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Where is the Anthropology?: The Mississippians of the Cahokia Mounds in Illinois

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The Cahokia Mounds, located in Collinsville Illinois, were created around 700 AD by people the archaeologists have called Woodland Indians.  Later, another group named by archaeologists as the Mississippian Indians, continued to build the mounds in 800 AD until they mysteriously abandoned the site in 1400 AD.  They have left no written record that has been found so the true tribal names of these groups are unknown to the excavation and scholars.  This is the largest known civilization north of Mexico City.  This particular site of the Mississippians is the largest in the United States with 109 out of the 120 mounds recovered out of several other mound locations scattered along the Mississippi river and a few sites located further west, east of the Appalachian Mountain range.  Out of the 109 Historical Preservation Agency of Illinois preserved 68 mounds covering 2200 acres (890 hectares) of land (Cahokia Mounds Museum Society, 2001, 1-2).  “The remnants of the Mississippian’s central city [is] now known as Cahokia for the Indians who lived nearby in the late 1600s” (Cahokia Mounds Museum website, 2003 http://www.cahokiamounds.com/Introduction.html).   

These two groups of prehistoric Indian cultures, mainly the Mississippians, developed a complex and long lasting society.  They had an “advanced civilization: widespread commerce; stratified social, political, and religious organization; specialized and refined crafts; and monumental architecture”, and agriculture system for corn/Maze, squash and other native plants (Cahokia Mounds Museum website, 2003 http://www.cahokiamounds.com/Introduction.html).  The cities structure had a large opening field surrounded by smaller mounds with the largest mound at the Northern end of the open field being the temple mound or “Monks Mound”.  Other mounds further out continue to diminish in size and social importance of the occupancies during the time of the Mississippians.  This town included a large wall around the town center that archaeologists have reconstructed in place to divide the social rankings of the city (Cahokia Mounds Museum Society, 2001, 9-12).  

 Cahokia Mound

There is evidence of a large trading system between other native groups during the time of the Mississippian and Woodland due to the location of the Cahokia site.  The Cahokia site is geographically located at the convergence of three major rivers; Mississippi, Missouri, and Illinois and four ecozones; Mississippian Valley, Ozarks, Prairies, Eastern Woodland. The rivers junction creates fertile land from the expansive flood plain called the “American Bottom”.  “It stretched 70 miles along the Mississippi from present day Alton, Illinois, to Chester, Illinois, and was up to 12 miles wide from the river east to its bluffs” (Cahokia Mounds Museum website, 2003 http://www.cahokiamounds.com/settingstage.html).  Spring rains swelled the American Bottom land’s streams replenishing the lands for cultivation by renewing the nutrients essential for the wide-scale agricultural (Cahokia Mounds Museum website, 2003 http://www.cahokiamounds.com/settingstage.html). 


The Mississippian people benefited from the American Bottom with the advantage in farming, economics, and society.  They interacted with nomadic Plains dwellers, Northeastern forest people, and other Mississippians in the Southeast providing resources and ideas to the Cahokian city.  From this central conjunction, Mississippians traveled by water and land “along trade routes already established by the Woodland and, to some extent, the Archaic peoples” (Cahokia Mounds Museum website, 2003 http://www.cahokiamounds.com/Mississippians.html).  In traded goods the Mississippians gained copper from The Great Lakes area, mica form the Appalachian and seashells from the Gulf of Mexico.  (Cahokia Mounds Museum website, 2003 http://www.cahokiamounds.com/Mississippians.html).
The Cahokia Mounds have been compared to the mounds and cities built by the ancestral people of the Maya, Inca and Aztec civilizations with many cultural and innovative advancements being of similar orientation.

“Despite striking similarities to features of cultures in Mexico and elsewhere, there is no scientific evidence that several Mississippian trademarks – flat-topped temple mounds, calendric systems, and ceramic styles – were the result of anything other than independent invention.  No Mexican artifacts have been found in the American Bottom or in any other part of this country outside the Southwest.

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But above all, the early Mississippians somehow acquired the knowledge of growing corn, or maize, a technology that had originated in Mexico 4000 years earlier and slowly spread to other parts of the Americas.  Coupled with improvements in the flint hoe, it was this adaptable and prolific plant, and the steady food supply it created, on which the powerful civilization at Cahokia was built.”

(Cahokia Mounds Museum website, 2003 http://www.cahokiamounds.com/Mississippians.html

These mounds are part of the mystery of human civilization in North America and are still being studied today.  The Cahokia Mounds Museum Society still conducts summer field studies of mounds and other sites on the premises.  The museum contains many of the artifacts and reconstruction based on materials found.  This site is continuing to provide archaeologists with more information about the ancient American civilizations that existed in the New world. 

