The Ascent of Chiefs: Cahokia and Mississippian Politics in Native North America

By Timothy R. Pauketat | Go to book overview

Chapter 3

The Sociohistorical Context of
the American Bottom Region

Nonstratified and stratified native polities integrated local areas or entire regions in the North American Southeast and midcontinent during the late-prehistoric and early-historic periods (see Barker and Pauketat 1992). The "Mississippi period" is dated from about A. D. 1000 to the time of European contact, depending on the specific local historical setting (Smith 1986; Steponaitis 1986). In the American Bottom, there is little evidence of Mississippian inhabitants after A. D. 1400 (Jackson, Fortier, and Williams 1992).

Mississippian, then, is a term used by archaeologists to identify a late- prehistoric temporal period but also to identify an organizational "adaptation" and a configuration of cultural elements in the Southeast (see Brown 1985; Dye and Cox 1990; Ford 1974; Griffin 1985,1990; Knight 1986; Morse and Morse 1983; Muller 1986:170-178; Peebles 1990:26-29; Smith 1978a, 1978b, 1984, 1990b; Williams and Shapiro 1990). As an "adaptation," Mississippian is said to be a maize-field agricultural system featuring a hereditary manager-chief (see Muller 1986; Smith 1978a). As a configuration of cultural elements, it has been seen as a set of disparate traits (i.e., rectangular wall-trench houses, substructure platform mounds, and shell- tempered pottery) and a Native American socioreligious organization, ritual pattern, or worldview as it involved social hierarchy and agricultural fertility (see Brown 1985; Griffin 1967,1985,1990; Hudson 1984:6-11; Knight 1986).

Given the polysemy that underlies the present-day usage of Mississippian, judicious application of the term seems wise. If we discuss Mississippian economy, Mississippian society, Mississippian worldview, and a Mississippi(an) period all in the same breath, how can we hope to explain "its" emergence? The formalization of the "Emergent Mississippian" concept is but a recognition of this lack of isomorphism between the various material, social, and ideational realms (e.g., Kelly 1990a). "There is no single, simple, all encompassing and comforting theoretical explanation for the Mississippian emergence" (Smith 1990a:2) because there is no

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