Thoughts, Ideas, Observations

Mound Cities of the Mississippian Indians

Timothy R. Pauketat, Cahokia: Ancient America’s Great City on the Mississippi. New York: The Penguin Library of American Indian History, 2009.

Robert V. Sharp, Ed. Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand: American Indian Art of the Ancient Midwest and South. The Art Institute of Chicago, 2004.

John Bedell

When scholars first explored the mound cities the dotted the American landscape, they wondered who built them. Some believed they were the work of ancient Indians, but others thought that some completely different civilization must have been responsible – Phoenicians, Egyptians, the Lost Tribes of Israel. These days it is commonplace to mock those theorists for their ignorant racism, but really it was a hard problem. The Indians of the 1700s and 1800s not only didn’t build mound cities, they had no memory of their ancestors building them nor even any stories about them. Indian men were openly contemptuous of the kind of work needed to build massive earthworks. When looters dug into the burial mounds at those cities, they found artifacts of a type and quality unlike anything made by post-contact Indians. So far as I can tell, no white man ever met an Indian who moaned about the olden days when his people lived in cities and drank from jade cups. On the contrary, those Indians prone to ideology liked to brag about the great freedom of their lives in the woods, and they regularly claimed that while the regimented life of a city might be fine for white men, it was totally unsuitable for forest-dwelling Indians. It was often the scholars who knew the most about Indians who refused to believe that Indians had built the enormous mounds.

Newark EarthworksThanks to modern archaeology, we now know that the mounds were built by Indians. We also know that the mound-building habit arose at several different times in different parts North America, mainly in the Southeast and the lands drained by the Mississippi River. The first massive earthworks in North America were built at Poverty Point in Louisiana as early as 3500 BC. Two distinct mound building cultures arose in the Ohio Valley, the Adena of 1000 to 200 BC, and then the Hopewell of 200 BC to AD 500, who covered the Sciotto Valley with a stupendous series of earthworks aligned to the sun and the stars. But not all Indians built mounds. At some times the habit was confined to a small area, at others it was widely distributed. But in every case the habit eventually faded away, and by 1720 it had completely disappeared. It seems that Indians embarked many times on experiments in “high” civilization, with big towns, massive earthworks, elaborate celestial observatories, and workshops of professional artisans turning out fabulous regalia for a powerful elite, and then a few generations later just walked away from it. They not only didn’t seem to regret giving up civilization, they proudly embraced life in the woods. One wonders if there was a long-standing tension between the power that the elites of a mound city could amass and the desire of others to live free. When disease wiped out the last of the mound cities in the late 1500s, only the freedom-loving, anti-city people remained. And not only did they hate cities and central power, they forgot about their existence as quickly as they could.

The greatest of the mound cities were built by a civilization we call Mississippian, which we can date from AD 1050 to the arrival of Spanish conquistadors in the mid 1500s. Actually one Mississippian people, the Natchez, kept up their old ways into the early 1700s, long enough for French explorers to leave descriptions of their society. Those descriptions are a key source for figuring out what Mississippian civilization was like. But all the other mound cities seem to have been abandoned by 1600, and none of them lasted for more than 200 years.

The first and greatest of the Mississippian cities was Cahokia, on the floodplain of the Mississippi River just across from modern St. Louis. Timothy Pauketat’s excellent little book is a good introduction to the site, its history, and the history of archaeological efforts to explore and understand it. Pauketat is one of the top scholars of Cahokia, and in this book he does a fine job of presenting his knowledge in a brief, accessible format. My only complaint is that the book lacks illustrations, but I suppose including pictures of even a tiny sample of the most important and spectacular finds from Cahokia would have kept the book from being the inexpensive volume the editors of the Penguin Library of American Indian History obviously wanted.

