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CahokiaA World Renewal Cult Heterarchy$

A. Martin Byers

Print publication date: 2006

Print ISBN-13: 9780813029580

Published to Florida Scholarship Online: September 2011

DOI: 10.5744/florida/9780813029580.001.0001

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(p.1) 1 Introduction

A. Martin Byers

University Press of Florida

Abstract and Keywords

Cahokia is a major archaeological site of the prehistoric Mississippian period in the American Bottom region of the central Mississippi Valley. It is also impressively large, but it is only the largest of several other large and contemporaneous multiple-mound groupings nearby. The American Bottom is a large east-bank floodplain of the Mississippi River opposite the confluence of the Missouri River. The chronology of the American Bottom is described. The chapter also addresses the precursors of Cahokia. The first modern archaeological account of the presented Mississippian period archaeological record is Melvin Fowler's four-tiered settlement model. While each of the interpretations characterizes the Middle Mississippian social system of the American Bottom slightly differently, the differences are largely quantitative and not qualitative. The hierarchical monistic modular polity account and the heterarchical polyistic locale-centric account are then discussed. These two accounts constitute complementary opposites of the same archaeological record of the American Bottom.

Keywords:   Cahokia, American Bottom, four-tiered settlement model, hierarchical monistic modular polity, heterarchical polyistic locale-centric, archaeological record, Melvin Fowler

Cahokia is a major archaeological site of the prehistoric Mississippian period in the American Bottom region of the central Mississippi Valley (Figure 1.1). It has an estimated (and to some degree, conventionally recognized) areal magnitude of about fifteen square kilometers. Built and occupied between circa a.d. 1050 and 1300/1350, it consists of over one hundred earthwork mounds, most of which are clustered along the southern bank of Cahokia Creek about seven or eight kilometers east of the Mississippi River (Figure 1.2). While many of these mounds are very large, they are dwarfed by Monks Mound, a four-terrace earthen construction that dominates the local landscape. It is the approximate height of a ten-story building, and the base is approximately 300 meters long east-west and 320 meters long north-south (Figure 1.3). Monks Mound is often pointed out as the largest North American prehistoric earthwork construction north of Mexico. Its stepped construction was built up by the addition of multiple earth strata, often serving as the base for one or more large timber buildings, along with auxiliary facilities, such as marker posts. The upper stages of this earthwork are known to have been completed by means of a series of major additions of a heavy black claylike material, often referred to as “black gumbo” and procured from the margins of the low, swampy ground that richly characterizes the American Bottom. A similar pattern of multiple construction stages with dismantling (sometimes burning, either deliberately or accidentally) and rebuilding of ritual structures is found as a record of the history of most of the major mounds of this complex site referred to as Cahokia.

The northern side of Monks Mound directly overlooks Cahokia Creek and its floodplain. It was (probably) surrounded by four plaza-mound complexes, one each to its immediate south, east, west, and north (Figure 1.4). The southern plaza, often called the Grand Plaza, is the largest of these. Some of the mounds that form the perimeter of the plaza are second only to Monks Mound in magnitude. The northern or Creek Bottom Plaza is the smallest of the plaza-mound complexes that frame Monks Mound. It is delineated by five small mounds. Unlike the other three plaza-mound complexes built on the ridge overlooking Cahokia Creek, the Creek Bottom plaza-mound complex is actually (p.2)


Figure 1.1. American Bottom, northern sector. (Pauketat and Emerson 1997a, fig.1.2, p. 6. Reprinted from Cahokia: Domination and Ideology in the Mississippian World edited by Timothy R. Pauketat and Thomas E. Emerson by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. Copyright 1997 by the University of Nebraska Press.)


Figure 1.2. Cahokia Creek regional mound locales. (Pauketat and Emerson 1997a, fig.1.4, p. 9. Reprinted from Cahokia: Domination and Ideology in the Mississippian World edited by Timothy R. Pauketat and Thomas E. Emerson by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. Copyright 1997 by the University of Nebraska Press.)


Figure 1.3. Monks Mound. (Fowler 1997, fig. 5.2, p. 89. Courtesy of the Illinois Transportation Archaeological Research Program, University of Illinois. Artist, Byron W. Knoblock.)

located on the floodplain of Cahokia Creek. Therefore, the five mounds were probably regularly inundated, either partially or fully, by the seasonal and nonseasonal flooding of Cahokia Creek.

Cahokia is impressively large, but it is only the largest of several other large and contemporaneous multiple-mound groupings nearby (Figure 1.2). The East St. Louis site contains the residue of an aggregation of about forty or forty-five mounds located in what is now the downtown area of that city, making it the second- largest earthwork mound site of the Eastern Woodlands (Emerson 2002, 129). Only the relict bases of some of its many mounds are known to still exist, and these are covered by the modern urban rail, road, and building construction making up the central part of East St. Louis (Kelly 1994, 49–50; 1997, 148). On the western shore of the Mississippi River across from the East St. Louis site, there was another large aggregation of mounds, about twenty-five, that is referred to as the St. Louis site. This was the fourth-largest mound site in the Eastern Woodlands (Emerson 2002, 129). It is also made up of the residue of these mounds. In fact, most of these were cleared away during the construction of downtown St. Louis (Milner 1998, 120).

Besides these latter two multiple-mound sites, both north and south of Cahokia there are a number of other, more or less extant multiple-mound locales. The Mitchell site of Granite City, consisting of ten or eleven mounds, is about (p.5)


Figure 1.4. Grand Plaza and immediate milieu. (Pauketat and Emerson 1997a, fig. 1.5, p. 13. Courtesy of the Illinois Transportation Archaeological Research Program, University of Illinois.)

(p.6) eleven kilometers north-northwest of Cahokia (Porter 1969, 137, 159–60). The Lunsford-Pulcher site, also with seven or more mounds, is about twenty-five kilometers south-southwest of Cahokia (Kelly 1993, 434–35). There are also many single-mound sites found distributed linearly north to south across the American Bottom, the best known being the Lohmann site, about halfway between the Lunsford-Pulcher site and Cahokia (Esarey and Pauketat 1992, 3, 13).


The American Bottom is a large east-bank floodplain of the Mississippi River opposite the confluence of the Missouri River. Its northern sector starts at the town of Alton, Illinois, and it stretches south about 125 kilometers to Chester at the mouth of the Kaskaskia River. It can be internally divided into two sectors according to the width of the floodplain. The upper third of the American Bottom is often referred to as the northern expanse. At its widest it is about 19 kilometers east-west along the lower Cahokia Creek, and it is approximately 40 kilometers north-south, narrowing significantly toward the south. From Dupo south to Chester, the floodplain narrows to between 4 and 8 kilometers east-west (Milner 1998, 14, 35).

As would be expected of a floodplain zone, its topography is characterized predominantly by a multiple series of low ridges and swales interspersed by shallow oxbow lakes and broad marshes and swamps. Although in prehistoric times it had both rich wild resources and excellent soil for agriculture, its human occupants were subjected to the considerable risk of either too much or too little water. While regular seasonal floods were expected, unseasonable floods were not uncommon, and, somewhat ironically, the prehistoric populations in the floodplain could also experience summer droughts that could devastate their crops (Milner 1998, 78).