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If you want to read and learn more about the Cahokia Mounds visit their website at: http://www.cahokiamounds.com/cahokia.html -Adrienne Elder 

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These are some articles that I have found on the Internet about the Cahokia from the Science Daily website. If you want to read the full articles go to Archaeology Spotlight Articles on the site.  There are the article summaries.

 Archaeologists Identify Oldest Existing Mound Complex In New WorldScienceDaily (Sep. 23, 1997) The earliest existing mound complex built by humans in the new world has been identified in Louisiana by a team of archaeologists and researchers from around the United States including Jim Feathers, a University of Washington research assistant professor of archaeology. Details of the discovery appear in the Sept. 19 issue of the journal Science.

Geological Origins Of Ancient Figures Yield Clues To Cahokian Society ScienceDaily (Mar. 15, 2000)— CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Nearly 1,000 years before St. Louis became known as the Gateway to the West, another expanding culture had created a major ceremonial mound complex that is now called Cahokia. By all accounts, Cahokia was huge, consisting of hundreds of platform mounds, supported by a population numbering in the thousands. At issue, however, has been whether Cahokia was part of a regional trade network that stretched from the Great Plains to the South Atlantic.    

Artifact Analyses Dispute Assumptions About A Prehistoric Society ScienceDaily (Aug. 3, 2001)— CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Fragments of red stone artifacts – bits of smoking pipes, decorative ear lobe spools and a figurine, all plucked out of rich prehistoric soil in the U.S. Midwest – used to tell one story about the complex culture and the ancient people who left them behind. Now they tell another. 

 Discovery Of Ax Heads Furthers Understanding Of Cahokian Society ScienceDaily (Aug. 6, 2001)CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — A team of archaeologists, including students, working under a blazing summer sun on a high hill near O’Fallon, Ill., have made a rare find.  

New Technique Helps Solve Mystery Of Ancient Figurines ScienceDaily (Jul. 7, 2003)CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Thanks in part to new spectroscopic technology, researchers have solved a great mystery concerning some of North America’s oldest pieces of sculpture.  

 

Article Archaeology-New Technique Helps Solve Mystery Of Ancient Figurines

This is an article that highlights the Where is the Anthropology? for February 2008 on the Cahokia Mounds in Illinois.  This is the full text taking about new finds and discovers at the site and the new information that is being gathered through archaeology research and volunteers.

  

ScienceDaily (Jul. 7, 2003)CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Thanks in part to new spectroscopic technology, researchers have solved a great mystery concerning some of North America’s oldest pieces of sculpture. 

With the use of PIMA — a non-invasive Portable Infrared Mineral Analyzer — an interdisciplinary team of scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has identified the source and meaning of “spectacular late prehistoric” figurines found in several locales in the South and the Southeast — in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Tennessee. According to lead researcher Thomas Emerson, an archaeologist and the director of ITARP (Illinois Transportation Archaeological Research Program), the figurines were made of Missouri flint clay from quarries near St. Louis. Artisans at Cahokia, the earliest and largest North American mound society, which was centered in southern Illinois, in all likelihood produced the iconic figurines in the 12th century during an “artistic explosion,” but the objects were moved at various times and to various places, where they eventually were found. There now is evidence that after they were moved, some of the flint clay icons were recarved and retrofitted as smoking pipes, indicating a radical change in their significance. “There is a vast difference between bowing to an ancestral being and smoking one,” Emerson said. The figures appear to have been disbursed only after Cahokia began to decline in the middle or late 13th century, suggesting that the transfers were associated with “the collapse of the old order.” Determining when Cahokia-made figures arrived at their new locations “is an important link in the interpretive chain,” the researchers wrote in the spring/summer issue of American Antiquity. In their research, Emerson and his team analyzed 13 museum specimens originally found in the South and Southeast to identify the mineral composition of the raw material. Figures included a resting and a conquering warrior, various squatting and kneeling men, frogs and frog pipes and a “chunky” game player. Cahokian-style figurines arecharacterized by a highly developed realistic portrayal of human or near-human figures; they are dressed in specific costumes and shown carrying out specific deeds. Occasionally, however, they seem to portray mythical acts or beings. The transported figures probably were used for long periods of time in their new locations. Their importance “doesn’t lie in economic power but rather in symbolic and ideological power.”  The association of these highly symbolic figures with Cahokia allowed the researchers to propose that many of the themes — for example, fertility and warfare — that later appear in Eastern Woodlands native cosmology, such as the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex,” were first codified in Cahokia in the 12th century.” Other researchers were Randall Hughes, Illinois State Geological Survey; Mary R. Hynes, ITARP; and Sarah U. Wisseman, Program on Ancient Technologies and Archaeological Materials.

Adapted from materials provided by University Of Illinois At Urbana-Champaign.

