Cahokia's Complexities: Ceremonies and Politics of the First Mississippian Farmers

Cahokia's Complexities: Ceremonies and Politics of the First Mississippian Farmers

by Susan M. Alt

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Critical new discoveries and archaeological patterns increase understanding of early Mississippian culture and society.

The reasons for the rise and fall of early cities and ceremonial centers around the world have been sought for centuries. In the United States, Cahokia has been the focus of intense archaeological work to explain its mysteries. Cahokia was the first and exponentially the largest of the Mississippian centers that appeared across the Midwest and Southeast after AD 1000. Located near present-day East St. Louis, Illinois, the central complex of Cahokia spanned more than 12 square kilometers and encompassed more than 120 earthen mounds.

As one of the foremost experts on Cahokia, Susan M. Alt addresses long-standing considerations of eastern Woodlands archaeology—the beginnings, character, and ending of Mississippian culture (AD 1050–1600)—from a novel theoretical and empirical vantage point. Through this case study on farmers’ immigration and resettling, Alt’s narrative reanalyzes the relationship between administration and diversity, incorporating critical new discoveries and archaeological patterns from outside of Cahokia.

Alt examines the cultural landscape of the Cahokia flood plain and the layout of one extraordinary upland site, Grossman, as an administrative settlement where local farmers might have seen or participated in Cahokian rituals and ceremonies involving a web of ancestors, powers, and places. Alt argues that a farming district outside the center provides definitive evidences of the attempted centralized administration of a rural hinterland.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817319762
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication date: 04/24/2018
Series: Archaeology of the American South: New Directions and Perspectives Series
Edition description: 3rd ed.
Pages: 176
Sales rank: 630,003
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Susan M. Alt is an associate professor of anthropology and faculty curator at Glenn A. Black Laboratory of Archaeology, Indiana University. She is the editor of Ancient Complexities: New Perspectives in Precolumbian North America and coeditor of Medieval Mississippians: The Cahokian World.

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Cahokia's Complex Relationships

All forms of culture are continually in a process of hybridity.

— Homi K. Bhabha, "The Third Space"

The reasons that early cities and ceremonial centers rose and fell in the distant past have been sought for centuries. How did this happen? Why did it happen? And how was it related to identity and identity politics? Such questions can be asked of Cahokia, the great pre-Columbian monumental complex and population center in the middle of North America, in part because of the rich archaeological information at our fingertips (Figure 1.1).

We know that Cahokia was the first, and exponentially the largest, of the "Mississippian" centers that appeared across midwestern and southeastern North America after A.D. 1000 (Blitz 2010). Located in the American Bottom region of southwestern Illinois, the central complex of Cahokia covered more than 12 km and contained more than 120 earthen mounds, several carefully engineered plazas, and thousands of pole-and-thatch buildings. Recent work at and around this ancient core has documented other "precincts" and diverse sorts of outliers and "shrine complexes" (Alt 2012; Alt and Pauketat 2017; Pauketat and Alt 2015; Pauketat et al. 2015). Yet despite the rich archaeological record at and around Cahokia, it defies simple explanation, possibly because our explanatory constructs have remained oversimplistic. Single causal factors are still too often sought rather than complex histories (Alt 2010).

Hence, my goal with this book is twofold. First, I make the case for Cahokian administration of the upland farmlands east of the city. Cahokians and Mississippian immigrant farmers were in direct contact out in the rural landscape. What were the effects? That leads to my second goal: I demonstrate how such administration, in the context of the immigration and resettlement hypothesized for the early phases of Cahokia, generated a novel kind of early Mississippian culture.