Chronology of the American Bottom

The peoples occupying the American Bottom and responsible for the social systems associated with and realized by these large mound sites and dispersed domestic farmsteads practiced what is often referred to as the Middle Mississippian culture. The period of prehistory is spoken of as the Mississippian period, and it is conventionally dated between circa a.d. 1000 and circa a.d. 1400 (Figure 1.5). More recently, this chronology has been calibrated to circa A.D. 1050 to circa A.D. 1350 (Figure 1.6). Whether the chronology is assessed (p.7)


Figure 1.5. Uncalibrated chronology of the American Bottom. (Kelly 1999b, fig. 49, p. 117. From “The Emergence of Mississippian Culture in the American Bottom Region,” by John E. Kelly, in The Mississippian Emergence, ed. Bruce D. Smith, Smithsonian Institution Press. Reprinted by permission of publisher.)


Figure 1.6. Calibrated chronology of the American Bottom Mississippian period. (Pauketat 1994, fig. 3.3, p. 49. Used with permission of the University of Alabama Press.)

(p.9) in the conventional or in more recent calibrated terms, this is a rather shallow time span. However, the Middle Mississippian culture of the American Bottom had relatively deep historical roots in the region. This is known as a result of a comprehensive series of extensive excavations carried out by the FAI-270 Archaeological Mitigation Project. This project emerged as a result of the planned expansion of the federal interstate highway system in the American Bottom. The FAI-270 project involved surveying along the planned rights-of-way of this proposed highway system, recording all the significant sites, and, finally, conducting a series of full-scale excavations of the most promising and important set of archaeological sites that this survey disclosed. As a result, Illinois archaeology now has a good representative sample of the material residue of the Middle Mississippian culture and its prehistoric roots in the American Bottom.

The archaeologists conducting this project also mapped earlier human occupation of the region, of course, reaching back to the Middle Archaic, or earlier. The bulk of the archaeological material, however, relates to the period from circa A.D. 600, the middle Late Woodland, to circa A.D. 1400, the end of the Mississippian period in this region. This material formed the basis for mapping first a slow and, starting about A.D. 600, a more rapid, although possibly erratic, expansion of population in the American Bottom (Fortier and Jackson 2000, 123–24, 134). As noted above, about A.D. 1050, or even earlier, the great mound locales were initiated, marking the Mississippian period. Then, beginning circa A.D. 1200, the population numbers started to reduce, probably quite rapidly, and by A.D. 1300/1350, the American Bottom was essentially abandoned (Emerson 2002, 138–39). It is this episode—the Mississippian period of the American Bottom between circa cal A.D. 1050 to circa A.D. 1300/1350—that is the primary focus for this book. However, it will be necessary to reach back into the preceding centuries to summarize the archaeological record of the foundational social system out of which the Middle Mississippian culture of the region emerged.

It is widely accepted that, following the Middle Woodland period, the prehistory of the American Bottom can be fairly reasonably divided into three periods between A.D. 300/400 and A.D. 1300/1400. The first is generally referred to as the Late Woodland period, circa A.D. 300/400 to A.D. 800. This is followed by the Emergent Mississippian period, conventionally dated to A.D. 800 to A.D. 1000, and then the Mississippian period, circa A.D. 1000 to circa A.D. 1400 (Figure 1.5). However, this historical framework is based on the older conventional chronology of the American Bottom, which is in the process (p.10) of being replaced by a more exact chronology based on calibrated radiocarbon dates. For this introductory material, I have chosen the older scheme and terminology, specifically using the term Emergent Mississippian period and the dates of A.D. 800–1000 for the period between the Late Woodland and the Mississippian periods. Later, I use the new terminology, referring to the Emergent Mississippian period as the Terminal Late Woodland period—and, of course, I shift to using the calibrated dates of ca A.D. 900–1050 (Figure 1.7). The reason for initially retaining the older system is that there is an important theoretical debate about the preferred terminology to use in referring to these pre-Mississippian times. The core issue is whether the sociocultural processes of the post-Middle Woodland period prehistory of the American Bottom leading to the emergence of Cahokia should be characterized in “gradualist” or “rupturalist” terms. At a more appropriate point in this book I summarize the debate and present my own position, which, briefly, is to treat this prehistory as both gradual and ruptural in nature. Indeed, as I indicate shortly, the debate between gradualism and rupturalism obscures what I consider to be a fundamental understanding concerning the nature of the American Bottom prehistoric social systems that is shared among the disputing parties.

In any case, the Late Woodland, Emergent Mississippian, and Mississippian periods are recognized by the particular complex of material cultural attributes that sets each up as “significantly” different from each other. Of course, focusing on the differences leads to the danger of ignoring the continuities that, in the view I develop in this book, link these periods into a coherent, historically developing social system. In this regard, while the Middle Mississippian mound locales are very distinct, I believe that it is important to keep in mind that there is a cultural continuity that links the relatively simple material cultural makeup of the social systems that existed during the Late Woodland period to the much more complex material cultural makeup of the mound locales of the Mississippian period.

In sum, the central theoretical premise of this book is that underwriting the significantly noticeable and quite major material cultural changes that occurred in the American Bottom during this period, there was a profound continuity in cosmology, ethos, worldview, and—in more interactive terms—social structural relations and material practices. To put this another way, the core argument of this book is that the great mound locales that make the Mississippian period distinct represent neither a gradually evolving nor a cataclysmic historic transformation of the American Bottom social system. Rather, the great mounds and their distribution are postulated here to be the monumental (p.11)


Figure 1.7. Calibrated Terminal Late Woodland chronology. (Fortier and McElrath 2002, fig. 2, p. 181. Used with permission of Alta Mira Press.)

(p.12) outcome and medium of the transformation of the surface structures and the simultaneous reproduction of the deep structures of the cultural traditions as these were inherited from the earlier Late Woodland period.