The most striking thing about Cahokia is that it appeared almost instantaneously, arising from the preceding villager cultures in less time than the margin of error in our most sophisticated dating techniques. Some time within a few years of 1050 AD, a large village on the Cahokia site was razed and the people relocated. In its place arose a vast complex of mounds, surrounding a 50-acre plaza that had been carefully leveled and given a consistent slope so slight you can’t notice it, but sufficient that water drains off easily. The largest of the more than 100 mounds, the Monk’s Mound, was the largest pyramid north of Mexico and the third largest in the New World. The mounds were built of carefully layered earth, in alternating colors, each layer compacted by pounding with wooden poles. Surrounding the mound complex were residential neighborhoods that held 10,000 to 20,000 people. Nor was this all. Three smaller mound cities were built nearby, one in modern St. Louis, one at East Louis, and one along the Mississippi a few miles to the south. These also contained great complexes of mounds, and so far as we can tell they were built at the same time as the mounds at Cahokia, by the same people. The inhabitants of some outlying villages seem to have been serfs, or slaves; their artifacts include many spindle whorls but few weapons, and their skeletons show that they lived on a mostly corn diet, with inadequate protein. Taken together, the Cahokia metropolis spread out across 200 square miles and had a population of more than 50,000. For about 150 years, Cahokia lorded it over the middle Mississippi Valley, growing ever grander and more populous. Then, around 1200 AD, it entered into a rapid decline. A defensive palisade was built that surrounded less than half of the original city center. By 1300 Cahokia had been almost completely abandoned.

Pauketat terms the founding of Cahokia a “big bang.” By this he means that it was an event, happening in one place in a brief interval of time, that had repercussions across much of North America for centuries to come. But what was the event, and why did it happen? Archaeology has trouble answering this sort of question, but Pauketat makes a valiant effort. One intriguing possibility is that the event was related to the supernova that was visible across the world in 1054 AD. Like many ancient cultures, the Mississippians were much concerned with celestial events, and they built huge, circular “wood henge” observatories laid out with lines of site that led toward significant celestial events, like the midwinter sunrise. The supernova of 1054 is depicted in several surviving pieces of Native American art, including rock paintings and decorated pottery, so we know Indians were much impressed by it. Another possibility concerns the connections between Mississippian civilization and the Toltec civilization of Mexico. Some of the motifs used by Mississippian artists seem to be copied from Mexican objects, some North American myths seem to reflect Mayan influence, and more broadly the whole tone of life in the Mississippian mound cities seems too much like that of Mayan and Toltec cities for coincidence. On the other hand, next to no actual Mexican objects have been found at North American Indian sites (only one that everyone accepts), so direct contact cannot have been common. Could the connection have been in the form of one person, who traveled to Mexico, saw the Toltec cities, and then came home to Cahokia, where the new star helped him persuade his people to embark on a new way of life? Pauketat seems to believe that there was such a person, a charismatic war leader who built up the Cahokian state from a collection of allied villages into a mighty nation and made a city rise from the marshes.

The best evidence for the existence of such a founding hero is the form taken by the cult rituals of the Mississippians. These rituals seem to reflect certain myths preserved by later Indians, especially the Osage and the Winnebago, which have been used to interpret Mississippian cult art. Many of the most elaborate objects depict one semi-divine hero, known variously as Red Horn, He-who-wears-human-heads-as-earrings, or Slapped-with-deer-lungs. Red Horn was connected to the Morning Star; in some traditions he was the Morning Star, in others he was its son. The cult art of Cahokia seems to imply that the ruler was the avatar, or even the actual reincarnation, of Red Horn. (When George Armstrong Custer took the Indian name “Son of the Morning Star,” he was associating himself with this same myth.) Among the Natchez, that late surviving Mississippian kingdom, each ruler was considered to be the reincarnation of the previous one, stretching back to an original who was the Son of the Sun. His coronation took the form of an elaborately staged resurrection, the new ruler at some point slipping into the regalia of the old, so that he appeared to be the old ruler’s corpse brought back to life.

The Natchez king was an absolute ruler with the power of life and death over all his subjects. Or so his ambassadors told the French, and certainly the king’s power was very great. From what we can tell of other Mississippian peoples, power among all of them seems to have been focused in the hands of one man, the scion of a divine lineage. It seems simplest to imagine that this tradition began with an actual great founding king, a man who appropriated for himself the identity of Red Horn and was able to exert great power through his military and religious charisma.