In this, I adapt the concept of "hybridity" more familiar to studies of cultural contacts and historic eras (Bhabha 1994). I use the term as a heuristic alongside other, more familiar concepts (practice, memory, power), focusing primarily on the creation of "thirdspaces" — those locations or contexts where differences meet and innovations occur. There are limitations to the concept of hybridity as implemented in historic archaeology (Liebmann 2013, 2015; Silliman 2013, 2015; van Dommelen 1997), but it also has unrealized benefits when applied to our thinking about Mississippian social change. For instance, it is one of a suite of concepts that historicize the past by acknowledging that all people played a part in what came to be. In addition, concepts such as hybridity and thirdspace dovetail with recent relational approaches to things, object agency, and affects, empowering material culture and space to play an active role in the shaping of human history (see, for example, Alberti et al. 2011; Gosden 2005; Tarlow 2012; Witmore 2014), in the present case the construction of "Mississippian culture" at and around Cahokia.

Homi Bhabha (1994) originally suggested that when people with different traditions, habits, and expectations meet, a space outside the normal rules of engagement opens up that permits new social relations to materialize. This place of engagement-with-difference permits, if not requires, new social memories, cultural practices, and cultural landscapes to develop. It also suggests that complexity could not have emerged and emanated from single sources — say, political centers — but must have been continually produced at a series of sites throughout a region, as people, along with their things and places, enacted or commemorated their identities daily (Van Dyke and Alcock 2003). In the end, I suggest that we need to extend such a concept as hybridity to the engagements between human persons and places, objects, and other-than-human persons.

Understanding what people did and why they did it is impossible without thinking about their places and things more broadly (Alberti et al. 2011; Harvey 2006; Jones and Alberti 2013; Witmore 2014). This makes population or ceremonial "centers" considerably more complex historically than many archaeologists might acknowledge. That is, complexity, strictly defined, is more than political and even more than human. This flies in the face of many "Mississippian" period studies in the Midwest and Southeast, which have adhered to the dictum that the simplest explanations are the best (Muller 1997).

I disagree with the implications of that approach, as I explain below, in large part because it forces us to reject complexity before our investigations even begin (Alt, ed. 2010). Indeed, I have concluded that the old question of complexity — were Mississippian societies complex? — is unproductive. Building from the notion of hybridity, I instead consider "how were Mississippian relationships complex?" (Nelson 1995). To ask how is to encourage researchers to seek the social, religious, and political processes whereby complexity was created. Those processes for me entail untangling the relationships among all people, places, and things, especially as evident in the remains of extraordinary collective happenings. Such group events allow me to focus on the process of hybridity.

The evidence suggests that Cahokia, and Mississippian complexity in general, was generated in such ways. This generation, especially as it involved the alteration of the central Mississippi valley's social landscape in the middle of the eleventh century A.D., has been called the Mississippian world's "Big Bang," the moment(s) when Cahokia was transformed from an ungainly Late Woodland village into a Mississippian city (Pauketat 1997). Previously, I have argued that this Cahokian moment was inextricably tied to the arrival of immigrants from local and more distant Native American towns in the American Bottom, which is the wide floodplain around the Cahokia site that is at the heart of the "greater Cahokia" region (Alt 2001, 2002a, 2006a). The presence of these immigrants, especially in the numbers now apparent, had a profound effect in the Mississippi valley (Slater et al. 2014). That is, the mixing of local and non-local people at and around Cahokia would have necessitated large-scale negotiations of difference in people's ways of being in and relating to the world. Cahokia, in short, was a fertile ground in which the creation of new cultural forms might happen. The uplands east of Cahokia — where Cahokian administrators met relocated Mississippian farmers — embodied this process as well.


Complexity remains an ambiguous and yet loaded concept. Archaeologists consider societies complex when they are strongly centralized, hierarchically organized, or internally differentiated in some way (Chapman 2003; McGuire 1983; Neitzel 1999). The particular dimension of complexity under consideration seems to vary greatly, and yet complexity is often glossed as if it were a universal and constant referent.

