Regardless of exactly how many people lived at Cahokia, it’s clear from recent research that the population of the site and its immediately surrounding area grew immensely in a short period of time in the eleventh century AD. As Timothy Pauketat points out in the 2003 article that I was discussing earlier, the scale of this growth is much too great to be due to natural increase of a local population. Thus, even though there was a local population of some size in the American Bottom in the immediately preceding period that presumably contributed to the growth of the Cahokia site, it’s pretty clear that there must have been quite a bit of immigration in addition to account for the huge influx of people.
Who were these people, and where did they come from? It can be fiendishly difficult to untangle migrations in the archaeological record, even in conditions like this where it seems clear that there must have been some migrating going on. Archaeology depends mainly on the remains of material culture, which can change quite rapidly under conditions of change and stress such as those that often obtain during and immediately after migrations. Nevertheless, there do seem to be some clues to where at least some of the immigrants into the American Bottom may have originated. These clues mostly revolve around the type of material culture on which archaeologists most often rely to understand prehistoric societies: pottery.
Pots can’t automatically be equated with people, of course, but certain types of pottery are sufficiently distinctive and limited in distribution that they may serve as markers for population movements. In the case of Cahokia, Pauketat and others have pointed out that one of the many pottery types found in deposits dating to the period of population growth bears a striking resemblance to a type known as “Varney Red Filmed” found in northeast Arkansas and southeast Missouri around the same time. Importantly, these pots are often tempered with ground shell. Shell-tempering would later become one of the defining traits of Mississippian societies throughout the South and Midwest, but it appears particularly early in the area where Varney Red Filmed was made, starting around AD 800. According to another study reporting on evidence of Varney-like ceramics found at sites in Wisconsin, examples of Varney wares have been found in the American Bottom starting shortly before AD 1000. While these early finds are considered trade wares, by the time Cahokia emerges about 50 years later similar ceramics are apparently being made there, as shown by analysis of the clays in them, and some shell-tempered sherds that seem to be made from American Bottom clays were identified at the aforementioned Wisconsin sites, attributed to a short-lived influx of immigrants from the American Bottom, perhaps those who lost out in the struggles that led to the rise of Cahokia.
Returning to Pauketat’s 2003 article, he finds that not only are locally produced but clearly Varney-influenced pots being made at Cahokia itself in the mid-eleventh century, some of the sites in the rural Richland Complex to the east, which was settled rapidly around the same time, show the same high proportions of Varney sherds as some areas of Cahokia itself, implying that at least some of the people who established the Richland Complex came from the American Bottom. The relationship between these people and those at Cahokia remains difficult to entangle.
One of the hallmarks of the American Bottom in the period immediately preceding the rise of Cahokia is remarkable diversity in ceramic style. Varney is only one of the many local and “foreign” ceramic styles present in sites during this period, and it seems clear that people were coming to the area from all over. Nevertheless, the important similarities between Varney ceramics and those that soon begin to spread along with other attributes of Mississippian culture implies that northeast Arkansas and southeast Missouri may have played an important role in developing the complex of ideas that we today call “Mississippian” and that an increasing body of research suggests initially spread through the influence of Cahokia. Studying the archaeology of these areas during the period before and during the rise of Cahokia is therefore potentially important.
Ceramic sourcing using Instrumental Neutron Activation Analysis has been one line of evidence applied to sites in southeast Missouri during this period, not least because the University of Missouri happens to have a research reactor that has been widely used for sourcing of ceramics and other archaeological artifacts. One paper from this effort, published in 2000, showed that this technique can indeed distinguish among sherds made from clays from three major physiographic regions of southeastern Missouri: the Ozark Highlands and the Western and Eastern Lowlands in the Mississippi Valley. The results showed in addition that there was extensive movement of vessels, including shell-tempered Varney wares, between the Western Lowlands and the Ozark Highlands. It can’t be determined from this data if this reflects trade or migration, but it certainly shows interaction between the two. There is also some limited evidence, in the form of possibly transitional sherds tempered with a mix of shell and sand or limestone, that the shell-tempering technique may have developed here rather than being imported from elsewhere. Given the importance of shell tempering later on, the idea that it may have been an indigenous development among Varney potters may have important implications for lines of cultural influence.
This is all very suggestive of the idea that some of the people who immigrated to the American Bottom around AD 1050 came from the Varney area and brought with them some ideas that they had developed there or perhaps borrowed from other groups. People were certainly coming from other directions too, and their ideas may have been just as influential even if they were less visible archaeologically. In addition, there was a longstanding local population in the American Bottom that surely played a role as well. All of these people likely contributed to the unique flowering of the greatest cultural and political center north of Mexico that began soon afterward. Untangling exactly what contributions each group made, and figuring out in more detail who they were, are bigger challenges than simply tracing where they may have come from and what their pots looked like, of course.
Lynott, M., Neff, H., Price, J., Cogswell, J., & Glascock, M. (2000). Inferences about Prehistoric Ceramics and People in Southeast Missouri: Results of Ceramic Compositional Analysis American Antiquity, 65 (1) DOI: 10.2307/2694810
Pauketat, T. (2003). Resettled Farmers and the Making of a Mississippian Polity American Antiquity, 68 (1) DOI: 10.2307/3557032