Article Archaeology-Discovery Of Ax Heads Furthers Understanding Of Cahokian Society

ScienceDaily (Aug. 6, 2001)CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — A team of archaeologists, including students, working under a blazing summer sun on a high hill near O’Fallon, Ill., have made a rare find.  

In what was considered to be an “ordinary” ancient farming village, the team, from the University of Illinois, has discovered a large cache of prehistoric stone ax heads called celts. The 70 celts are about 900 years old and belonged to the pre-Columbian residents of the Mississippi Valley. This is the second-largest cache ever found in the orbitof Cahokia, a major mecca from A.D. 700 to 1400. The last cache was found in the 1940s, and only five or six caches have turned up during the past 100 years – all clustered around Cahokia, an integrated system that includes a series of suburbs and villages. The ax heads, which were found buried in a pit next to a still-intact house floor, “are quite an impressive batch,” said UI archaeologist Tim Pauketat, leader of the UI field school that worked this summer at the Grossmann site near O’Fallon. “Stone ax heads such as these have been found at large important centers,” Pauketat said, “and may be a marker of ‘wealth’ or social status.” That the axes were hoarded is not unusual, he said. Neolithic people in Europe and 20th century people in New Guinea and Australia did the same thing. What is particularly fascinating about the lucky find, made by UI anthropology student Nicholas Wisseman on Friday, July 13, is that the 70 ax heads are pristine. “They were brand new when they were buried, so they probably were placed in the pit in some kind of commemorative ritual,” Pauketat said. The outlying farmstead in which the team is working “shows other hints of status, like big houses, for example, and these ax heads seem to clinch that interpretation,” he said. Wisseman, 19, found the ax heads when scraping around a floor looking for wall trenches. He “accidentally cut across the pit just outside the house, hitting stone with his shovel,” Pauketat said. “Nick was ecstatic. All of us were ecstatic.” One of the ax heads appears to be the longest one ever found in the area – 45 centimeters, and like the others, probably never meant to be used – “just an oversized ax head with which to impress other people,” Pauketat said. The 70 ax heads are made of an igneous rock called St. François, basalt or diabase, which comes from Ironton, Mo., in the Ozarks. This means, Pauketat said, “that the people had to fund a trip to the raw material site, haul the rocks in a canoe up the Mississippi, then make them at Cahokia.” Debris previously found on the valley floor at Cahokia supports the idea that the ax heads were made there. According to UI archaeologist Thomas Emerson, both the cache and the site are “very important, and with Professor Pauketat’s previous work around Cahokia, will revolutionize our understanding of Cahokian social and political complexity.” The dig is both an NSF research project led by Pauketat and a field school run by the UI.

Adapted from materials provided by University Of Illinois At Urbana-Champaign.

Article Archaeology-Archaeologists Identify Oldest Existing Mound Complex In New World

ScienceDaily (Sep. 23, 1997) The earliest existing mound complex built by humans in the new world has been identified in Louisiana by a team of archaeologists and researchers from around the United States including Jim Feathers, a University of Washington research assistant professor of archaeology. Details of the discovery appear in the Sept. 19 issue of the journal Science.

The complex of 11 mounds located near the town of Watson Break in northeast Louisiana was built between 5,000 and 5,400 years ago and predates other known existent mound complexes by 1,900 years, according to Joe Saunders, adjunct professor of geosciences at Northeast Louisiana University, who directed the project. He said a single burial mound found in Canada predates the Watson Break site and another now destroyed mound in Louisiana discovered in the1960s also may have been older. Saunders said archaeologists remain puzzled by such mounds, which are earthen structures several meters high. The mounds might have served a mix of religious, agricultural or domestic purposes but give indications that they only could have been built with planned engineering, he said. Saunders and his colleagues have been able to piece together a picture of life at the newly discovered site. They found that hunter-gatherers lived at Watson Break seasonally, living on river animals and plants. These people caught fish from spring to fall and also ate turkey, deer, raccoon and other animals. In addition, seeds found at the site indicate the mound dwellers collected plant species that later became the first domesticated plants in eastern North America, Saunders said. Feathers’ contribution to the project was to date soil sediments found in mound fill using a technique called thermoluminescence. It uses heat and light to measures the number of electrons trapped in crystalline material and then calculates how long they have been trapped. Feathers operates the only thermoluminescence dating lab in the US that works with archaeological material.

Adapted from materials provided by University Of Washington. 

Article Archaeology-Artifact Analyses Dispute Assumptions About A Prehistoric Society

ScienceDaily (Aug. 3, 2001) — CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Fragments of red stone artifacts – bits of smoking pipes, decorative ear lobe spools and a figurine, all plucked out of rich prehistoric soil in the U.S. Midwest – used to tell one story about the complex culture and the ancient people who left them behind. Now they tell another.  

