by Steven R. Cooper, EIC
Monks Mound at Cahokia. It was the centerpiece of Mississippian Civilization
The Mississippian Era lasted a bit longer than 600 years, much less than any of the other North American Periods. It was cut short by the European conquest. The De Soto Expedition brought disease that devastated the population. In addition, they disrupted the order of society. Their disregard for the native political organization and the military defeats they inflicted on the various chiefdoms certainly made the populous question their religious beliefs and the elites who controlled it.
During this time we see the rise of high culture. Certain groups are allowed to pursue the arts and religion, creating an artistic and political/religious elite. The rise of cities furthered the rise of artistic endeavors. Thus, the Mississippian Era produced some of the most elaborate and well executed artifacts of Prehistoric North America.
While the European conquest brought this period to an end, there were other moments that changed the course this cultural period. Cahokia, the early center of Mississippian civilization, was perhaps the largest city on the planet in 1100 A.D. But less than 250 years later, it was mostly abandoned. What happened? Surely a number of things contributed to the decline, but drought and deforestation are certainly high on the list. The rise of a warrior class brought about a need for defensive structures. From excavations, it is known that the central part of Cahokia was defended by a palisade. This palisade was rebuilt four times, and required more than twenty thousand trees each time. As the forests moved farther and farther from the city, the ability to acquire game and firewood became more difficult. With a population of more than 10,000, a large amount of resources were needed every day just for society to function.
There is now evidence that a great drought started taking place in the late 1300’s and extended beyond 1450 A.D. This was a drought of epic proportion, easily the equal of the dust bowl of the 1930’s. This new knowledge has sparked a re-examination of theories regarding the creation Spiro Mound and its Great Mortuary. I recently attended a talk by Dr. James Brown who is the foremost expert on the site. It appears to him that the Great Mortuary was a deliberate attempt to “start the world over.” The whole project was to make a “model of the earth as they knew it.” He believes many of the large shell gorgets were made at the site and they depict the events that were supposed to magically happen. The placing of an obsidian artifact from Central Mexico and Olivella shells from California was a deliberate act in order to include all of the known parts of their world. Artifacts were scattered on the floor on purpose and the bones found there were brought from other places so that the ancestors could witness the event. In essence, they were trying to enlist supernatural forces by creating them within the chamber. Once everything was in place, they sealed the top of the mound, and “let time roll,” hoping the great drought would go away. If it all worked, the “political and religious elite” would continue to hold power. There might be other sites that have similar constructions that still await excavation. This is certainly a fascinating theory.
The Mississippians developed without the influence of Western Civilization. They left no written language, just some scratching on cave walls and rocks. It has been difficult to understand the elements of their thinking. Studying them up to now has essentially been no different than if we encountered the remains of an alien culture during space exploration. But recent comparisons of myths and mythology recorded by the Bureau of Ethnology from the turn of the century seem to be unlocking some of their secrets. Many drawings, engravings and carvings are now taking on a new light, as they seem to represent many of the figures in this historic mythology. New light is being shed each day on these long gone people. With more research, it may be possible to unlock their religion, their thoughts and understand the essence of their culture. And understanding them may actually help save our own civilization. Theirs is gone, but knowing the reasons why may be salvation for ours.