The North American Middle Ages: Big History from the Mississippi Valley to Mexico



Project Overview: 

The sixth through the sixteenth centuries CE saw dramatic pan-North American social and cultural changes that need to be considered in broad global terms. There are important historical parallels and there were likely intermittent connections between eastern North America, the Trans-Mississippi South, and the Southwest and Mesoamerica. But most archaeologists have dismissed these parallels, assuming that the documented absence of regular trade relations between north and south means that there were no significant cultural exchanges either.

Compounding the problem, archaeologists often necessarily focus on specific regions and, in so doing, avoid big-historical constructs. In the process, they fail to appreciate the historical significance of one-off or irregular contacts and cultural exchanges between peoples and places north and south of the Rio Grande, leaving the general public scratching their heads over the apparent parallels: certain images, artifacts, and sites in the Mississippi valley really do look like things and places in Mesoamerica. Why?
To answer that question is important for both professional and popular audiences. We all need a new means of thinking about the big history of the continent that explains the seeming parallels. The North American Middle Ages (NAMA) project is that means. Such renewed global thinking begins with an outline of what was happening where and when. Focusing largely on the rise and demise of the American Indian city of Cahokia, NAMA seeks to articulate ongoing research on the origins of Cahokia—the American Indian city on the Mississippi—with the cultural histories of the Caddo peoples (in the Trans-Mississippi South of Arkansas-Oklahoma-Texas regions) and the diverse ethnic and language groups of greater Southwest and Mexico. The NAMA articulation will consist of graphic displays, site details, a timeline, textual summaries and a walk-through visualization of at least one portion of a Mississippian pilgrimage site in order to enable users to evaluate the possible historical connections for themselves.
Historical Context
In the Mississippi valley and eastern Great Plains, though historical connections inferred to exist between the Mississippi valley, Trans-Mississippi South, Southwest, and Mexico later in the Medieval Warm period began with a veritable North American Dark Ages. The spread of the bow and arrow in the 200s-800s CE, may have related to the social changes that brought the peoples of the Woodlands and eastern Great Plains out of this parochial period. By the 700s-800s, some peoples in Arkansas north to Illinois intensified the production of plant foods. Such developments may have also been related to the increasingly territorialized landscape of the Mississippi valley.

The culturally isolated Coles Creek mound-and-plaza centers of the lower valley were among the last to open up, as well as the last to adopt maize, a Mesoamerican crop likely transplanted in the east from the Southwest. In the eleventh century, and based on corn agriculture, the American Indian city of Cahokia coalesced rather abruptly in the central Mississippi valley. At the same time there was a concomitant transformation of Caddoan peoples in the trans-Mississippi South, with sites showing Caddo-Cahokian relationships including Gahagan, Spiro and possibly Crenshaw. The two were probably related, and there are hints of Mesoamerican referents at Cahokia along with indications that Cahokians and Cahokian influences were widely felt north and south.
Ongoing research by the Illinois State Archaeological Survey and by T. Pauketat and S. Alt’s Emerald Acropolis project suggests that Cahokia emerged as a result of religious pilgrimages, long distance travel, and migrations. Excavations at the Emerald Acropolis, the subject of 3D augmented reality efforts by Pauketat and Alt, reveal the importance of “hierophantic” experience in the lunar shrine buildings, temples, and medicine lodges at this site beginning around 1000 CE. People gathered there periodically, timed with key moonrise events that occurred during an 18.6-year long lunar cycle.

For NAMA, archaeological research results will be linked with visualizations so that we may properly evaluate the effects of space, the built environment, and human/astronomical movements on perception. The long-term utility of this project component cannot be exaggerated, especially at a site where the pole-and-thatch architecture has long since disappeared. The dimensionality gained by such a model will affect popular impressions and archaeologists’ final explanations of the historical parallels that now seem apparent between Cahokia, the Caddoan world and, ultimately, the Southwest, northern Mexico, and Mesoamerica far to the south.
That is, there are historical parallels if not also evidence of historical linkages between North American regions. Indirect evidence of this may exist in the form of the post-Cahokian Caddoan imagery from the northern Caddoan site of Spiro compared to the Southwest site of Paquimé in Mexico and from the Great Plains into the sixteenth century. There, and after the 1200s, artwork and symbolism increasingly drew on southern Mesoamerican referents, with the appearance of twin anthropomorphized serpent-men, Venus iconography, and the arrow sacrifice. Neither from this period or earlier is there evidence of sustained trade relations between any of the regional actors.

So what was the basis of the historical connections? Why did an awareness of distant peoples, and the associated imagery or religious practices of those peoples, seem to have a cultural impact on other people? The only way to appreciate this may be to attempt to virtually recapture the power of experience at places such as Emerald, Cahokia, Spiro, and other Mesoamerican, Caddoan, and Coles Creek sites.

Project Team: 

Timothy R. Pauketat
University of Illinois, Project Leader

Susan M. Alt
Indiana University, Project Collaborator

Thomas E. Emerson
Illinois State Archaeological Survey, Project Collaborator

Timothy K. Perttula
American Museum of Natural History, Project Collaborator

Jeffrey S. Girard
Northwestern State University, Project Collaborator

Project Storyboard:

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