Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Cahokia: The good news and the bad

Cahokia's Monks Mound lay at the heart of the sprawling ancient city.
Cahokia as it was at its appogee
The December 23, 2011 issue of Science magazine has three news articles by Andres Lawler dealing with Cahokia, a World Heritage site located in the United States.

I have found that very few of my graduate students even know of Cahokia and its mounds which form one of the most important pre-Columbian sites in the western hemisphere. Located near St. Louis, the site is now being further studied and was even more important than was realized when it was first accepted as a world heritage site.:
The excavations to date suggest that Cahokia was part of a large urban complex, one organized differently from other cities. “This was a metropolitan area,” perhaps home to as many as 50,000 people, “and you were a day's walk or canoe ride from one end to the other,” says Thomas Emerson of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, who directs the Illinois State Archaeological Survey (ISAS). The reach of this metropolis extended for hundreds of kilometers: Other researchers are finding settlements as far north as Wisconsin, apparently established by Cahokians. 
The nature of this society's organization and beliefs, as well as the reasons for its abrupt demise around 1300 C.E., remain hotly debated.
Indeed it has been suggested that "(a)ncient settlements in what is now Louisiana may have laid the foundation not only for the great city of Cahokia but perhaps also for Mesoamerican civilization."

Archaeologists are now racing to study the sites related to the Cahokia culture and hoping to preserve them in the face of increasing urban development:
Nearby, in the most densely settled area of ancient East St. Louis, a highway and bridge project provides funding—$2.5 million in 2011—for digs but little time for publication. In nearby Wood River, thousands of samples and artifacts that will require years of analysis are piling up in a lab in a downtown basement. “We don't have time to do more than gather,” says Thomas Emerson, who directs the Illinois transportation archaeological program. “We need people to dig.” 
Meanwhile, in Louisiana, where North America's most ancient mounds date back to the Middle Archaic period around 3500 B.C.E., there is little funding for digs, and most mounds, such as at Frenchman's Bend near Monroe, are on private property. (Recently retired, former state archaeologist Joseph) Saunders has spent the past 2 decades chatting up owners, encouraging them to feel a sense of pride that would prevent wanton—but legal—destruction of the sites. His strategy has paid off, for example at a Middle Archaic site called Hedgepeth, where a landowning family donated 4 hectares to the Archaeological Conservancy. But an unknown number of other mounds have been bulldozed. Saunders's “retirement is a huge blow,” says Washington University in St. Louis archaeologist Tristram R. Kidder.

The Great African Animal Migration in Danger

The television program 60 minutes broadcast a section on the great migration which makes the round trip between the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, a World Heritage Site, and the Maasai Maru National Park in Kenya, a tentatively listed candidate for a World Heritage Site. Millions of animals make the migration each year, the last large scale migration of large animals in the world.

The main artery of the region across which the migration takes place is the Mara River. The program describes the threat that this river will begin to dry up for a part of each year due to the changes in land use in its catchment area. If it were to do so, it is estimated that hundreds of thousands of animals involved in the migration would die and the migration would no longer be possible.

Were the animal populations to plummet, the entire ecology of these two national parks would be irrevocably harmed.

The program also describes the difficult lives of native peoples in the region who are unwilling to give up their hopes for better lives to save national parks that they have never seen. They are intransigent before the efforts to keep them from clearing and farming wild areas.

It also shows a successful effort by an non-profit organization to encourage Maasai people in a region of some 400 square miles to sustainably manage their livestock and grazing areas.

One wonders whether the world heritage represented by these parks can be saved for much longer, and whether there is anything that UNESCO and the community supporting UNESCO's World Heritage Convention can to to help.