By 1000 AD, the Indian community in and around Cahokia Mounds was exhibiting a host of characteristics, which was later to become common among Indian societies along the major river drainages throughout the Midwest. Not surprisingly this has been termed the Mississippian culture.
- Large communal plazas.
- Monumental 'public' architecture.
- Flat-toppedTemple Mounds, sometimes paired with round top burial mounds.
- A particular set of religious symbols, found on pottery, copper, shell and stone.
- Complex hierarchical society.
- The occasional practice of human sacrifice.
- Specific syles and decorations on (usually shell-tempered) pottery.
- The practice of playing the game called "chunkey" with a stone disc rolled down a prepared court.
- Palisaded villages.
- Houses with wall post set in narrow trenches.
Casting A Broad Influence
These 'traits', as presented through physical remains, indicate that Mississippian peoples shared a common (or at least similar) religious philosophy that governed their interpretation of the world and cosmos around them. Some scientists believe religious 'outposts' of Cahokia were scattered throughout the upper Midwest, interacting with local groups. These local groups may have retained much of their previous cultural and religious heritage. Some areas to the south and east of Cahokia seemed to have adopted the Mississippian way of life more completely.
European Settlers Discover a Complex Society
These physical traits suggest a hierarchical or ranked society and complex social and political system. When the Spanish and later French explorers visited such Mississippian peoples in the Southeast from the mid 1500s through the 1700s, they chronicled the complex societies they found. They described palisaded villages and a social hierarchy, especially among the Natchez Indians of Mississippi, that was led by the 'Great Sun' and composed of classes of Nobles and Stinkards.
These accounts include first-hand witness of mass sacrifice upon the death of a 'Great Sun'. Other intriguing comments describe four officials responsible for overseeing the details of such public religious ceremonies. It does not take much imagination to suggest that these are vestiges of earlier practices that may have occurred during the heyday of Cahokia Mounds, some 400-500 years earlier.
Is Cahokia the place where a variety of these religious beliefs and cultural practices blended to become the earliest 'ideal' expression of this Mississippian way of life, some 400 years before these activities were observed by the Europeans? Was Cahokia similar to Mecca, or the Vatican in its day?
Such an image of Cahokia's stature is quite plausible. And though more physical evidence is coming to light everyday, modern scholars still do not fully understand the specific tenets of this religion, nor many of the details of how and why it became so popular.
Center of the Mississippian Culture
The Pulcher and Lohmann Mound groups, to the south of Cahokia, may have been central to this new culture, even before it experienced its florescence at Cahokia. The ceramics there seem to be primarily composed of the earlier Formative Mississippian styles, and could indicate that some of the main components of Mississippian philosophy might have begun slightly earlier (or at a parallel time) in the southern portion of the American Bottom. Shortly thereafter, these southern sites may have declined in size and importance, perhaps because of a coalescence of people into Cahokia and Cahokia's rise to power.
Some believe that the religious ideas behind Cahokia may have begun in the southern bottoms area (or even further to the south) and eventually took hold and flourished at the site of Cahokia. This influence or domination then expanded outward from Cahokia to the local region, and later to much of the Midwest. Others believe that these ideas and events directly originated from a handful of charismatic leaders who arose at Cahokia itself.
The Cahokia "Big Bang"
Archaeologists have recently spoken of a 'big bang' emanating from Cahokia around 1050 AD, a population and cultural explosion. Physical evidence from the outlying upland settlements some 6 to12 miles east of Cahokia appear to indicate a sudden cultural change toward the rapid adoption of some Mississippian characteristics. Were the residents there being 'drawn in' to this new way of life, or was it being imposed upon them? At least one or more of the sites in the area seems to have been literally constructed largely at once, perhaps as a physical outpost of Cahokia.
Currently, we know more of the spread of this religion than of its origins. Without written accounts, we possess very little knowledge of the details of this religious philosophy. We must be content to construct educated guesses from the sparse remains of various icons, pictographs and more modern snippets of traditional lore that seem to relate to these symbols and beliefs. To make matters more difficult, most of this art is also from later periods, many years after the coalescence of power at Cahokia, or after its collapse.
That is why continued research at Cahokia and the surrounding area is so important. We still need to build a picture of the earliest components of Mississippian religion, and understand which ideas were probably formulated later, in order to trace the origins of this philosophy, which would later influence a large portion of the prehistoric Midwest.