Copper Plate Depicting Red HornWe may even have found this great man’s tomb. One of the most spectacular discoveries at Cahokia was made in a low, ridge topped mound called Mound 72. (Ah, those wildly clever archaeologists and their poetic names!) Here archaeologists uncovered the burial of a large man, probably in his 50s. His skeleton was found on a platform of 20,000 shell beads that may have been the remains of a bead cloak in the shape of a thunderbird. Radiocarbon dating places the whole assemblage at around 1080 AD. He was buried just above another man of similar age and size, which may be some kind of connection to those myths that give Red Horn a twin brother who was a dark, murderous trickster figure. A spectacular array of offerings accompanied these burials, including two bushels of mica sheets and more than 700 arrows, their stone points among the mostly finely crafted stone tools ever found in North America. It may be significant that the historic Winnebago offered arrows in tribute to Red Horn. Many other skeletons were also found in the mound, including those of 52 young women who were almost certainly the victims of human sacrifice. Their skeletons bore no signs of violence, so they were probably strangled, or else their throats were cut, before they were laid carefully in rows in a log-lined tomb. In another pit were 39 other victims who were treated even more harshly. Their bodies were lying haphazardly in their burial pit, and most seem to have been killed by a blow to the head. Many had other wounds, though, and arrowheads were found in two. Perhaps they were prisoners of war. It looks as if they were lined up along the edge of the pit, dispatched with a club, and pushed in, one after another. The finger bones of a few were found digging into the sand, showing that they did not die at once. Given the date of this burial and its extraordinary nature, it seems to me that Pauketat may be right, and it may be the remains of the great city's founding king and those killed to accompany him to the night lands.

As I said, the one problem with Pauketat’s book is that it lacks illustrations. This problem can be solved by turning to Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand, a magnificently illustrated collection of essays on American Indian Art prepared to accompany a 2004 exhibition at the Chicago Art Institute. Not only are the pictures amazing, I found the art historical approach taken in these essays to be very helpful in understanding what Mississippian culture was about. Mississippian culture was an elite, courtly affair, and elaborate rituals accompanied by impressive costumes and splendid cult objects were central to that court culture. So the surviving cult objects are among our best windows into the Mississippian world. For example, you can get a good idea of the importance of warfare in this society by contemplating the many images that depict a divine warrior or human king with a club or mace in one hand and a severed head in the other. Numerous other images depict cosmological scenes, and by putting them together with scraps of Indian myth, we can learn a great deal about how the Mississippians viewed the universe and their place in it. We can also learn something about the connections between the various cult centers, since objects made at Cahokia have been found at other centers such as Etowah, Moundville, and Spiro Mound. I very much recommend this book for anyone who wants to recover the excitement of old-style archaeology, when it meant digging beautiful things from the ground and learning from them about forgotten peoples.

And yet for all that we have learned about the Mississippians, the disconnect between their world and that of Indians in the 1700s remains a problem. It seems bizarre that the great city of Cahokia, with its huge mounds, powerful rulers, and villages of slaves, makes no appearance at all in the oral history, folklore, or legends of any tribe. Even the later centers of Moundville (AD 1200 to 1450) and Etowah (AD 1200 to 1375) were forgotten so quickly that by 1700 no Indian could tell Europeans anything about them. I think the causes of this disconnect can be found in the nature of nineteenth-century Indian societies, the Mississippian world itself, and in the problems the people of the mound cities must have had feeding themselves.

Consider, first, the question of why no Mississippian center remained powerful and populous for more than about 150 years. This may have had political causes we can only guess at, but it also had ecological causes we understand very well. Mississippian Indians were farmers, but of a rather primitive sort. Outside a few favored river bottom locales they practiced swidden or "slash and burn" agriculture. That is, they cleared an area by girding the trees to kill them and burning off the brush, grew crops on it for three or four years, and then abandoned the land to grow up naturally for about 20 years until its fertility was restored. Many historic Indians moved their villages about every ten to twenty years, when the local soils were exhausted. A mound city like Cahokia would draw food from a much larger area than a village, but even so the soils within easy reach would become depleted over time. Also, Mississippian agriculture seems to have focused very heavily on corn (maize). Corn is a great crop in terms of calories per acre, but it is not a very good base for human nutrition. Historic Indians reduced this problem by planting beans together with the corn (this also helps keep the soil fertile), but there is not much evidence of beans on Mississippian sites and the corn-beans-squash triad seems to have developed rather late in prehistory. North American Indians had no domestic animals other than dogs, and they always relied on hunting to provide them with animal protein. Trash pits at Cahokia that may be the remains of great public feasts contain the remains of thousands of deer and turkeys. Such consumption would inevitably, over time, deplete the game near the mound city, leaving its inhabitants dependent on an inadequate corn-based diet. These economic facts help to explain why the mound cities were always rather ephemeral, and this lack of continuity at particular sites may help explain why the Mississippians did not develop an enduring historical tradition.

