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Mississippian/Lower Illinois River Valley

The record of research in the Mississippian and Lower Illinois River Valley is voluminous with hundreds of excavated sites producing thousands of burials that have been studied. It is also an area where there is a rich context for daily life and changes over time with a large amount of artifacts and architectural remains. Much like the Pueblo Southwest, this is a region where archaeologists have been working for a long time, and so there is little hope to do justice to summarizing all that is known about adult health and patterns of violence (Cook 2012).

This region in the periods leading up to the 1300s is important for understanding both the costs of the transition to agriculture from foraging as well as the effects of the increasing reliance on maize agriculture over time. In addition to this, this region was host to some of the larger and more densely populated early towns in the U.S. These larger communities were ruled over by chiefdoms that extracted tribute and created inequality among the local populace particularly at places such as Cahokia outside of St. Louis in Missouri (Pauketat 1994).


North of Cahokia on the Illinois River was the site of Dickson Mounds, which included several burial mounds from which more than 3,000 burials were recovered. Dickson Mounds was part of what is called “the Mississippian tradition,” which is a network of agricultural groups that spreads throughout most of the region (Goodman and Armelagos 1985). The dead were buried consistently in burial mounds over time, so researchers have been able to look at the shifting health effects of the transition to agriculture and intensification of maize dependence over time. Infections in the form of periosteal reaction increased dramatically between the earlier groups and the later ones, and this has been attributed to people living in close and cramped quarters sharing transmissible bacterial infections such as staph and strep (Goodman et al. 1984). The frequencies jumped from 26% in the early groups to 84% in the later agriculturalists. Anemia was also a major health problem for primarily children and young adult females (Lallo et al. 1977). The patterning of this suggests it results from a combination of nutritional problems and other things that can compromise the absorption of dietary mineral such as diarrhea.

Osteoarthritis was present in adults aged older than 35 with the age of onset being earlier for the later intensive agriculturalists (Martin et al. 1979). Even though osteoarthritis is a function of age and wear and tear on the joint systems, it is also influenced by cultural and ecological variables. In this case, agriculturalists at Dickson Mounds carried out more strenuous activities causing these degenerative conditions to begin earlier in their adulthood (around the age of 25—30) and to affect more adults (70%) than the earlier foraging/transitional groups where only 40% of the adults had osteoarthritis. Individuals with multiple joint involvements statistically demonstrated a higher percentage of infectious lesions as well (Martin et al. 1979: 61).

Overall, health decreased over time in the Mississippian region. Goodman and Armelagos (1985) showed that adults who were stressed as children lived shorter lives on average. Life expectancy at birth was 26 years in the early groups, and it decreased to 19 in the later Mississippian periods. The causes of poorer health are due to increased population density and sedentism (Goodman et al. 1984). In addition to this, people at Dickson Mound may have been trading food surplus from their bountiful region to the city of Cahokia in exchange for highly prized items such as copper-covered ear spools and marine shell necklaces. As Goodman and Armelagos state, “the trading of needed food for items of symbolic value, to the point where health is threatened, may not seem to make sense,” but in fact, people do this all the time (1985: 15). This kind of trading suggests the possibility for inequality as well, where some individuals are positioned to control the flow of goods while others must work hard to produce items for trade.

Tracking status and health in antiquity is often difficult because we must rely on settlement patterns to distinguish central from peripheral groups, and mortuary behavior to distinguish high- from low-status individuals (Figure 5.5) . As an example, Powell (1988) presents a detailed analysis of status and health for prehistoric Mississippian cultures at Moundville in Alabama. Moundville was highly stratified, and these divisions within the cultural system were assumed to have had an impact on health for different segments of the population. Although elite males were found to be taller than nonelite males, no stature differences were found for females. Furthermore, there were no statistically significant differences in the rates of infections or nutritional pathologies among the different groups. Based on an analysis of strontium, elite males were suggested to have had a diet richer in meat. Powell contrasts these findings among different status groups with neighboring

A diorama of a Cahokia elite personage. Adapted from the original photo by Herb Roe — (own work)

FIGURE 5.5 A diorama of a Cahokia elite personage. Adapted from the original photo by Herb Roe — (own work).

chiefdoms. At Chucalissa, elite males were found to have more fractures than any other subgroup (Powell, 1988: 194). Powell’s detailed analysis of status and health for the prehistoric Mississippian chiefdoms provides a cautionary note that the relationships among variables may be complex and not easily identified.


In the Southwest, conflict was not very well organized or patterned, although there is plenty of evidence for violence. For cities like Cahokia, there was very organized warfare complete with rules of military engagement that was lorded over other smaller and less organized neighbors in the region. Pauketat summarizes these differences when he states that “[b]efore Cahokia, tensions between kin groups or villages would occasionally boil over into small-scale conflicts of blood feuds, a few people might have lost their scalps and their lives in the occasional skirmish or ambuscade, but organized military action was essentially unknown up to 1050 (at Cahokia)” (2009: 165). This captures well the difference between what is called endemic warfare in the Southwest with the kinds of warfare practiced in the Missis- sippian region. Cahokia likely had standing armies composed of warriors who used mace-like war clubs and shields to carry out combat against their foes.

A review of 109 Mississippian settlements indicated that they were palisaded from about 1050 onward and prior to that less than 5% had these safety structures (Milner 1999: 123). This period has been discussed in great depth as being a time of raging warfare across the region. The appearance of fortified settlements and chief- doms (a political structure based on kinship and formed by rigid hierarchies) during this time suggested fierce competition among various groups (Steinen 1992). Powell (1992) details the high prevalence of trauma in the elite males that reflects their role in warfare and their attainment of high status through being victorious in battles.

Milner provides an exhaustive summary of victims of violence for the Missis- sippian region using the following criteria, “embedded points in bones, distinctive purposeful trauma such as cranial vault fractures from celts, or signs of mutilation including scalping” (1999: 112). He found that for one cemetery from Norris Farms 16% of the 264 individuals buried there were violently killed, all but two were adults, and most were males. Blunt force trauma from heavy weapons or being shot with arrows was the major cause of death. Milner points out that victims were bludgeoned more than it would take to kill them and that bodies were mutilated due to the removal of scalps, limbs, and heads (1999: 114). Milner notes that the individuals who died violently at Norris Farms were also those most afflicted by other pathologies such as osteoarthritis, and so the ability to fight off the attacks or flee was hindered by poor health.

Koziol (2012) uses the treatment of captives and slaves as an example of the ways that trauma can vary significantly among individuals within the same group. Her research focused on Mound 72 at Cahokia, where captives and slaves were likely buried after being forced to participate in a theatrical and ritualized performance involving torture and execution (Figure 5.6) . As she states, “the Mound 72 story goes beyond representations of elite hierarchy and enactments of hero-figures” (2012: 237). A large number of females (118) were buried together and biological distance studies have shown that these women were not local to the Cahokia area. Female captives came from outside the communities, likely through warfare and raiding, and lived for a relatively short time at Cahokia before being killed. Females were sacrificed in a performance that would have had many witnesses from Cahokia in attendance.

Chronic warfare in the Mississippian region caused heavy loss of life, up to one- third of all adult deaths (Milner et al. 1991). It also played a role in captive taking and sacrifice of large numbers of adults captured from other groups within the region.

Artist’s re-creation of the sacrifice at Mound 72. Adapted from the color representation by Herb Roe — (own work)

FIGURE 5.6 Artist’s re-creation of the sacrifice at Mound 72. Adapted from the color representation by Herb Roe — (own work).

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