Skip to comments.Why Did Monongahela Indians Disappear From Western Pennsylvania?
Posted on 10/03/2002 2:54:16 PM PDT by blam
Why Did Monongahela Indians Disappear From Western Pennsylvania? Massive Droughts May Be Answer to Mystery, Says Anthropologist at Carnegie Museum of Natural History
Story Filed: Wednesday, October 02, 2002 10:31 PM EST
PITTSBURGH, Oct 01, 2002 (ASCRIBE NEWS via COMTEX) -- For decades, anthropologists have struggled to explain why the once thriving Monongahela Indian culture disappeared from southwestern Pennsylvania by 1635 - well in advance of European settlement. Jim Richardson, Curator of Anthropology at Carnegie Museum of Natural History, believes he may finally have the answer.
In a study published in the journal Archaeology of Eastern North America, Richardson and colleagues David Anderson and Edward Cook propose that two massive droughts, one from 1587-1589 and a second from 1607-1612, drove the Monongahela Indians from southwestern Pennsylvania.
Because the Monongahela relied heavily on maize-based agriculture for subsistence, the two droughts put incredible stresses on their food supply. Richardson believes that after the first drought the Monongahela contracted to a core area in Greene County, Pennsylvania. Further weakened by the 1607-1612 drought, the Monongahela fled to the East and South by 1635 to seek better farming lands and to escape increasingly frequent raids by the Iroquois as competition increased for fur-bearing animals, which were valuable trade commodities. Southwestern Pennsylvania remained uninhabited until the 1720s, when the Delaware Indians moved into the region.
Richardson and colleagues base their study on new tree-ring data from West Virginia that provides a year-to-year climate record which can be correlated with the contraction of the Monongahela population from A.D. 1050 to 1635. By analyzing the size of the tree rings-the smaller the ring, the drier the year-Richardson, Anderson and Cook were able to determine when a drought occurred as well as its duration and severity.
These two mega-droughts not only affected the Monongahela's territory, but also many other areas of the country. In fact, anthropologist David Stahle first used tree-ring data in a 1998 Science article to show the devastating effects of the 1607-1612 drought on the Jamestown colony and argue that the 1587-1589 drought caused the disappearance of the famed "Lost Colony" of Roanoke. It was Stahle's paper that inspired Richardson to view the disappearance of the Monongahela in a different light.
"When I read Stahle's paper," said Richardson, "I thought to myself, 'This is it. This is what happened to the Monongahela.'"
The tree-ring data collected by Cook proves that the Jamestown and Roanoke droughts did indeed extend northward into the Monongahela's territory. Other data, such as sediment cores from the Chesapeake Bay, also reveal evidence of droughts correlating with the tree-ring record.
In one sense, the solution to the Monongahela's disappearance is surprising. "Nobody ever figured drought," Richardson said.
But he also points out that droughts have historically wreaked havoc with agriculturally-based societies, contributing to the collapse of the Mayan civilization and the Akkadian Empire of the Near East. In this sense, Richardson's study is another example of how drastic climate change can shape cultural change.
"Many people are now using climate data as a way of looking at the rise, spread, and collapse of cultures," he said.
We know there was contact between tribes -- easy to see them being taken out by a plague, especially since we know such things happened. It's far harder to imagine a drought doing it to them, especially in a valley where the rivers did not run dry.
I agree. It wasn't like there were millions of Indians there --- maybe 10,000 at best, and it's doubtful they would be farming or even settle far from the rivers. The 'bottom land' was the only easily tillible soil in that region. Every thing else was far to rocky or clay filled for an age without horses and steel plows. Even in the times when the rivers would get very low in the summer, (before damns and reservoirs) I can't imagine the rivers that drain nearly all the land west of the Appalachians from New York state to North Carolina ever running totally dry.
The question is did they irrigate using the river? If they didn't it wouldn't matter if it were flowing or not.
Didn't they all go back to Wales?
Yes. The tree rings don't tell lies. Probably a combination of things.
I have been persuaded recently that when the modern Europeans discovered South America, that there were more people there than all of Europe. N/A, don't know?