The Precursors of Cahokia

Between A.D. 300/400 and 600, the population of the early Late Woodland period of the American Bottom was both rather limited in size and scattered, occupying small, warm-season foraging-gardening sites primarily along the base of the eastern bluffs with the groups probably dispersing and retreating to the uplands during the cold season. About A.D. 600, marking in this general region what is termed the Patrick phase of the Late Woodland period, population started to expand into and across the floodplain, probably from both natural growth and increasing migration from the uplands. Indeed, according to Andrew Fortier and Douglas Jackson (2000, 134), circa A.D. 600 marks “a rather spectacular increase in sites in this zone as well as an increase in the diversity of occupied floodplain ecological niches. Similar settlement expansion also occurred in the surrounding upland drainages.”1

Initially these occupants sustained the mixed gardening and foraging regime of the preceding period. The bow-and-arrow complex was introduced circa A.D. 700, and by circa A.D. 750/800, the cultivation of maize as a subsistence crop was added to the cultivation of the traditional indigenous crops of chenopodium, maygrass, little barley, and erect knotweed, along with several other lesser-used wild plant resources. The introduction of maize to the everyday diet is also taken to mark the end of the Late Woodland period in this region and the beginning of the Emergent Mississippian period. As its name suggests, the Emergent Mississippian period has been characterized as the development of social and cultural processes that culminated in the rise of the Middle Mississippian culture of the Mississippian period of the American Bottom. Among these processes characterizing the Emergent Mississippian was the transformation of the Late Woodland social system of small semisedentary hamlets and villages based on gardening and foraging into a social system of sedentary towns, villages, and hamlets based on mixed gardening, including maize, and possibly some field agricultural practices. By about A.D. 900, deemed the middle of the Emergent Mississippian period, fairly large villages had developed with central plazas and flanking auxiliary plazas (each surrounded by residences with courtyards), which were probably local centers of a network of smaller settlements. Characteristically, the plazas framed large standing posts associated with special-purpose pits having limestone-paved floors. Also, a few (p.13) specialized complexes of buildings (usually larger than the typical residences) in the larger villages became common, and these were located on one or both sides of the central plazas and also on the periphery of the villages.

The Range site near Dupo in the lower sector of the northern expanse of the American Bottom is archaeologically important because it incorporates the full series of occupations that are relevant to this book, from the terminal Patrick phase of the Late Woodland period, through the Dohack, Range, George Reeves, and Lindeman phases of the Emergent Mississippian period of this sector, to occupations marking the Lohmann and Stirling phases of the Mississippian period (Figure 1.5). John Kelly(1990a, 99; 1990b, 134) has interpreted the changing settlement patterning of this site as mapping the evolution of the Emergent Mississippian social system. For him, the specialized structures, plazas, residential clusters, and ritual posts and pits of the George Reeves phase occupation at the Range site marked a full-fledged ranking of lineage-based residential groups forming possibly a simple chiefdom society.

The central plaza, its attendant structures and internal features, forms a strong community core. This central plaza is in turn symmetrically flanked by a series of additional courtyards, each with its associated houses. I would postulate that this community pattern reflects the spatial distribution of a series of ranked social groups, and represents the best evidence currently available for the initial emergence by A.D. 900–950 of a ranked form of sociopolitical organization in the American Bottom region. (Kelly 1990a, 99, emphasis added)

To support this claim of a “ranked form of sociopolitical organization,” he particularly notes the large buildings, one of which he describes as the “chief 's house,” the pits and posts associated with the plaza area (which he interprets in agricultural fertility ritual terms), and the apparent positioning of smaller plazas as indicating lower or “subordinate social groups”:

Although no mound construction is present, the large rectangular structure at one end of the central courtyard is perhaps the chief's house. The four pits and central post located at the opposite end of the community plaza undoubtedly played the same ceremonial and symbolic role as … [the circle-in-square complex of the preceding Dohack phase]. … The northernmost and secondary plaza and courtyard are interpreted as separate and subordinate social groups. If the … ranking related in any manner to kin relations, the former inhabitants are distantly related to those in the main village. (Kelly 1990a, 99)

(p.14) Many but not all American Bottom archaeologists agree with Kelly's interpretation that, in general terms, the later Emergent Mississippian period was characterized by internally ranked communities organized into simple settlement hierarchies, constituting probably simple chiefdoms, and that this social structure was the springboard from which the great mound locales such as Cahokia were constructed. Indeed, many are convinced that mound construction started in some of the more favorably situated late Emergent Mississippian towns, such as Lunsford-Pulcher or Cahokia, possibly by or even earlier than A.D. 950–1000, although these archaeologists also quickly note that there are currently no empirical data to confirm this claim (Emerson 1997b, 176; 1997c, 57–58; Kelly 1990b, 135; Milner 1990, 19; 1998, 105–6).2 Such claims serve partly to account for the apparent “Big Bang” with which the Mississippian period opened. Timothy Pauketat 1997, 31–32) argues that this “Big Bang” occurred at Cahokia and that the rapidity of its occurrence was possible only because of a massive, politically organized and ideologically inspired and planned strategy. This strategy occurred in two steps. The first was a rather short period that saw these simple chiefdoms of the late Emergent Mississippian period forming into competing complex chiefdoms. This brief period, possibly only one or two generations, was terminated by the abrupt and successful emergence of what he terms the Cahokian paramountcy. Using calibrated dating in this case, he notes that

about A.D. 1050, the American Bottom experienced the political and economic equivalent of the Big Bang. I have identified this Big Bang in the Bottom as a consequence of the rapid consolidation of political power or regional control presumably by some subset of the high-ranking Emergent Mississippian population. … The event brought about the abrupt and large-scale transformation of community order, the physical landscape of Cahokia, and the entire northern expanse of the American Bottom floodplain. (Pauketat 1997, 31–32)

While this “Leviathan” (to use his descriptive characterization [Pauketat 1994, 1]) prevailed for about 300–350 years, from circa A.D. 1000/1050 to circa A.D. 1350/1400, the second half of its existence has been characterized (Pauketat and Emerson 1997a, 22–24) as that of a spent “giant,” with its final and complete dissolution occurring as the American Bottom essentially became depopulated by a.d. 1400. Pauketat and Emerson conclude, “The significance of its drawn-out ending, however, lies in the transformation of central Cahokia (p.15) from a political capital to a sacred center and cemetery” (Pauketat and Emerson 1997b, 278).


The first modern archaeological account of this Mississippian period archaeological record is Melvin Fowler's four-tiered settlement model. Cahokia was treated by him as the singular first-tier site, that is, as the dominant Mississippian period settlement of the American Bottom (Fowler 1974, 27; 1978, 468–74; 1997, 10). As such, it was the center of a hierarchical social system organized as a complex rank-ordered settlement system. In his terms, the smaller multiple-mound sites, such as East St. Louis, Lunsford-Pulcher, and so on, were second-tier centers, politically, economically, and religiously subordinate to Cahokia. The single-mound sites, such as Lohmann, were third-tier centers. The small, multiple, and scattered occupational sites without mounds formed the bottom or fourth tier of the American Bottom social system and consisted of homesteads and hamlets occupied by the mass of the population that served as labor for the leading elite occupants of the hierarchical superstructure.

Since Fowler's initial presentation of this hierarchical model of the American Bottom social system, various other versions have been elaborated. For example, picking up on the central notion of dominance, some archaeologists have claimed that Cahokia had its tentacles reaching well beyond the American Bottom and throughout most of the central and lower Mississippi River drainage. Indeed, as the dominant “city” of the American Bottom, it has been envisioned as a lesser “Teotihuacan-on-the-Mississippi,” the core of a widespread “state” or “chiefdom-state” holding direct sway over all the lesser mound centers, each of which may have been the residential capital of a local chief who was subordinate to his paramount chief in Cahokia (Fowler 1974, 26–32; 1997, 10; Kelly 1982, 201; ƠBrien 1989, 280–84; Porter 1969, 140, 156–60).

