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Mississippian/Lower Illinois River Valley

The Mississippi River bottom is unique in these culture areas for two reasons. First, it has abundant water resources. It also has a long history of exchange with other regions, including the Georgia Bight (through the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex). It may be difficult to look at archaic settlements, because these may have been wiped out by shifts in the course of the Mississippi River, but a long pattern of land usage can be documented throughout this region.

In truly massive excavations in the 1960s and 1970s, Struever and others excavated a site known as Koster (Struever and Carlson 1977). Excavations here removed more than 10 meters (around 30 feet) of earth, tracing land usage from archaic hunter-gatherer campsites to established settlements. This provided evidence of continued usage of the area dating to at least 9,000 years BP. It is from Horizon 11 that early domesticated dog burials, dating to around 8,500 years BP, were found (Morey and Wiant 1992). The dogs were found buried on their sides, suggesting deliberate burial. This same layer held the remains of numerous humans as well, suggesting a return to the land again and again and an understanding of ties to a specific locality.

Farther south, the area around modern St. Louis has numerous important settlements. The most recognizable to us today is Cahokia, but numerous other sites are found along the American Bottom. Late archaic remains can be found at Labras Lake and the Falling Springs sites. The Falling Springs site provides the earliest evidence of habitation, beginning at around 3500 BC and extending to 2300 BC. This site is identified through a side-notched projectile point complex. Similar tool types are found in nearby sites. Changes in tool morphology are typically used to identify culture change and interaction between sites. Yerkes (1987) interprets these sites as limited use sites. They tend to be located on the margin of the floodplain, and Yerkes suggests that they may have been located on the banks of the Mississippi River and that other contemporaneous sites may have been destroyed when the river shifted in its course through time. The “base camps” at Labras Lake provide an idea of life during the archaic in this area. These consist of hearths, storage pits, artifact concentrations, domestic areas, and postholes (Yerkes 1987: 58). An understanding of diet comes from recovered botanical remains; carbonized hazelnut, acorn, and black walnut shell were all recovered (1987: 61). Deep roasting pits were found as well, suggesting processing for nut oils or the processing of other food with the shells used as fuel.

Milner (1990: table 1) provides a framework for the examination of periods beginning with the Late Woodland. He defines the Late Woodland as extending from AD 300 to 800. The Late Woodland in the American Bottom is also present in assemblages from Labras Lake, near Cahokia. These are identified through the ceramic assemblages. By the Late Woodland, maize can be found (although it is rare). Much more common are local domesticated plants, such as marsh elder, and nonnative cultigens, such as chenopodium, knotweed, and maygrass. Exotic culti- gens, such as squash and tobacco, have also been found (Yerkes 1987: 80). Groups also took advantage of aquatic resources such as fish and turtle, as well as hunting local game such as white-tailed deer and muskrat.

Keyhole structures are found at numerous Late Woodland sites; these consisted of rectangular rooms with narrow ramps extending east. These may have also had ceremonial functions, but their exact role is unclear (Yerkes 1987). Rectangular pit houses have been interpreted as habitation structures; these have a good degree of variation in terms of size and number of postholes, but all have hearths and numerous pits, including areas for storage and refuse disposal. Some shallow pits were likely used for human burials. Milner (1990) argues that population estimates in the thousands for the region is likely because of the expanse of territory available to the inhabitants, as well as the farming techniques being used.

The Emergent Mississippian period dates to between ad 800 and 1000. This period is defined based on significant cultural changes from the Late Woodland through a combination of changes in artifacts, features, settlement, and subsistence characteristics as well as the changing political structure (Milner 1990: 4). Among these changes are new ceramic types that demonstrate significant differences to what came before and after. This is a time of increasing social complexity, the creation of multiple mound sites, and the foundations of the social complexity that will become a hallmark of the Mississippian period. Emergent Mississippian communities tend to be smaller and occur along bottomland ridges or clustered around an open central area. Milner describes these as “nucleated” settlements (1990: 15).

The Mississippian period dates to between ad 1000 and 1400. This period is marked by the solidification of social strata (Milner 1990). Elites were segregated from the majority of the population; this is especially visible in the mortuary customs. Elites had access to exotic materials. Mound 72 at Cahokia is one such elite mortuary area. Elites buried here were accompanied in death by dozens of human sacrificial victims (Fowler et al. 1999; Koziol 2010; Rose 1999) (Figure 1.7). Elite burials can also be found at other sites in the American Bottom as well. These, however, tend to be smaller and simpler than those found at Mound 72. This suggests that local elites (at secondary sites) were still ranked lower than those at Cahokia (Milner 1990).

Mississippian period houses consisted of rectangular houses with wall trenches, numerous storage and refuse pits, hearths, and postholes. Also present at Missis- sippian period village sites are special use areas, including nut-processing areas and possible ritual areas. Norris (1978) notes that there are numerous types of houses present during this period and suggests that different houses may have been

Mound 72 at Cahokia outside of St. Louis, Missouri. Modified from an image created by Carptrash, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution- Share Alike

FIGURE 1.7 Mound 72 at Cahokia outside of St. Louis, Missouri. Modified from an image created by Carptrash, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution- Share Alike.

occupied by the same group during different seasons of the year. In effect, summer and winter houses may have been utilized.

When examining the larger regional polity of Cahokia, smaller sites in the area, such as Labras Lake and Lily Lake may have formed the production units that fed into the larger political unit of Cahokia, allowing it to grow as a regional political and trade center (Fowler 1978). They tended to have few or no mounds associated with the habitation structures. These large ceremonial mounds immediately come to mind when one considers Cahokia, but it is important to remember that this type of political hierarchy had a large foundation of smaller sites providing labor and agricultural goods for the maintenance of a small elite. Outlying settlements in the Mississippian period tend to be low-density communities, consisting of dispersed farmsteads with associated features. They may be located near main river valleys on the floodplain (Milner 1990). Some of these outlying sites were abandoned in the Mississippian period, while others existed longer. This may be reflective of fluctuating power relations within the larger regional sphere, but it is unclear as to why some would continue and others would fade away.

 
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