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Illinois Issues Summer Book Selection

archaeology in the Midwest


Thomas E. Emerson and R. Barry Lewis, eds. Cahokia and the Hinterlands: Middle Mississippian Cultures of the Midwest. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1991. Pp. 357 with illustrations, references and index. $49.95 (cloth).

Mysterious mounds, huge flat-topped pyramids clustered together with smaller mounds of other shapes, puzzled the first travelers to the great river region of the Midwest. Early theories about the origin of these mounds, including speculation about their construction by a lost race of prehistoric giants, gave way to a contemporary conclusion supported by archaeological data: Once there existed a Native American culture of enormous complexity and influence in this area.

Cahokia and the Hinterlands: Middle Mississippian Cultures of the Midwest, edited by Thomas E. Emerson, chief archaeologist with the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, and R. Barry Lewis, an anthropologist at the University of Illinois, compiles the most recent information about the influence of Cahokia, an archaeological site in southwestern Illinois generally held to be the central focus and ideal site type of the Mississippian culture.

However, this book takes a new view, looking beyond the Cahokia central area to what the editors call the hinterlands, places and times where the cultural artifacts (pottery, tools, living sites and food remains) of the Mississippians begin to mutate, differ significantly from the ideal and finally disappear. The book focuses through the double lenses of space and time, showing how variations in artifacts trace the flowering and the withering of Mississippian influence, both at Cahokia and in distant areas.

In a mid-volume essay, "Some Perspectives on Cahokia and the Northern Mississippian Expansion," Emerson laments the shortage of "'old-fashioned' data-oriented archaeology," and lists four major research challenges of the Cahokia area: mound chronologies, site organization through time, site geomorphology (geologic study of the evolution and configuration of land forms) and cultural context with other American Bottom regional sites. Lewis, on the other hand, views Cahokia from a distance, his only firsthand experience with the site "one short trip ... to guide a visiting archaeologist from Siberia." This dual perspective, looking out from Cahokia with Emerson and looking in from the hinterlands with Lewis, emphasizes once again the value of studying the fertile edge, whether of an ecosystem or a culture.

One of the most important tracings in the book is the development first of Emergent Mississippian and then of Middle Mississippian culture, not by invasion from outsiders, but rather from the diffusion of changes in the traditional ways of life of Late Woodland people who occupied the same geographic area. Allied in time and place with the emergence of early Mississippian culture, the Woodland people's culture was also marked by increased reliance on cultivated maize as a basic food, which seems to have been an important enabling factor in development. Emerson and Lewis admit the limitations of current knowledge and the need for more data to clarify how intrusion and diffusion affected interaction between Mississippian subgroups.


Photos courtesy of Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site

(left photo) Mary Bell, a Choctaw from Tennessee, stirs hominy over a wood fire in one of many demonstrations.

(right photo) Heritage America Days 1990, at Cahokia Mounds State Historic site in Collinsville, begin with a ceremonial dance.

July 1991/IIlinois Issues/25

Illinois Issues Summer Book Selection

An extensively studied intrusive site, Aztalan in southeastern Wisconsin, is the focus of an article by Lynne G. Goldstein and John D. Richards, who propose visualizing sites as discrete and regional rather than as variant examples of the central culture. This technique allows archaeologists to pursue a site's individual characteristics rather than viewing it as part of a whole; such a tight focus gleans data valuable for eventually connecting the distant site to the center. Goldstein and Richards explain why Aztalan is located on the Crawfish River on the basis of their analysis of the ecosystem, but admit their inability to provide evidence of the part played by Aztalan within the greater Mississippian system.

On the other side of the intrusion/diffusion dichotomy, Charles R. Moffat presents data which support the emergence of typical Mississippian culture from the concordant growth of several centers rather than one. The regionalized Mississippians of the Lower Wabash Valley "exerted strong influence over much of eastern Illinois and may have limited Cahokia's influence in this direction." Moffat's findings indicate that Mississippian culture was caused by diffusion outward from regional centers rather than intrusion into outlying areas from the main Cahokia site.

The excellent graphics in the book, including regional and site maps, photographs of artifacts and drawings which compare pottery types, allow the reader to trace changes which occurred as the Mississippian culture evolved. Comparison sketches of pottery rims, for instance, provide vivid, concrete examples of differences in style over time and space which would not otherwise be apparent to the lay reader. Maps place archaeological sites within regional and ecological contexts.

Readers interested in the archaeology of the Midwest will enjoy Cahokia and the Hinterlands. The comparison of center and edge sharpens the focus of our understanding of Mississippian culture, but also clarifies the need for more research into the still-mysterious ways of the Mississippian people we know only by the mounds and artifacts they left behind.

Kathleen King, associate professor of English at Idaho State University, is the author of Cricket Sings, a 1983 novel about the Cahokian culture published by Ohio University Press and available in paperback since 1987.

26/July 1991/Illinois Issues

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