I noted above that there is important ongoing debate over the nature and timing of the transformations that brought about Cahokia (Fortier and McElrath 2002, 173–74; Pauketat 2002, 152–54). However, for the most part the debaters do not question the complex hierarchical nature of Cahokia and the American Bottom social system of the Mississippian period. The latter is taken almost as axiomatic, and the major focus has been on the number of levels of this hierarchical system; the mode of settlement articulation; the geographical scope of the Cahokian political, economic, religious, and social control; (p.16) the role of emigration and immigration; how the hierarchical complexity emerged from the prior, simple horticultural village system; and so on (Fortier and McElrath 2002, 173–74). In this regard, the characterizations by Timothy Pauketat and Thomas Emerson are probably the most influential. While they confirm Fowler's claim that Cahokia was the paramount center of the American Bottom, they reject the notion that it was a “lesser” Teotihuacan: “Taken to an extreme by others, Cahokia was characterized as a little Teotihuacan-on-the-Mississippi, a mercantile city crowded with bureaucrats, priests, engineers, craft specialists, peasants, and marketplaces. … This extreme view, despite its popular appeal, is not tenable today” (Pauketat and Emerson 1997a, 3). Rather, Pauketat and Emerson settle for a far less specialized, regionally more localized, but still strongly hierarchical social system. Thus, while Cahokia's political and economic power was dominant across the American Bottom, in their view it probably reached only to between thirty and, possibly, one hundred kilometers beyond.

However, they still claim that its cultural influence was geographically widespread and historically extensive (Anderson 1997, 260–61; Pauketat and Emerson 1997c, 2). Hence, they consider that Cahokia's claim to real uniqueness was its long-term cultural impact, one that reverberated across much of the Midcontinent and the Southeast and was still potent when Europeans arrived. For them, this cultural preeminence of Cahokia is attested to “by its size, its massive mounds, its productive residues, and its icons emulated and scattered to the four winds. It was the most expansive political-cultural phenomenon of the Mississippian world. It had a profound impact on other native groups of southeastern and midcontinental North Americans” (Pauketat and Emerson 1997a, 28).

Emerson 1997c, 13–14) has also argued that the Cahokian social and political elite emerged as a result of the collective commitment to monumental construction directed toward religious goals that emphasized communitas. Communitas practices suppress social and personal differences and emphasize commonalities and equalities. He goes on to argue that the imperatives of monumental construction worked to contradict the communitas spirit and goals that these religious constructions were intended to gain. This perversion resulted from the construction program's promoting the formation of a leadership that, through its special association with the sacred nature of these constructions, came to be alienated from the very people who had initially chosen these individuals as leaders, thereby becoming self-selected and elitist. Thus, while Cahokia may have been started as the project of peoples constituting (p.17) a social system having only simple hierarchical tendencies rooted in lineage corporate groups, it quickly and largely unwittingly transformed into a dominance-based hierarchical social system characterized by a ruling, self-selecting elite of chiefs presided over by a supreme chiefly lineage.

Pauketat 1994, 187) effectively argues the same view, except that, in his judgement, the emergence of an elite social stratum was not the unintended consequence of monumental construction but the outcome of an ideological strategy by which the set of elite families of the preexisting simple chiefdoms was able to break the traditional egalitarian commonsense “ideology” of lineage-based kinship systems. The promoting of this self-serving “ideology” by elites was so successful that they were able to constitute the emergent paramount chief as a living god (Pauketat 1994, 17–21). In addition to limiting the geographical scope of Cahokia's political and economic power and influence, which is certainly an important modification of Fowler's four-tiered hierarchical model, Pauketat and Emerson (1997a, 3–4) have made another modification to it. On the basis of settlement data accumulated by the FAI-270 Archaeological Mitigation program, they argue for reducing the settlement hierarchy from a four- to a three-tiered system. They still recognize Cahokia as the only first-tier site. However, they treat all other mound sites, whether these have one or more mounds, as second-tier sites. This means that all the nonmound sites now make up the third tier of the settlement system. Furthermore, basing his detailed analysis of the settlement pattern on the FAI-270 data, Emerson (1997c, 73–79) further reconfigures this level hierarchically. He classifies these nonmound “rural” sites into farmstead sites and nodal sites. The latter he subdivides into nodal household sites retaining a core-complex identifying them as the farmsteads of local “rural commoner” leadership, on the one hand, and the civic, ceremonial-fertility, and ceremonial-mortuary cult nodal sites of the rural elite, on the other. This third or bottom tier of nodal and non-nodal sites constitutes what he refers to as the dispersed village system of the American Bottom region; through the medium of the civic and ceremonial cult nodal sites, in his model this system served as the complex integrative network linking the rural commoners to the spatially distant paramount chief seated at Cahokia.

Mark Mehrer 1995, 15–16) has carried out a comprehensive analysis of the patterning of the rural farmstead locales, focusing on both the residential and related structures and the associated pits that are commonly found in and/ or around them. He also largely accepted a modified version of the view that the Mississippian period in the American Bottom was dominated by a central (p.18) power (that is, Cahokia). However, he takes a less “ideological” and more materialist, energy-based posture to argue against the view that the “rural” settlements of dispersed villages were fully dominated by the elite occupants of the mound-based settlements. Given that he accepts that the social power residing in the American Bottom was centralized in these latter sites, in my opinion he does not clarify how these dispersed villages could sustain either a fully autonomous or even a semiautonomous arm's-length relation with the mound locales. His suggestion is that the “rural” people became quite adept at hiding their surplus produce from the prying eyes of the chiefs (Mehrer 1995, 140–46). However, this very claim presupposes the acceptance of the authority of the centralized chief. That is, rather than the hiding of surplus being the denial of authority, this action would be an admission and reproduction of this authority—albeit one that would have had serious practical constraints, if Mehrer's claim is correct. Indeed, what this means is that rather than treating autonomy as a principled cultural or social fact, Mehrer reduces it to being a matter of practical limits on control by suggesting that local autonomy was largely a function of the distance between the rural homestead and the mound center: “While social elites assumed control over regional and temple-town matters, village affairs degenerated into household affairs. That is, as temple-town authorities waxed, village authority waned, and considerable autonomy was left to those living in the hinterlands, who were dispersed over the landscape” (Mehrer 1995, 144).

In a later paper he attempts to clarify this reductive model of the “rural/urban” relation by claiming that whereas it has been characterized as hierarchical (as realized by the farmsteads being required to perform corvée duty and contribute tribute to the “urban” centers), the “rural” countryside was actually organized in heterarchical terms, which he defines as a moderate form of ranking mitigated by the face-to-face domestic and wider kinship-based relations. He observes, “The built environment of the dispersed rural communities strongly indicates that some rural contexts were relatively free of centralized control. Most of the rural daily life … would have revolved around domestic matters that were of no consequence to regional authority or matters that were best managed by family farmers” (Mehrer 2000, 51).