So say University of Illinois scientists, whose recent mineral analyses of red stone artifacts from Cahokia are upsetting an apple cart of important archaeological assumptions. Among other things, their study shoots down the idea that the great mound-building mecca in what now is southwestern Illinois traded extensively with distantcultures to the northwest. One of several Middle Mississippian chiefdoms, Cahokia was inhabited from A.D. 700 to 1400, and at its peak at about 1100, it had a population of 20,000. Cahokia was the most sophisticated prehistoric native civilization north of Mexico, a culture that seems to have been focused on religion. The new findings about the ancient culture are discussed in the current issue of Plains Anthropologist. Using X-ray diffraction and spectroscopic analysis, Thomas Emerson, an archaeologist, and Randall Hughes, a geologist, have discovered that most of the red stone fragments found at Cahokia are not made of the rare catlinite stone that originates in western Minnesota, but rather, are a more local Missouri red flint clay. This finding shatters the long-held belief that the presence of catlinite in Cahokia proved that the Cahokian people traded on a large scale with their Upper Mississippi River Valley neighbors. The new tests also show that the catlinite that was found at Cahokia arrived after the great Cahokian culture had disappeared – with Oneota people in the 14th century or with later protohistoric or historic groups in the 16th and 17th centuries. Extensive trade, Emerson said, “is often touted as an important factor in early civilizations,” but, based on the new evidence, such was not the case for Cahokia. “Essentially, our argument is that large-scale political and social complexity does not automatically entail large-scale economic networks.” False assumptions have always colored the study of red stone artifacts in general and red stone pipes in particular, the UI researchers wrote, including the general consensus that all aboriginal red pipes were made of catlinite. Because most investigators have been unable to distinguish between visually similar red siltstones, pipestone and catlinite, they have misidentified most archaeological specimens as catlinite. Moreover, until now, few mineralogical studies of red pipes have been conducted. The new study demonstrates that catlinite is mineralogically different from similar stones in that it doesn’t contain quartz. In their work, the UI team used a new piece of experimental equipment in the field: the Portable Infrared Mineral Analyzer (PIMA), which they are testing under a National Science Foundation grant. “The technique appears to be most useful as a first-line method of mineral identification and in those instances where destructive sampling is prohibited,” the authors wrote.

Adapted from materials provided by University Of Illinois At Urbana-Champaign. 

 

Article: Archaeology-Geological Origins Of Ancient Figures Yield Clues To Cahokian Society

ScienceDaily (Mar. 15, 2000) — CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Nearly 1,000 years before St. Louis became known as the Gateway to the West, another expanding culture had created a major ceremonial mound complex that is now called Cahokia. By all accounts, Cahokia was huge, consisting of hundreds of platform mounds, supported by a population numbering in the thousands. At issue, however, has been whether Cahokia was part of a regional trade network that stretched from the Great Plains to the South Atlantic.  

“Cahokia was strategically centered at the juncture of the Missouri, Illinois and Mississippi rivers on the vast alluvial flood plain of the American Bottom,” said Thomas Emerson, a professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois and the director of the Illinois Transportation Archaeological Research Program. “An interesting debate has centered upon whether the artifacts found at Cahokia represent a vast social, religious and political complex that exerted a major regional trade influence, or merely exotic ‘prestige goods’ acquired by an elite few as a symbol of power.” When the Interstate-270 bypass was constructed around St. Louis, Emerson and colleagues recovered a number of artifacts, including numerous pipe fragments and five figurines that appear to have been ceremonially destroyed. “The stone figures portray female idols associated with agricultural symbolism and classic fertility myths,” Emerson said. “The figures had been smashed to bits, the fragments scattered in ceremonial pits in several structures, which were then set on fire.” By using a combination of X-ray diffraction, sequential acid dissolution and inductively coupled plasma analyses, Emerson and Randall Hughes, a geologist with the Illinois State Geological Survey, established the source of raw material used in the manufacture of the figurines and pipes. “Our mineralogical and geochemical analysis demonstrated that only the Missouri flint clay deposits could have served as the source of raw materials used in the Cahokia figurines,” Hughes said. “In addition, given the similarity of the figurines’ chemical and mineralogical composition, our study suggests that the carvers may have selectively quarried their raw materials from a single site, or from a few nearby and closely related sites, located within 30 to 40 kilometers of the mound complex.” Previously, many researchers and historians believed the Cahokia figures and pipes had originated in quarries located in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Minnesota and other faraway sites. “Because these highly crafted artifacts now appear to be a local product, we need to rethink the role Cahokia played in ancient society,” Emerson said. “Instead of serving as a major trade center, it appears that the people of Cahokia were more focused on a local rather than long-distance acquisition process.” The researchers presented their findings in the January issue of American Antiquity, the journal of the Society for American Archaeology.

Adapted from materials provided by University Of Illinois At Urbana-Champaign. 

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