Book Review: The Cahokia Chiefdom: The Archaeology of a Mississippian Society


The Cahokia Chiefdom: The Archaeology of a Mississippian Society. George R. Milner. 1998 Washington: The Smithsonian Institution Press. 216pp.; 69 figs. ISBN 1560988142 UK£31.25/ US$40.00.

William Hampton Adams (Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia) bill.adams@flinders.edu.au

This book arose from the need to synthesize and summarize the multitude of rescue archaeology projects in and around the St. Louis, Missouri area. Owing to the rescue archaeology being confined to specific endangered land parcels, and owing to the lack of a comprehensive research design for the region, the research lacks integration or cohesion. Milner is commended for attempting to make sense of such disparate material, however one might quibble with any conclusions he reaches.

This area was the center of the Cahokia chiefdom, part of the broader Mississippian culture dating from the 11th to 16th centuries AD, found across the southern and midwestern United States. Cahokia contained more than a hundred earthen mounds, including Monks Mound, the largest earthen structure in the world. The preservation of these mounds was advocated at least by 1835, but land developers won the battle, leveling most of the mounds. The area around Monks Mound was preserved privately and then as a state park.

Milner describes the meandering of the Mississippi River in the Cahokia area during the 19th and 20th centuries as a backdrop for reconstructing earlier riverine environments. These meanderings produced oxbow ponds and wet lands with abundant food resources. He examines those wild resources based upon the ethnobotanical and zooarchaeological evidence, concluding that despite living in a rich environment, the people of Cahokia had a tenuous existence (p. 78). Given the richness of the natural environment and the fact that they were growing maize and other crops in a fertile alluvial soil, I would argue that their existence was no more tenuous than that of any other people, unless, of course, their population had exceeded the carrying capacity of the land. Yet Milner accepts the lower population estimates. Milner does a good job of summarizing various aspects of material remains, including stone tools, pottery, beads, structures, burials, and mounds.

Milner reviews the debate on whether Cahokia should be viewed as a chiefdom, a complex chiefdom, or a state, ultimately concluding it was a complex chiefdom. Those who follow the model for a state level of organization suggest Cahokia was a ranked society with human sacrifices of slaves. They portray Cahokia as the paramount central place in a hierarchy of villages, possibly with four levels. Its hinterland for tribute of food was several hundred kilometres and its trading network covered the mid-continent. Milner provides an alternative model, based on recent work that suggests that earlier population estimates were grossly exaggerated and that the control over a large area has been misinterpreted. In this view, the Cahokia area is seen as self-sufficient in food production and its interaction sphere bringing trade goods was little different from the dispersal of trade items in earlier and later periods. To Milner, these items were traded not tribute. He sees relatively independent chiefdoms around Cahokia as allied with it under a paramount chief at Cahokia. While he does not completely reject Cahokia having had a state level of political organization, Milner argues that such complexity is not required. A complex chiefdom fits the available evidence just as well.

The book is a well-written summary of Cahokia and more generally of the Mississippian culture. While of great interest to prehistorians, the book is sufficiently readable for the general public to enjoy. This should stimulate debate and provide a context for developing better research designs for work in that region.