He appears to be forced to characterize the autonomy of the dispersed farmsteads in practical-based terms, since he also argues that the labor necessary to support Cahokia and similar centers would have been largely derived from the residents of these dispersed “rural” villages and that this contribution would have been added to the labor and surplus produce of the “commoner” lineages (p.19) permanently resident in the mound locales (Mehrer 1995, 53–54). Hence, he recognizes the essential social nature of the “rural/urban” relation as being one of juridical subordination-dominance, even as he insists that the “rural” peoples would resist this dominance by various practical-based tactics. While I find all this more than a bit puzzling, his characterization of the “rural” settlements challenges the nature of the relationship between the countryside and the mound locales postulated by Emerson and Pauketat by suggesting that it may not have been as hierarchical and dominance-based as they claim. I am in agreement with him in this regard, but for quite different reasons. Indeed, both characterizing the social nature of this relation and giving theoretical and empirical grounds for supporting this characterization are the primary focus of this book. Therefore, I shall return to examining this relationship shortly.

George Milner 1998, 3–13, 168–70) also supports the hierarchical view, but in a temperate form. For him, Cahokia represents neither the political center of a large state or statelike chiefdom nor the economic heart of a widespread interaction sphere. Instead, he argues that the mound centers across the American Bottom and along primarily the eastern side of the central Mississippi Valley were the seats of a multiplicity of competing “quasi-autonomous” complex chiefdoms (Milner 1990, 22–23; 1998, 13, fig. 1.5, 15). These individual chiefdoms waxed and waned in power and presence while, through it all, Cahokia was occupied and was the most important player, being able to sustain the majority of these neighboring chiefdoms as subordinates. In his general overview of the Mississippian period in the Southeast, Jon Muller (1997, 116, 220) takes a similar position, arguing that it is an exaggeration to characterize Cahokia as a major paramount chiefdom supported by a large population dominated by centralized political power. However, Muller seems to equivocate, since he accepts that as a paramount chiefdom, Cahokia's “organization would probably have fluctuated through time between multiple small polities, each surrounding a single small town-center, to much larger but more fragile polities containing several major town-centers within a paramount chiefdom,” while also maintaining that at “the highest peak of their power, the chiefs of Cahokia may have played important roles in ordering the lives of as many as 20 or 30 thousand people” (Muller 1997, 223, emphasis in the original).3

In sum, while each interpretation characterizes the Middle Mississippian social system of the American Bottom slightly differently, the differences are largely quantitative and not qualitative. In qualitative terms, there is substantial agreement that this complex archaeological record dominated by monumental earthwork features was the material outcome of a complex set of hierarchical (p.20) polities emergent from a preexisting system of simple ranked societies of the late Emergent Mississippian period or, in terms promoted by Andrew Fortier and Dale McElrath (2002, 173), of the Terminal Late Woodland period. While there is currently considerable debate over how these transformations from a simple kinship-based village system to a complex rank-ordered chiefdom system came about, there is little debate or disagreement over the real nature of this social system. That is, whether the social organization is portrayed as a complex, rigidly centralized hierarchical polity or a complex set of loosely interacting hierarchical polities, there is substantial agreement that the core social nature of this settlement system was hierarchical.

The Hermeneutic Spiral: A Critical Method

Hence, there is a profound, largely taken-for-granted unity of understanding of the essential nature and social complexity of this system. This is unfortunate because no competing social system model, as such, has been presented; for this reason, the core claim that the Mississippian period social system was non-egalitarian (with ranked classes of politically and economically dominant elite and subordinate commoners) goes largely, if not completely, unchallenged among those who are most familiar with the American Bottom archaeological record. I consider that this view, in all its variants, reigns hegemonically in American Bottom archaeology, being accepted almost axiomatically. As Emerson confidently states, “I believe that the hierarchical nature of the Cahokia polity can be accepted as a given, based on the existing evidence of the archaeological record. Consequently, I assume that, in keeping with the known attributes of such societies and forms of government, the Cahokian chiefly elite emphasized centripetal control of surpluses, labor, religion, and trade” (Emerson 1997c, 188, emphasis added). To reinforce their claim about this basic agreement, Pauketat and Emerson stress the harmony of vision among those who contributed to one of the more recent summaries of the state of Cahokian archaeology, of which they are the joint editors. In their words, “Cahokia, to the authors of these chapters, was about agriculture and appropriation, production and power, ideology and authority, and monuments and mobilization” (Pauketat and Emerson 1997b, 269).

While I know that there are some who would not fully agree (for example, Dean Saitta [1994, 212], who sees Cahokia as a non-exploitative communalistic social system, and Mark Mehrer [1995, 144], who, as pointed out above, argues for at least some surreptitious maintenance of autonomy for the countryside), there is widespread acceptance that the mounds were the residences (p.21) of powerful and ranked corporate kinship descent groups; that elites in permanent residence at the mound centers mobilized the commoners as clients to provide the corvée labor and tributary subsistence resources required to build the mounds, temples, palaces, and palisades; and that these locales were the administrative centers of polities having defined (and presumably defended) boundaries. When new data are presented, these rarely challenge this social characterization. Instead, their presentation becomes an exercise of conforming the data to this interpretation. For example, a dual mode of building sizes becomes evidence confirming that the Lohmann and Stirling phases of Cahokia were strongly structured into elite (that is, large residential dwellings) and commoner (that is, small residential dwellings) (Pauketat 1992, 36; 1998, 87–88, 136). Similarly, the differential burial treatment displayed in Mound 72 becomes confirmation of this elite/commoner structure and thereby serves to generalize that all mortuary treatment can be divided into and accounted for in these same elite/commoner terms, and so on (Ahler 1999, 104–5; Fortier and McElrath 2002, 199; Fowler 1974, 20–22; 1991, 10; 1997, 145; Fowler et al. 1999, 158, 176–77; Knight 1997, 237; Mehrer 1995, 16; Milner 1990, 27–28; Pauketat 1992, 37; 1994, 177; 1997, 34–35; Rose 1999, 75–76; Saitta 1994, 215–16. However, James Brown [2003] has presented a very interesting counterproposal, which I discuss later).

It is preferred that an interpretive historical approach to the archaeological data have ontological models that contrast in strong rather than weak terms. Models that contrast weakly essentially agree on the fundamental properties of a social system while differing only in the details. Strong models must not only contrast in their essentials, but must also be structured in accordance with the dimensions being addressed, the range of application, and the depth of time, breadth of space, and complexity of content being addressed. Thus, strong models are characterized by having complexes of core, ancillary, and auxiliary models by which they can radically challenge each other at multiple levels and along multiple dimensions. What is shared between them is that they are addressing the same data. Over all, among contrasting strong models, the one that accounts for the same data in the most coherent and least self-contradictory manner is accepted, until another strong model is presented and is seen to do a better job.

