of the archaeological record support this interpretation. Our results suggest that population increases and the nucleation associated with Cahokia were facilitated by the newly introduced practices of maize cultivation and consumption. Maize should be recognized as having had a key role in providing subsistence security that-combined with social, political, and religious changes-fueled the emergence of Cahokia in AD 1050.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)241-262
Number of pages22
JournalAmerican Antiquity
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 2020


  • Cahokia
  • dietary stable isotopes
  • early maize
  • nixtamalization

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Archaeology
  • Museology


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