Between the Mississippian cities and historic Indians lay a great historical chasm, the die-off caused by European disease. Our best guess is that between 1540, when Hernando De Soto explored the southeast and brought the first European microbes to the region, and 1800, disease killed about 90 percent of the Indians in North America. This catastrophe led to the disappearance of many tribes and cultures, and even those that survived suffered huge cultural losses with the deaths of so many knowledgeable people. Across the Mississippi Valley, the surviving cultures seem, by comparison to Mississippians, to be stripped down and simplified. Mississippian ritual was mainly a phenomenon of the highest elite tier, with rather little connection to the lives of most people. It was the peak of the social pyramid. When the base of that pyramid was drastically cut back by death, its pinnacle crashed and disappeared.

But why didn't the Indians remember what they had lost? Perhaps, as I said, because many of them always hated the mound cities and their despotic kings. Perhaps, though, it was simply because they had very little interest in history of that kind. It is a characteristic of most traditional Indians that their sense of time has two poles, the here-and-now and the eternal. They are interested in their living memories, stretching back two or three generations, and in the doings of the gods in the beginning times. This pattern is characteristic of hunter-gatherer and other simple societies worldwide, and it is sometimes used (for example by Vine Deloria) to explain why Indians have little interest in the work of archaeologists. Comparison of Mississippian cult art with later Indian myths shows that the Mississippian cosmology endured, along with many of their stories about gods and heroes. In fact, comparison of American Indian cosmology and shamanistic practice with those of central Siberia shows that some of these ideas are more then 13,000 years old. So the oral culture of the Indians was fully capable of passing down ideas that were important to them. The past of a few hundred years ago, it seems, was not important enough to be remembered.

It has been therefore left to Euro-American scholars to learn about the Mississippian world, and to bring its great treasures to light. Rather unfortunately, most of those treasures have been found in tombs, and the uncovery of Mississippian civilization has therefore come about by the massive looting of Indian graves. At times this has been the accidental byproduct of development, as with the mounds of St. Louis and East St. Louis, flattened to make room for growing modern cities. In some cases it was a frankly commercial enterprise; in the 1930s a business partnership was formed to loot Spiro Mound in Oklahoma and sell off the fabulous artifacts found there. At other times, as with Cahokia's Mound 72, the excavation was done by archaeologists seeking to learn about the past. I certainly have no personal feelings about disturbing graves; I can't imagine any better fate for my remains than that they might one day help archaeologists understand my own time. But many Indians do care. They see the desecration of their ancestors' bones as just another chapter in the long, sorry tale of their conquest, exploitation, expulsion from their homes, and near destruction. I wish this weren't so, but there it is. What, then, is one to make of museum cases or books full of looted grave goods, and arguments about the past based on the desecration of tombs? I think that for the world to know about the mound cities is a great thing, and I don't think that the Mississippian kings, their victims, or contemporary Indians are hurt by the presence of grave good in museums. What we know of the kings tells us that they sought fame, and now they have it. Their victims have also now had their stories told, and they can at least stand along with all the others as witnesses to the evil that can occur when power, narcissism, contempt for others, and religion come together. Modern Indians can point to the Mississippians as the doers of great and terrible deeds, just like the conquering kings who have so great a place in European history. I support the reburial of the bones from those tombs, if there are Indians who want to receive them and give them an honored place. But I think the great works of art, and the knowledge that comes from archaeology, should remain in the public eye, so we can all learn about the Indian past. How can we honor something about which we know nothing at all?

September 1, 2009

From the 
Commonplace Book

We live on haunted land, on land that is layers deep in human passion and memory.  There is, today, no longer any point in sorting out these passions and memories into starkly separate forms of ownership. Whether the majority who died in any particular site were Indians or white, these placed ground Americans of all backgrounds in their common history.  In truth, the tragedies of the wars are our national joint property, and how we handle that property is one test of our unity and disunity, maturity or immaturity as a people wearing the label "American."

--Patricia Nelson Limeric

. . . the precise ethnic and linguistic links between Moundville's inhabitants and what became the historic Native American tribes are still not well understood.

--Moundville Web Site


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