Hence, through critical contrasting, the interpretation of the nature of the social and cultural phenomena that are represented in the archaeological record is done in a critical, self-correcting, and knowledge-productive manner. It is critical because part of challenging a model is to show where it is logically (p.22) and theoretically inadequate and where it fails to account adequately and coherently for the relevant data. It is self-correcting because, following its critique of the opposing account, it must present an alternative grounded in the same data sets. It is knowledge productive because this critical process ensures that a knowledge vacuum is avoided. A useful term with which to describe this interpretive method is the hermeneutic spiral (Bhaskar 1978, chapter 3; 1979, 11–28, 164–69; Byers 2004, 106–7).4 The notion of a spiral is useful here since it suggests that competing models generate a spiralling argument or debate. Each spiral loop terminates, for the moment, with new knowledge. In these terms, I will treat the above theoretical characterization of Cahokia and the American Bottom (in all its versions) as a strong model and will refer to it in terms of its central themes: the hierarchical monistic modular polity account of the American Bottom. The alternative strong model that challenges it (and is the purpose of this book) I term the heterarchical polyistic locale-centric account. I initiate the elucidation of these two accounts below by defining the central concepts of the hierarchical monistic modular polity account, followed by the heterarchical polyistic locale-centric account.

The Hierarchical Monistic Modular Polity Account

The primary or core concept of the hierarchical monistic modular polity account treats Cahokia and the regional American Bottom social system as having a dominance-based hierarchy of elites and commoners that largely corresponds to a settlement hierarchy of ranked mound-and-town locales and subordinated “rural” dispersed villages. The former are seen as composed of a core of ruling elite lineages permanently residing in these centers, along with their subordinate client commoner lineages, while the outlying dispersed villages are treated as permanently occupied by “rural commoners” under local elite supervision and dominance, mediated largely through the civic and ceremonial-cult nodal locales. Indeed, the peripheral rural-center core relation might be characterized almost in feudal terms. Certainly, Vernon James Knight Jr. (1997, 237–38) constantly makes reference to the elites as the nobles or the nobility of Cahokia. Even among those willing to treat this social system in less radically hierarchical terms, there is general agreement as to the existence of some form of social stratification of the total population along “rural” commoner and “urban” elite lines (Muller 1997, 119–21, 156–57).

The monistic nature of this orthodox model is another core conceptual theme by which it characterizes Cahokia and its regional social system. By monistic I mean a social system in which a single social structural axis constitutes (p.23) the major institutional framework of the society; typically, for preindustrial societies, this is assumed to be anchored by kinship and, in a hierarchical monistic system, constituted as a system of ranked clans, lineages, and extended and nuclear families. This system is ordered into some form of dominant/subordinate class or classlike structure with economic as well as correlated social stratification. As my previous assertion suggests, I believe it is safe to say that this hierarchical monistic view is universally accepted by all interpreters of the Cahokian American Bottom archaeological record: kinship is basic, and the hierarchy is one of ranked kinship groups. If nonkinship social structures are recognized, they are subsumed as cults or warrior orders that serve and are subordinate to the leaders of the elite lineages (Emerson 1997a, 217–18, 225–27; 1997c, 35, 39–40).

Another essential conceptual component of this hegemonic account is the notion that the social system was modular in nature. As I define it, a modular social system is one based on exclusive territories, each territory owned and controlled by the monistic corporate groups that occupy it, thereby forming a polity. Since the polity is also often internally ranked, this suggests a nesting of modular polities making up a complex hierarchically ordered modular territory. In the case of a rigid hierarchical module, the total or near-total region would be embraced by the dominant political authority, such as Cahokia, constituting a single territorial module with defended boundaries and buffering frontier zones. It would be internally divided into ranked and nested boundaried modules ruled by competing and intermarrying chiefly elite lineages. In the case of a flexible, quasi-autonomous set of competing chiefdoms, the nesting of a lower-ranked modular polity within another would be historically contingent with changes, flip-flops, and so on, characterizing the history of intermodular and intramodular polity relations (1990, 21, 27; 1998, 12–14, fig. 1.5). Whether modules were rigidly or flexibly nested, any given territorial module was, in general, further divided into lands whose lesser owners or tenant lineages owed allegiance to the authorities of the local modular chiefdom system, right down to the individual family with its tenure of local fields ensured by its subordinate attachment to the local landowning or land-controlling chiefly lineage.

In short, all the different interpretations under this view implicitly or explicitly rely on this hierarchical monistic modular polity theoretical framework. As I pointed out earlier, rather than exhibiting radical disagreement in this area, disputes simply address the extent and degree of the hierarchy (two tiered, three tiered, four tiered), the nature of the monism (ranked lineages, subordinate (p.24) families linked as clients to elite lineages, nonkin-based cultlike sodalities subsumed to ranked lineages), and the extent and scope of the modular polities (small, competing chiefdoms, a single complex modular polity internally ranked and encapsulating the American Bottom, an extensive centralized modular polity reaching across the central Mississippi Valley, and so on).

When an independent argument is assumed to be needed to justify the basic hierarchical monistic modular polity framework, Cahokia is usually chosen as the major grouping, and the primary tactic is to invoke as prima facie evidence the labor that the mounds must have required. Monks Mound, along with the other hundred-plus mounds, as well as the palisade around the Grand Plaza, the levelling and filling required to construct this plaza, the large buildings that we know were constructed on the platform mounds and those found in more residential areas, as well as the great woodhenge circles, are pointed to as requiring massive amounts of labor. It is then argued that such labor required organization to schedule the labor tasks and discipline the laborers, provide the logistics of procuring food to feed them, and so on. Therefore, the argument goes, this organizational component necessarily required a leadership structure—and this structure, alienated from the mass of workers, would necessarily have had to be authoritative and would have had power over the laborers. Hence, ideological negotiation, imposition, and even coercion are assumed to have been necessary. All this is used to warrant the conclusion that only a strongly stratified, monistic modular political social system with a centralized decision-making power-over authority could have made the existence of Cahokia possible.

This is a persuasive argument, and (unlike Milner, who claims that Cahokia and similar mound sites required only a modest amount of labor for rather short periods by many individuals) I accept the claim that these mounds and associated features and facilities represent major inputs of labor, some of which were rather drawn out, while others were probably rather focused and short term.5 As such, construction of those sites would have required organization of a high order and the drawing inward of considerable and varied labor resources from across the American Bottom and, in all likelihood, also reaching into areas of the surrounding upland regions. However, it does not follow from this that only a centralized hierarchical monistic modular polity type of social system could support or, more importantly, promote and realize such a monumental construction program. In short, the quantitative aspect of Cahokia cannot be used by itself to sustain a claim of a necessary connection (p.25) between the archaeological record and the type of social organization that was responsible.

