Cahokian Indians: America’s Ancient Warriors

No one at that hour heard the paddle strokes on the water. Not a soul sensed the brush of human forms against rows of ripened corn, shrouded in the pre-dawn mist that drifted down from the village. The sentry was aroused too late–along with the villagers–by the twang of bowstrings, the thud of clubs, and the whoops and cries coming from the temple. The cacophony of sounds quieted to groans as the sun’s first rays pierced the morning. By then the assailants, regaled in feathered garb and paint, had retreated into the mist. Later that morning, taking stock of their losses, the villagers found arrows that confirmed the source of their misfortune–Cahokia, far to the north.

Dead were young warriors and high-ranking elders. Wrecked and defiled were the large granaries once filled with winter stores and the community temple atop the earthen mound. Among the missing were women and children. The painted intruders from Cahokia, meanwhile, were paddling north in their oversized cypress canoes, flushed with success and weighed down with temple objects and captives. For them, a potential rival had been eliminated.

Days like this would have ranked among the most notable victories for America’s ancient war parties. The first such armed foray may have been dispatched from Cahokia one summer day around a.d. 1050. While archaeologists do not know exactly when or how such raids took place, they do know that for the next century tribes near Cahokia were subdued if not subordinated. To be certain, raids and assassinations were not unknown among Indians in the ninth and tenth centuries, but feuds between rival high-ranking families only infrequently erupted into large-scale violence in what is now southwestern Illinois. Few common people, however, were ever killed as a result of these feuds, since the combatants probably included only the highest-ranking young adults from the villages in the region.

Ordinary farmers were primarily concerned with their plots of maize, squash, sunflower, and weedy seed crops. With these crops, they paid debts or gave gifts to their kin or neighbors, especially their high-ranking chiefs. The chiefs, in turn, mediated disputes and performed religious functions on behalf of the villagers. Such was the sedentary existence of the tribes living along this middle stretch of the Mississippi River until that fateful season–the Cahokian summer–midway through the eleventh century.

During that summer Cahokian politics exploded, and the ripple effect was felt throughout the Southeast and Midwest for centuries thereafter. That season was the moment when an unknown Cahokian chief–guardian of the surrounding lands, religious figurehead, and adjudicator of a town of a thousand-plus individuals–came into direct control of all the lands, labor, and fighting forces of the adjoining chiefdoms of the alluvial plain near present-day St. Louis. Never before had control been so consolidated. Just how this person had risen to power is uncertain, although the means probably fell within the traditional recipes of chiefly intrigue, subterfuge, and thuggery. Regardless, the formerly independent chiefs of small neighboring communities seem to have been swept away that summer and replaced by loyal and subordinate followers of Cahokia.

Archaeologists are only now beginning to piece together the parts of the early Cahokian puzzle. It is known that small chiefdoms existed in the region prior to Cahokia’s dramatic regional takeover. Such chiefdoms might have comprised a few hundred people each, but no one knows their names. The effects of Cahokia’s consolidation of power, however, can be seen in the archaeological record. Clan by clan and village by village, Cahokia absorbed the region. Presumably, Cahokians believed that they were the rightful heirs to the known world and that bows, arrows, and warclubs were a justifiable means of achieving that birthright. Having gained total control of the area, the triumphant Cahokians used their rapidly burgeoning labor force to rebuild their large village into a grand regional capital that sprawled for more than two square miles.

At the capital’s heart, and covering some forty-eight acres, was the largest public plaza on the continent. The square was created by scraping soil from the tops of natural ridges and filling in the low ground. A huge, four-terraced mound rose above this plaza, built a little higher each year until a century later it had risen to one hundred feet. It became one of the largest entirely earthen pre-Columbian monuments in the Americas. Other rectangular, flat-topped pyramids of earth lined the four sides of the grand plaza. Three other large plazas–each surrounded by more mounds, smaller plazas, and neighborhoods populated with people who, just a few years earlier, had lived in small agrarian villages beyond Cahokia’s grasp–emanated out from the central plaza.

As Cahokia’s strength grew, war parties were sent from the capital to further expand the borders of Cahokian control. After a raid, fleets of returning war canoes glided to the bank of a stream that fronted the mounds and plazas of the capital. With prisoners in tow, the Cahokians ascended the bank onto a plain of thatched roofs. The victorious war parties passed among the houses and the edges of the plazas and giant earthen pyramids. Atop the pyramids were elaborate pole-and-thatch temples and the homes of the chiefs and their high-ranking families, each house festooned with furs, feathers, and mollusk shells glinting in the daylight. Tall posts in the plazas–carved cypress and cedar logs up to a yard in diameter–may have been topped with the severed arms, legs, scalps, and heads of Cahokia’s victims, a few of which have been found by archaeologists at Cahokia. At the foot of the main plaza’s stupendous pyramid of earth (now called Monks Mound after the Trappist monks who lived there in the early 1800s), onlookers, warriors, and captives would have arrived at the inner sanctum of the Cahokian world.

