Implications of Sourcing Cahokia-Style Flint Clay Figures in the American Bottom and the Upper Mississippi River Valley

Article excerpt


The interaction between Cahokia and precolumbian peoples of the Upper Mississippi River Valley (UMRV) has long interested archaeologists. Many scholars have identified trade as a motivating factor in these relationships. Despite this, few studies have utilized archaeometric techniques to trace the movement of materials between Cahokia and the UMRV. In this study we used a portable infrared mineral analyzer (PIMA) to show that Mississippi an-period red stone figurines made in the American Bottom locality of Missouri flint clay were transported into the UMRV. The occurrence of broken fragments in nonmortuary, non-elite UMRV contexts is inconsistent with their having been distributed in a prestige goods exchange system. The nature and distribution of red stone figures in the UMRV favors a model of exchange operating within the context of politically or socially motivated fictive adoption rituals, as suggested by Hall (1991, 1997).

In this article we address a key interpretive problem linked to the study of prehistoric exchange-the sourcing of raw materials. Knowing the source of raw materials is essential for interpreting the significance of the goods that people may (or may not) have imported or exported. It is also essential for evaluating economic practices in general. The research described here focuses on exchange involving the large precolumbian complex of Cahokia and the surrounding American Bottom. We used a portable infrared mineral analyzer (PIMA) to identify the source of the raw material used in the manufacture of one set of artifacts that moved between Cahokia and Upper Mississippi River Valley (UMRV) societies-Cahokia-style red stone figures and pipes. This research is part of our broader interest in the precolumbian use and exchange of pipestones in the midcontinental United States (Emerson and Hughes 2000, 2001; Hughes et al. 1998). This research was made possible by the development of PIMA technology, which dramatically expedites analysis and is totally nondestructive. This technology has allowed us to examine specimens that were not previously available for analysis. In addition, we discuss the insights these analyses contribute to our understanding of midwestern late prehistoric intergroup relationships.

The realization that Cahokians may have been active agents in the origins and subsequent histories of late precolumbian groups in the UMRV emerged out of midwestern cultural historicism of the 1920s-1940s (e.g., Barrett 1933:370-372; Bennett 1945; Griffin 1960, 1966; McKern 1939, 1942, 1945). It was based on the identification of "Mississippian" traits in the UMRV, for example, at Aztalan and in the Apple River focus, that were thought to have originated at Cahokia. Within a culture historical framework, however, the "meaning" of such traits was primarily limited to observations of similarities and differences within material culture (especially ceramics), symbols, or settlement forms, the assumption being that the more similar the form, the closer the relationship. Scholarly interpretations of these similarities and differences varied from postulates of direct Cahokia out-migration to claims of minimal regional interaction. The researchers never resolved the classic culture historical homology versus analogy dilemma (Lyman et al. 1997; Smith 1990). Were the similarities noted between assemblages the result of shared cultural backgrounds or similar responses to similar stimuli? The inability of researchers to resolve this question was due both to inadequate archaeological knowledge and the limitations of their cultural historical framework. This dilemma still challenges archaeologists today.

In the last two decades, large-scale site-specific and regional archaeological investigations have provided detailed information on cultural content and chronology, both in the American Bottom and in the UMRV, allowing archaeologists to move toward a substantive evaluation of Cahokia-UMRV interaction. …