This hierarchical monistic modular polity account in all its versions has another major difficulty, this being accounting for the transformation of the egalitarian, kinship-based social system of the Late Woodland American Bottom into the radically non-egalitarian but still kinship-based hierarchical social system of the Mississippian period. Fortier and McElrath (2002, 176–77) have recently summarized the current status in this regard, arguing that there are two opposed solutions to this quandary. They term these the gradualist evolutionary and the revolutionary historical solutions, the latter being the one that they favor. They have carried out a comprehensive critique of the former as part of promoting the latter, stressing that the gradualist-evolutionary account has been the dominant framework since the 1980s. In their terms, this approach places primary causal weight on changes in the objective material factors, such as demographic expansion, environmental stresses and changes, and the imperatives of economic exchange. Hence, gradualism assumes that the convergence of changes in these factors is what stimulates human populations to adapt responsively. In these terms, therefore, the gradualist view claims that the abandoning of egalitarianism and the embracing of hierarchy was simply the most efficient social response to the convergence of these particular factors.

Fortier and McElrath then draw on the work of Pauketat and Emerson and (using Pauketat's terminology) present the alternative revolutionary historical approach by characterizing the processes generating the empirical data of the Mississippian emergence in ruptural terms, as mapping and manifesting a rather abrupt and, indeed, socially cataclysmic transformation. They minimize the significance of such exogenous factors as environmental and demographic changes, not by denying the relevance of these factors but by emphasizing that these can only be necessary and not sufficient causes of cultural transformations. Instead, Fortier and McElrath stress the role of ideology—understood as collective beliefs, values, and attitudes—as dominant. Hence for them Cahokia was the material outcome of the pursuit of dominance by an emergent elite promoting elite sectoral interests through ideologically inspired and driven political strategies, simultaneously generating a commoner class. Invoking Pauketat's “Big Bang” thesis, Fortier and McElrath (2002, 203) conclude that the emergence of Cahokia occurred as part of an abrupt and “profound social upheaval.”

(p.26) The approach I favor is also historical, but, as I make abundantly clear in this book, it strongly disagrees with a number of the positions taken by the historical processualist approach, such as the tendency for the latter to deny social developmental significance to the ecological dimension of human culture and society and the contrasting of gradual to ruptural transformation, not simply treating these as mutually exclusive but claiming that only the latter is a realistic account. Furthermore, while historical processualism rests strongly on the necessity of recognizing and treating human agency and practice as central in explanation (certainly a necessary dimension), I contend in this book that historical processualists have inadequately theorized these key notions as well as the importantly related concepts of ideology and cultural traditions. I further contend that this inadequate theorization is at the basis of the denial of historical relevance to the ecological dimension, almost forcing historical processualism to promote a rather radical subject-object dualism, thereby characterizing history as a series of ideologically inspired and abrupt social structural discontinuities and ruptures.

This gradual evolutionary/abrupt historical processual debate does raise an interesting question. Is it possible that I have misconstrued the situation? That is, does the debate itself invalidate my above claim, such that, as disputants, the two groups actually do not share the orthodox view of Cahokia and the American Bottom? I do not think so. In fact, rather than invalidating my claim, the substance of the gradual/ruptural debate confirms my point since at issue is how an egalitarian monistic modular polity type of social system was able to transform into a hierarchical monistic modular polity type of social system. Therefore, the debate presupposes a rather firm agreement on the basic nature of the social system undergoing change.

The Heterarchical Polyistic Locale-centric Account

The core of this book is the critical presentation and empirical grounding of the heterarchical polyistic locale-centric account. As I define it, a polyistic social system is one that is based on more than one fundamental social structural axis. While kinship certainly will be an essential part of a polyistic system, other socially recognized structural axes, such as gender and generation, also serve as constitutive bases for the formation of social organizations other than and in addition to the kinship-based types. In an important sense, such groups are bound by companionship, the complementary alternative of kinship. Sets of same-age/same-gender peers constitute companions that form groupings (p.27) generally referred to in anthropology as sodalities. The complementary nature of kinship and companionship sustains and is sustained by an arm's-length relationship between kinship and companionship groups that is best characterized as mutually recognized relative autonomy. The kinship-based and companionship-based groups constituting a polyistic social system recognize each other as autonomous in the sense that each treats the affairs of the other as outside its responsibility or authority. Hence, kinship groups, such as clans, do not typically intervene in the affairs of sodalities and vice versa. This does not mean that there are two separate social systems. Rather, in any given region there is a single social system constituted of the relations between these two autonomous institutions. Therefore, the local regional social system would comprise at least two parallel and autonomous social organizational networks that did, however, share the same population: that is, the individuals making up a population in a given region, such as the American Bottom, typically would participate in and be full members of both types of institutional groups, at least during some part of their lifetime.

Importantly, the mutually recognized autonomy between the two networks, kinship and companionship groups, is at the core of a heterarchical polyistic social system. Since I am arguing that autonomy, and not equality, is the operative principle of a heterarchical polyistic social system, differentiation and inequality not only are recognized but indeed often play a critical role in the organizational interaction. Furthermore, because of the mutual recognition among components of their respective autonomy, successful interaction between them, for example, to effect a regionwide collective activity, entails decision making based on consensus and mutual respect. Without consensus, there can be no effective collective action carried out by the parties constituting the social system. I elaborate on the implications of this core notion of autonomy for understanding heterarchy later.

As I also clarify in detail later, I treat the American Bottom from the Late Woodland through to the Mississippian period as occupied by a heterarchical polyistic social system that historically develops through several stages of settlement orientations, with Cahokia as, in many ways, the culmination of this process. Therefore, in an important sense this characterization already dispenses with the question of how the American Bottom Late Woodland kinship-based social systems could have become complex, since, in fact, a heterarchical polyistic social system is complex in its very nature. The questions that are raised, then, are how does such a system emerge, what kinds of objective and (p.28) intersubjective properties promote these changes, and what are the empirical data that serve as evidence that such a system actually existed? The rest of this book is the extended answer to these questions.

To sketch out the initial answers, I must first note that a heterarchical social system based upon autonomous kinship and companionship groups typically generates a range of specialized locales, usually domestic-based kinship and ritual-based companionship locales. Generically, I term the former clans and lineages and the latter cult sodalities. Such a social system, complex in its own right, is best conceptualized as multiple, parallel, and autonomous networks of specialized locales. Within this framework, social systems are networks of locales—and, of course, the spatial extension of a social system will tend to be relative to the nature of the groups occupying the locales of these networks. Logically presupposing and underwriting social systems based on open networks of locales linked by paths is the notion that territories are also open or inclusive. That is, in contrast to the notion of exclusive territorialism presupposed by and central to monistic modular polity systems, polyistic locale-centric social systems presuppose the notion (and its realization in practice) of inclusive territorialism. Therefore, in a heterarchical polyistic locale-centric social system, while the organic limitations and imperatives of human biological capacities will define the practical limits of territories for any given population, there will be no juridically defined territories with distinctive, formally recognized boundaries that are intrinsic to one network and that separate one network from the others. Instead, the locales are connected by paths into interrelated networks, and these networks of paths will be only roughly discriminated into zones that come under the responsibility of the occupying groups and, thereby, constitute their domains of active responsibility. Where the responsibility for paths shifts from one locale to the next is always somewhat vague since, in effect, there is always a sense of joint responsibility among locale groups for the paths that link them. A heterarchical polyistic locale-centric social system, therefore, is constituted of autonomous groups responsible for and occupying a range of different types of socially defined locales linked by recognized paths for which they jointly care.

