Magazine article Natural History

America's Early Social Media

Magazine article Natural History

America's Early Social Media

Article excerpt

Just as we have our networks of "friends" and "followers" on such platforms as Facebook and Twitter, societies that existed in North America between 1,200 and 350 years ago had their own information-sharing networks. In the February 18 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, I published a study that used social network analysis to map social and political connections that helped unite friends and families across dozens of southern Appalachian villages, well before the arrival of European colonists. The findings are based on a messaging archive that is preserved not in bytes but in bits of pottery unearthed through archaeological digs at hundreds of Mississippian culture sites scattered across southern Appalachia. Focusing on subtle evolving changes in the technologies used to temper and strengthen pottery and the cultural symbols used to decorate them, the study provides a detailed chronological map of how new pottery techniques signified connections between these communities.

Between 1539 and 1541, Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto and his expedition became the first Europeans to traverse the interior of what is today the United States, specifically the southeastern states including Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas. In 1540, on the western slopes of the southern Appalachian Mountains, de Soto encountered a political landscape defined by dozens of autonomous communities bound together through a regional political system. This system was characterized by powerful chiefs and was integrated through the rule of a paramount chief at the town of Coosa, located in what is today northern Georgia. We know today that these communities were part of a Mississippian culture that expanded across most of the midwestern and southeastern United States reaching back upwards of 600 years before the arrival of de Soto's expedition.

Mississippian traditions began to emerge sometime around 900 ce in the Lower Mississippi Valley and American Bottom region stretching from west-central Illinois down through northern Louisiana and Mississippi. From these cultural heartlands, traditions including new religious practices, political economies dominated by maize agriculture, the institutionalization of socioeconomic inequalities, and the centralization of social and political leadership spread quickly across the southeastern United States. The best known Mississippian community, located in the American Bottom region just across the Mississippi River from what is today St. Louis, is Cahokia. Cahokia was the largest community north of Mexico and, as some argue, the only city that developed before the arrival of Europeans in what is today the United States. Indeed, Cahokia was the largest city in the history of the United States until Philadelphia overtook it in the late eighteenth century. In fact, at its height, between 1050 and 1200 ce, the population at Cahokia was larger than London's throughout the same period.

While de Soto's expedition passed through long after the abandonment of Cahokia, the ethnohistoric documentation of his encounters with indigenous communities, as well as the accounts from succeeding Spanish expeditions through the region, have long been held as a model for understanding Mississippian social and political organization. Archaeologists have employed these accounts to interpret archaeological findings and shed light on Mississippian socio-politics, including societies that were ancestral to those encountered by European explorers. Traditionally, the archaeology of these political systems has been studied primarily from the top down: interpretations have been based on evidence that either fits or does not fit a model that has been developed from European accounts. This approach has focused primarily on the activities, behavior, and histories of the elite echelons of Mississippian society and has been concerned mostly with top-down decision-making and political strategies. …

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