Social Complexity at Cahokia

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Welcome to the Social Complexity at Cahokia Wiki!

SFI is currently engaged in a project that explores the accumulation of complexity in human societies over the long term and on a global scale. In this context, Cahokia stands out. For example, a recent compilation of largest settlements from archaeological traditions around the globe identifies 29 traditions in which the largest settlement had a population of 12,000+ people. Of these, only two have been suggested to lack an associated regional administrative hierarchy: the Tripolye-Cucuteni culture of Ukraine (5500-4500 BP), and depending on one’s point of view, Cahokia. Recent research suggests Tripolye settlements could have had much smaller momentary populations (Chapman and Gaydarika, SAA 2013), thus leaving Cahokia as the only well-studied archaeological tradition containing a settlement of more than 12,000 people about which there are disagreements over its associated political and economic structure.

What this means is that understanding Cahokia is critical for broader understandings of the relationship, if any, between population-scale and political-economic complexity in human societies. If Cahokia is truly an outlier in this relationship, it would suggest the accumulation of complexity results from a number of somewhat independent processes. If, on the other hand, the political-economic complexity of Cahokia is similar to that of other archaeological traditions of comparable scale, it would suggest complexity emerges from a series of correlated processes. Understanding Cahokia is thus critical for progress on general theory regarding social complexity in humans.

In this workshop, we intend to define what is known about various dimensions of the Cahokia polity, clarify points of empirical and philosophical agreement and disagreement among specialists, identify additional data and/or studies that are needed to forge a narrower consensus, and consider the implications of Cahokia for a general theory of social complexity.

On the pages that follow (links above) is draft agenda and a list of readings that we hope you will complete (most of you are already familiar with them; indeed, many were written by participants!) before coming to the meeting. Copies will be available in the SFI library for reference during the meeting.

Listed below are the general topics we hope to cover during the working group meeting, along with associated specific questions. We ask each of you to consider these questions, and come to the meeting with your own set of answers, along with supporting evidence (where possible). We do not expect formal papers or written answers; rather, we hope you will consider these questions carefully and be prepared to engage in an informed discussion of them.

1) Territorial Organization

  • What area was integrated into a single Cahokian polity?
  • What was the relationship between Cahokia and its neighboring mound centers?
  • What were the roles or functions of Cahokian “outlier” communities?
    • local (e.g. Knoebel Site, Emerald Mounds)
    • regional (e.g. Spoon River Focus)
    • macro-regional (e.g. Aztalan, Trempleau)

2) Population

  • What was the population of Cahokia itself?
  • What was the population of the Cahokian polity?

3) Economic Organization

  • How was the population of Cahokia supported?
  • Were there markets at Cahokia?
  • What was the organization and scale of craft production in the Cahokian polity?
  • What was the organization and scale of trade/exchange in the Cahokian polity?
  • What accounts for the wide areal distribution of Ramey ceramics?

4) Political Organization

  • How many levels of organizational hierarchy existed in the Cahokian polity?
  • How were conflicts adjudicated?
  • Was there internal warfare? External warfare?
  • Was taxation or tribute extracted?

5) Social Organization

  • How many levels of social stratification were present in the Cahokian polity?
  • What were the roles/activities of members of the highest social strata?
  • What were the roles/activities of members of the middle or lower social strata?

6) Religious Organization

  • Were there religious specialists at Cahokia?
  • Were there anthropomorphic gods?