Deontic Ecology

These two accounts constitute complementary opposites of the same archaeological record of the American Bottom. The premises that act as the framework of the hierarchical monistic modular polity account presuppose a more basic (p.29) framework, the theoretical adequacy of which has rarely even been questioned. I term it the exclusive territorial/proprietorial domain paradigm. Similarly, the heterarchical polyistic locale-centric account presupposes an equivalently broad and fundamental theoretical framework, which I term the inclusive territorial/custodial domain paradigm (Byers 2004, 9–10, 127–55). The key descriptive terms making up the titles of these two paradigms were carefully chosen to highlight the ecological aspect of the primary theoretical framework while emphasizing territoriality as being socially constructed. That is, I assert here that the relation that humans hold with the land, generally termed tenure, is an intrinsic extension of their cultural and social structures. Indeed, the human-environment relation is treated here as always a socialized and enculturated natural relation.

This social approach to ecology draws on Tim Ingold's (1987, 130–64) theoretical insights on tenure among foragers, pastoralists, and farmers. A central part of his thesis is to characterize tenure as the social relation that humans culturally construct with the environment. Taking a cross-cultural, anthropological perspective, he contrasts the typical inclusive territorialism of foragers and pastoralists to the exclusive territorialism of farmers. Inclusive territorialism is based on the premise that land is in the public domain and no party has the right to exclude others from the proper exploitation of the resources. Exclusive territorialism, in contrast, is the basis of treating land as a private domain. These two types of territorialism ground contrasting tenures that can be termed custodial and proprietorial tenurial systems, respectively, and presupposing these contrasting forms of tenure are contrasting types of world beliefs or cosmologies; contrasting deontic or ethical, moral, legal, and social constitutive principles (that is to say, ethos); and contrasting worldviews and ideologies, that is, in total, contrasting types of cultural traditions.

In these terms, instead of the ecological practices and relations of an occupying population being treated as somehow acultural (or being as natural as the resources that are exploited by them), the occupants are always constrained and enabled in these practices by their cultural traditions. I call this approach deontic ecology. Deontics constitute the ethical, moral, legal, and constitutive dimension of social life. Interrelated entitlements, rights, duties, obligations, responsibilities, and privileges—and the socially recognized principles underwriting them—make up the deontic sphere, and from this are generated the social positions that relate parties to each other and to the world around them. Presupposing the deontic sphere are the collective understandings about the (p.30) world and its nature and of how humans are situated in it. Therefore, the premise that necessarily follows is that a deontic ecology incorporates the ecological practices within the social and cultural structures of a community.

Since I have already given a general overview of the current status of the archaeology of the American Bottom, I will leave more detailed description and analyses as part of the hermeneutic spiral method and focus in the next few chapters on outlining a preliminary theoretical sketch of deontic ecology and the necessary background notions of cosmology, ethos, worldview, and ideology. At the same time I will elucidate the two contrasting paradigms. This will require considerable theoretical discussion. Deontic ecology cannot be treated independently of a theoretical view of action as symbolically constituted, and while certainly fully accepting the instrumental nature of material culture, such a view also requires treating material culture in symbolic terms. This necessitates an outline sketch of a theory of the nature of the symbolic usage of material culture, which I term the symbolic pragmatic view. The position that will be presented here is that symbolic pragmatics are constitutive of the action nature of regular ecological behaviors. Therefore, a fuller elucidation of practice requires summarizing a theory of action and agency. Using this as basic, I then develop a general theory of cultural traditions treated as relatively autonomous forms of collective beliefs, desires, perceptions, and intentions, which, respectively, I term cosmology, ethos, worldview, and ideology. This complex and well-motivated deontic ecological theory can then be used to construct the fundamental theoretical axioms and assumptions of both paradigms.

Following this theoretical elucidation, and to conform to the hermeneutic spiral methodology, the procedure I utilize starts with a critical analysis of the hierarchical monistic modular polity account of the pre-Mississippian period and Mississippian period archaeological records of the American Bottom. This is followed by a presentation of the alternative heterarchical polyistic locale-centric account by means of a series of interpretive models. Each model addresses a particular aspect of the postulated social system and is grounded on the relevant set of empirical data. The book terminates in an overall comparative critique of the two accounts, created by addressing important puzzles that have emerged and examining how each account explains these. The conclusion that follows is that, while still requiring much more work and development, the heterarchical polyistic locale-centric account comes off as a more coherent interpretation and explanation of the American Bottom archaeological record of the Mississippian period and its historical-cultural roots than does the hierarchical monistic modular polity account.


(1.) Fortier and McElrath (2002, 174) make reference to McElrath's coining the term “Little Bang” as “presaging the ‘Big Bang’ … denoting the appearance of Mississippian culture in this area.” This terminology is in keeping with their modeling the development of the social systems of the American Bottom in ruptural terms. I recognize the importance of the developments that they outline but wish to reserve for later developing the view that the material changes they note may be more adequately characterized as manifesting surface rather than deep structural changes constituting cultural and social ruptures.

(2.) Recently, Fowler (in Fowler et al. 1999, 59–60) has presented radiocarbon dates suggesting that monumental construction started at Cahokia in the later days of the Emergent Mississippian period.

(3.) This region is recognized as the outstanding and early expression of what is often referred to as the Southeastern Mississippian way of life. Because the primary focus of this book is the Mississippian period of the American Bottom, while I do touch on other examples of this way of life located primarily south and east of Cahokia, I will leave an in-depth study of the Southeast and its relations to the rest of the midcontinental region for another book.

(4.) Bhaskar 1978, chapter 3; 1979, 164–69) speaks of the hermeneutic spiral as the RRRE methodology. He takes this method as necessary when dealing with social systems because of their open nature (i.e., because of the impossibility of performing any realistic experimentation). The RRRE method is summed up in the following four phases: “(1) Resolution of a complex event into its components (causal analysis); (2) Redescription of component causes; (3) Retrodiction to possible (antecedent) causes of components via independently validated normic statements; and (4) Elimination of alternative possible causes of components” (Bhaskar 1979, 165, emphases in original).

(5.) In his attempt to deflate what he considers to be the more extreme claims about Cahokian-based power and size, Milner 1998, 148) minimizes labor requirements and population numbers: “It would have been a simple matter for a population of modest size to build the mounds. For example, it could have been accomplished by 470, 490, 310, and 68 laborers who worked 10 five-hour days each year during the Lohmann, Stirling, Moorehouse, and Sand Prairie phases, using durations of 100, 100, 50, and years.” He reiterates these points in a later paper. For him, mound “building could easily have been accomplished during events of some social ritual significance, when large numbers of people might have been gathered together. It would not be surprising (p.548) if certain people regularly sponsored festivals that simultaneously augmented their reputations and provided an opportunity to construct earthen mounds, large wooden buildings, and the like” (Milner 2003, 140).