The city that vanished about 700 years ago presents a captivating question for archaeologists: What happened to the Mississippian people who built Cahokia?
Researchers can survey the domestic architecture and estimate the number of people living in houses, or look at the density of artifacts like pottery fragments, or even count burials in cemeteries (when they exist). But these methods are proxy measurements that rely on estimation. What scientists really need is a compound left behind by humans living on the landscape, something that could reflect the size of the population as it rose and fell.
Something like a special molecule found in human poop.
Just such a biomarker is the subject of a recent paper authored by White and colleagues and published in the Journal of Archaeological Science. The researchers looked at the effectiveness of measuring coprostanol—a molecule of partially digested cholesterol produced in the human gut—as a way to measure the changing population of Cahokia. To their delight, the amount of coprostanol extracted from sediment cores taken from nearby Horseshoe Lake closely tracked with the population trends indicated by the archaeological record.
…[A]s the catalogue of fecal remnants grows, perhaps the byproducts of human waste will tell us as much about historic populations as buried houses and potsherds.
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