The questions of complexity have been the subtext for much research into the Mississippian societies of the Midwest and Southeast. Most often, this begins with arguments over classification, with Mississippian societies typically branded as "chiefdoms." Mississippian towns, for many, are assumed to have been the administrative or ritual centers of such chiefdoms, some more or less complex than others. Some researchers even subdivide Mississippian chiefdoms into one or another subtype, based in part on assumptions about alternative organizational forms or histories (Anderson 1994, 1999; Beck 2003; Blitz 1999, 2010; Cobb 2003; King 2003; Knight and Steponaitis 1998; Muller 1986, 1997; Pauketat 2007; Scarry 1996; Steponaitis and Scarry 2016; Steponaitis 1983, 1991; Trubitt 2000; Welch 1991). The "archaeological procedure has been to correlate one or more central features of a favorite ethnographic type with some excavated material; then the archaeologist can extrapolate all of the rest of the characteristics of the type and so bring the not-directly-observable [sic] dimensions of ancient reality into view" (Yoffee 1993:60–61). This procedure remains in place for many despite widely recognized problems with the chiefdom concept and its subdivisions.

Few of these solutions to the question of Mississippian complexity — even those that subdivide categories — have produced significant new insights into the past. After all, when encumbered by taxonomy, what can we possibly end up learning beyond the attributes that supposedly accompany other examples of the type of society in question? There is simply too much variability among the societies lumped under the umbrella of the chiefdom (Feinman and Neitzel 1984).

There are other regions in the world where researchers have been bogged down in definitional disagreements over the question of complexity. While southeastern archaeologists dispute what to call Cahokia (Cobb 2003; Pauketat 2007), southwestern archaeologists have debated whether and what to label Chaco, Hohokam, and Casas Grandes (Feinman et al. 2000). Mesoamericanists get hung up on who had the first city and whether Olmec was a mother culture (Clark 2004; Flannery 1998). Mesopotamian experts still seem unable to agree on whether or how to categorize Ubaid polities or even Uruk cities (Yoffee 2005). There can be no way to solve the problem of categorization, even by identifying a single feature, say a palace or a storehouse, as a marker of some organizational threshold (Flannery 1998). Such cookbook prescriptions rely on assumptions of universal correlations between material types and human actions and beliefs.

In his detailed comparison of Chaco Canyon, La Quemada, and Paquimé, Ben Nelson (1995) suggested circumventing the categorical arguments inherent to common archaeological practices. He suggested that we ask "how were societies complex?" rather than "were they complex?" The latter question can be answered with a yes or no, while the former requires elaboration, and such elaboration better serves the advancement of anthropological knowledge (see also Neitzel 1999; Possehl 1997). In a similar attempt to avoid the hot-button terms that fuel debates in the southwestern United States, "rituality" has been used to describe Chaco Canyon as a place that was complex in nonhierarchical ways (see Yoffee et al. 1999:266). These efforts differ from the usual categorizations in that they shift focus to what was occurring in a particular place, rather than try to draw broad categories that ultimately negate the unique characteristics of individual societies. As these efforts began to suggest in the 1990s, the goal of investigations into past societies might more productively move away from cataloging traits by focusing instead on the configuration of practices and relationships in some part of the world.

Of course, to do this — to determine how people lived on a day-to-day basis as well as what people did on special occasions — one needs multiple, robust lines of evidence. And when one has those, it becomes difficult to sustain any classification of societal types. The greater Cahokia case is the best example of this reality, as we shall see, but there have been other recent shifts away from approaches that measure political-economic complexity and toward understanding how people "lived" their economies or practiced politics. In eastern North America, these tend to elevate heterarchy, communalism, and gender over hierarchy in Mississippian developments (Sullivan and Rodning 2001). Researchers at Moundville are now looking more closely at religion, ritual practice, and the hinterlands for better explanations of Moundville histories (Steponaitis and Scarry 2016). By doing so, they have begun to interrogate social histories rather than imagine oversimplistic social-evolutionary trajectories.

It is in such a historical vein that I make my examination of the complexity of particular places, practices, material assemblages, and identities. In the following sections, I open up the notion of hybridity with the help of concepts such as materiality, memory, thirdspace, and object agency. The result, I assert, turns the question of causality on its head. The hybridity of settlements and their material assemblages was not a reflection of some society's complexity but was, in effect, the cause of that so-called society. In later chapters, we will see how farming villages and nodal sites, one in particular, were the meeting grounds wherein Cahokian society was born.


