Geological origins of ancient figures yield clues to Cahokian society

March 02, 2000

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Nearly 1,000 years before St. Louis became known as the Gateway to the West, another expanding culture had created a major ceremonial mound complex that is now called Cahokia. By all accounts, Cahokia was huge, consisting of hundreds of platform mounds, supported by a population numbering in the thousands. At issue, however, has been whether Cahokia was part of a regional trade network that stretched from the Great Plains to the South Atlantic.

"Cahokia was strategically centered at the juncture of the Missouri, Illinois and Mississippi rivers on the vast alluvial flood plain of the American Bottom," said Thomas Emerson, a professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois and the director of the Illinois Transportation Archaeological Research Program. "An interesting debate has centered upon whether the artifacts found at Cahokia represent a vast social, religious and political complex that exerted a major regional trade influence, or merely exotic 'prestige goods' acquired by an elite few as a symbol of power."

When the Interstate-270 bypass was constructed around St. Louis, Emerson and colleagues recovered a number of artifacts, including numerous pipe fragments and five figurines that appear to have been ceremonially destroyed.

"The stone figures portray female idols associated with agricultural symbolism and classic fertility myths," Emerson said. "The figures had been smashed to bits, the fragments scattered in ceremonial pits in several structures, which were then set on fire."

By using a combination of X-ray diffraction, sequential acid dissolution and inductively coupled plasma analyses, Emerson and Randall Hughes, a geologist with the Illinois State Geological Survey, established the source of raw material used in the manufacture of the figurines and pipes.

"Our mineralogical and geochemical analysis demonstrated that only the Missouri flint clay deposits could have served as the source of raw materials used in the Cahokia figurines," Hughes said. "In addition, given the similarity of the figurines' chemical and mineralogical composition, our study suggests that the carvers may have selectively quarried their raw materials from a single site, or from a few nearby and closely related sites, located within 30 to 40 kilometers of the mound complex."

Previously, many researchers and historians believed the Cahokia figures and pipes had originated in quarries located in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Minnesota and other faraway sites.

"Because these highly crafted artifacts now appear to be a local product, we need to rethink the role Cahokia played in ancient society," Emerson said. "Instead of serving as a major trade center, it appears that the people of Cahokia were more focused on a local rather than long-distance acquisition process."

The researchers presented their findings in the January issue of American Antiquity, the journal of the Society for American Archaeology.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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