Religion And The Rise Of Cahokia

Approximately A.D. 1050, Cahokia’s population surged. Recent discoveries at a neighboring site have led some archaeologists to conclude that spirituality played a crucial role in Cahokia’s emergence.

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A Cahokia leader (center) greets the rising sun on top of Monks Mound with his priests and attendants around him in this artistic depiction of religious activities. Art by Michael Hampshire.
A Cahokia leader (center) greets the rising sun on top of Monks Mound with his priests and attendants around him in this artistic depiction of religious activities. Art by Michael Hampshire.

Spring 2016: By Alexandra Witze.

Some 12 miles east of St. Louis in the midst of Looking Glass Prairie stands a ridge the height of a four-story building. Known as Emerald, it is a natural formation created by a mighty glacier that ground its way across North America during the chill of the last Ice Age. But Emerald is also an artificial phenomenon. At the start of the 11th century A.D., its occupants began dramatically re-shaping it. They flattened the top of the ridge, bulked up its sides, and built a dozen mounds lined up in rows. Emerald must have looked like a miniature version of its famous neighbor, the enormous Mississippian city of Cahokia, found nearly 15 miles to the west.

To Susan Alt, an archaeologist at Indiana University, it’s no coincidence that Emerald and Cahokia look so much alike. In fact, she argues that Emerald may have been the wellspring from which Cahokia’s power and influence arose. Over the past four years, excavations at Emerald have uncovered two dozen half-buried structures with burned materials in their hearths and a striking yellow plaster on their floors. Alt believes these are “shrine houses” that people would visit as part of a personal spiritual practice.

These shrine houses, along with astronomical alignments at Emerald, play a major role in a new concept of Cahokia’s rise. With Timothy Pauketat, an archaeologist at the University of Illinois, Alt argues that people flocked to Emerald in search of a unique religious experience. Just as the Emerald City of Oz attracted Dorothy, the Emerald site of the Mississippians drew pilgrims looking for some type of personal transformation.

Summary. Read More in our Spring 2016 Issue of American Archaeology, Vol. 20 No. 1. Browse Content of Spring 2016 Issue.

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3 COMMENTS

  1. Too bad these armchair “scientists” have gotten their hands dirty. The descendants of the Mound Builders are still alive today and are still practicing our religion. Our cultural practices may have changed significantly since our ancestors walked the slopes of Cahokia and Okmulgee, but where and when have the “scientists” observed the current remains of what they call the Sortheastern Ceremonial Complex? If it’s so southeastern, why the do Canadian tribes have very similar ceremonies? Quit digging up our ancestral remains and start studying what we’re doing now.

    • There is plenty of room for studying contemporary culture and religion, but that’s not archaeology. Archaeology is learning about the past through past material culture, and there is a unique value in that. If you wanted to learn about the Ming Dynasty, would you limit yourself to only studying contemporary Chinese culture? You can substitute any time period and part of the world, and the example still holds. As a mixed European and First Nations person (and just as a human), I’m interested in all of my past, not just the European part of it. Which is all that would be known if that’s all that was studied.

  2. Many scientists agree that the name, Southeastern, is too limited. Recently they are concentrating on identifying similarities. I sometimes talk about mound builders descendants in the lectures I do, and I list the groups that are descendants of the Mound Builders. Some native peoples allow scientists to take small DNA samples, as long as the individual is treated respectfully and put back where he or she was found. I have no objections to having that done to my own ancestors and relatives. DNA samples can be exceedingly tiny now, and in fact, may benefit native groups claims on some of the old ones. Although the scientists tried for years to say that Kennewick Man was not native American, DNA proved that he is and that he belongs to the peoples of the Columbia River area.

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