Tag Archives: Cahokia mounds

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.

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