In diverse studies worldwide, analysts have grappled with how to understand the ways in which encounters between unlike peoples might engender dramatic social change. Historical anthropology and archaeology have most commonly looked to notions of "creolization" and "invented tradition" (Deagan 1996; Loren 2007; Silliman 2005). Most such studies have focused on colonial encounters or periods during which identities were radically reconfigured. However, such processes and encounters in the past were not limited to colonial periods, and the differences need not be on the geopolitical scale of many colonial encounters.

All encounters of any significant scale are complex negotiations that affect participants in some way (Lightfoot 1995; Lightfoot et al. 1998), and there is always some degree of difference that is subject to negotiation. Culture is always shifting and always in a state of becoming (Appadurai 1990; Bhabha 1990, 1994; Giddens 1984; Sztompka 1991). In terms familiar to archaeologists, this is the equivalent of saying that culture is a process, not a thing (Binford 1962). So, everyone approaches every encounter culturally, and the meeting of individuals is a meeting of those cultures. What happens then? The process must necessarily involve hybridity, which is to say the state in which cultural materials and practices are overlaid, assembled, syncretized, mixed, and hybridized.

Hybridity is more than the sum of its parts. While concepts such as creolization and syncretism can describe the creation of something new, this "something" derives from a borrowing of existing parts and generally does not explain why such encounters result in innovation. For instance, archaeologists might speak of hybrid pottery, say, a Terminal Late Woodland cord-marked jar that was tempered with crushed mussel shell rather than with grit or grog (e.g., Vogel 1975). This would be a case of mixing, such as taking a Late Woodland pottery trait and adding to it a Mississippian shell-tempered vessel. The result is a hybrid — perhaps a creolization or syncretism — in the sense of a combination of traits not normally found in either Late Woodland or Mississippian vessels. The traits themselves remain discrete, and there is little novel beyond the unusual combination (Alt 2008, 2010).

By contrast, the focus in hybridity is on invention. That is, the ways in which potters engaged difference around them would have affected their sensibilities such that, rather than passively copying a style or a trait, they may have created an entirely new form of pottery (Deetz 1996; Ferguson 1992). Hybridity is, in effect, the creation of something that may not reference its origins in any obvious way and that therefore cannot be reconstituted into those original parts.

From the colonial cases, we know empirically that such contexts are ripe with possibility. Hybridity produces unintended results and generates innovation. As Bhabha notes, "It is in the emergence of the interstices — the overlap and displacement of domains of difference — that the intersubjective and collective experiences of nationness, community interest, or cultural value are negotiated. ... Terms of cultural engagement, whether antagonistic or affiliative, are produced performatively. The representation of difference must not be hastily read as the reflection of pre-given ethnic or cultural traits set in the fixed tablet of tradition. The social articulation of difference ... is a complex, on-going negotiation that seeks to authorize cultural hybridities that emerge in moments of historical transformation" (Bhabha 1994:2).

Moreover, hybridities in Bhabha's sense could be read to suggest more than people. He is writing broadly about the spatiality and materiality of meetings. These are multidimensional entanglements involving objects, architectures, materials, nonhuman phenomena, and bodies of all kinds. Complex arrays of such things amplify the hybridity process. The otherness of subjects and objects has affects and can invoke particular sensibilities and lead to alternative courses of action (sensu papers in Gregg and Seigworth 2010; Stewart 2007; Tarlow 2012). Thus, we might speak of encounters between individual human beings or between things and people or between spaces and people. Indeed, hybridity can be found in everyday contexts and in all forms and materialities of culture. Accordingly, we might rethink the dimensions in which cultures are made and remade in specific contexts.


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

Acknowledgments xiii

Introduction: Structure of the Book 1

1 Cahokia's Complex Relationships 3

2 Cahokia's Ritual-Residential Core 15

3 Cahokia's Diverse Farmers 35

4 The Architecture of Grossmann 55

5 The Remains of Special Events 86

6 Complexity and Hybridity Reconsidered 119

References 131

Index 155

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