Power and Place: Agency, Ecology, and History in the American Bottom, Illinois

Article excerpt

Is ecology or agency the principal imperative of the formation of complex societies? Using new survey data, the author shows how both interest in the development of the riverside settlement area of the American Bottom and how the different modern histories of the northern (industrial) and the southern (agricultural) American Bottom, have affected the survival of evidence and how this in turn has favoured a different emphasis in interpretation for each.

Keywords: Mississippian, Cahokia, chiefdoms, settlement patterns, historical ecology


The earthen mounds that dot the Eastern Woodlands of North America have fascinated archaeologists and antiquarians since they first began making observations about such features in the late eighteenth century. Early concerns with describing and classifying the mounds have given way to studies that use mounds as a point of departure to flame evolutionary discussions about variation in settlement patterns, hierarchies, and sociopolitical organisation on the one hand and the dynamics of ancient power, influence, leadership, and agency on the other hand.

To bridge the gap between these two archaeological approaches to the past, I present a model of the relationship between settlements, identified from mounds and surface artefact scatters, and the ecological resources available to them in a segment of the Eastern Woodlands of North America called the American Bottom (Figure 1). I then turn to a discussion of the asymmetric nature of archaeological and ecological data between the northern and southern halves of the American Bottom and the impact this imbalance has had on archaeological perceptions of the contemporaneous societies that once existed there. These perceptions range from those based largely on the effects of natural resources and the distribution of sites, to those that emphasise ideology and focus on individual sites. I suggest that both the agency and ecological perspectives are inadequate as applied to the American Bottom, and offer an integrated approach that begins with terrain and ecology, moves on to place as historically created and re-created space, and ends with a consideration of the people and their interactions.

Chiefdoms and the American Bottom

The majority of archaeologists working in the Eastern Woodlands of North America agree that during the millennium before European Contact, from the eleventh to sixteenth centuries, AD, the region was inhabited by diverse cultures that spanned the entire range of variation for middle-range hierarchical societies, from what might be called tribes to chiefdoms (Service 1962), but never made the transition to a state (e.g. Anderson 1994; Blitz 1993; Cobb 2001; Emerson 1997; Hudson 1997; King 2003; Knight & Steponaitis 1998; Milner 1998; Muller 1997; Muller & Stephens 1991; Pauketat 1994; Rountree 1988; Smith 2000; Welch 1991; for contrary views see Conrad 1989; Kehoe 1998:150-171; Gibbon 1991; O'Brien 1991; Sears 1968). One particularly instructive regional example for investigating the dynamic relationships among place, people, history and power is located within the American Bottom, a broad expanse of the central Mississippi River valley. What was arguably the most spectacular of the Mississippian-era (c. AD 1000-1600) Native American societies in eastern North America was located here, centred on the site of Cahokia.

The emergence of chiefdoms in the American Bottom began after AD 600, during the latter half of what is called the Late Woodland period (Figure 2). (The uncalibrated chronology (Bareis & Porter 1984) was used here to facilitate comparison with the southern American Bottom where there is an inadequate quantity of radiocarbon dates to permit calibrating the sequence.) During this time, people in the Mississippi River valley lived in small communities widely scattered across habitable landforms in the floodplain (Bareis & Porter 1984). …