As the scope of Cahokia’s conquests increased, the population of the capital grew to ten thousand in just a few years. Villagers relocated from the surrounding countryside to take advantage of the religious and economic resources available in the capital. Some of the newcomers may have been encouraged to do so, perhaps fearing retribution if they refused. A few beheaded and delimbed bodies have been found at Cahokia, sufficient reason perhaps–for those who needed one–to capitulate. For most, however, no reason was required. Various local kin groups from outlying villages were already related to Cahokians by blood or marriage, so accepting a consolidated Cahokian order was considered an extension of their sense of propriety, kinship, marriage, and community.

Of course, there were incentives that encouraged accommodation. Each summer after 1050, rewards were handed out to loyal clans during giant rituals, social gatherings, and clan-against-clan games conducted in the enormous central plaza. All who attended became absorbed into the Cahokian monolith. Why would clan members not accept the valuable exotic objects, finely crafted ornaments, and decorated pottery vessels–never mind the ready supply of food, drink, and medicine–available to Cahokia’s residents, who, in a similar turn of noblesse oblige, might patronize their own kin? Besides, were they not all–residents and rural kin–one community? Did not the entire population sing the same songs, dance the same dances, play the same games, eat from the same pots, and labor on the plazas and pyramids when they met at Cahokia?

On this odd footing of political violence, historical circumstance, and community ritual was built North America’s so-called Mississippian civilization. There were other capitals in the Midwest and Southeast, far removed in time and space from Cahokia but called Mississippian after the river along which they clustered. These later chiefdoms rose and fell in the lower Mississippi River valley and across the wooded hills and plains of the Southeast during the five centuries that followed the Cahokian summer. Each chiefdom was organized by warrior-chiefs who administered the produce, labor, and rites of an agricultural people. Political fortunes, local economies, and the very fabric of social life hinged as much on the outcomes of their endeavors, violent and otherwise, as they did on the production of agricultural crops.

The Cahokian site, however, was the largest and earliest–five times the size of the next largest Mississippian capital, Moundville in present-day Alabama, and more than ten times the size of ordinary chiefly communities. Yet there is little direct evidence of warfare of the sort practiced by later tribes, as recorded by Spaniards in the sixteenth century. Few Cahokian skeletons reveal obvious war wounds, and no dead bodies have been found sprawled out in the ashes of incinerated buildings, as are found in remains of some early societies around the world. How, then, could Cahokians, in an archaeological eyeblink, consolidate thousands of formerly scattered people and mobilize them to construct a planned capital of unheard of proportions? Why did people living a low-risk, sedentary, semiautonomous life in villages abandon their settlements, along with traditional forms of housing and village organization, to live under a radically different set of circumstances at Cahokia?

The answer, now becoming apparent through archaeology, is that Cahokia’s inclusive politics (and the threat of warfare) was sufficient to build a civilization. Cahokia, it seems, was founded not as an aristocratic regime but as a large-scale coalition of high- and low-ranking interests led by warrior chiefs. All could benefit from a Cahokian order–and many did, as evidenced by Cahokia’s redistribution and reward of valuables to its people. So many benefited, in fact, that no perimeter fortifications were needed around the capital for more than a century following the Cahokian summer. Even the burials of the early overlords display a curious communal quality; being chief meant being part of the larger community. Chiefly symbolism was a group phenomenon; the symbolic objects themselves–ax heads, beads, pots, medicines, and more–were manufactured by common Cahokians and distributed throughout the region from the capital.

This symbolism, however, also reveals Cahokia’s dark side, for it included a suite of novel tools, weapons, and birds-of-prey imagery suggestive of group violence. New, standardized styles of ax heads, knives, and arrowheads were manufactured in prodigious numbers by local artisans as part of the social and symbolic changes that followed hard on the heels of the Cahokian summer.

Arrowheads in particular stand out as radically altered in style and quantity. Two distinct and uniform styles–a barbed, harpoon-like bone tip and an elongated, finely chipped, and often serrated stone triangle–have been found in great numbers at Cahokia. It is unlikely that either type of arrowhead was made to represent or be used in hunting game. Many depictions of raptor feathers appear on various Cahokian objects, as does arrow fletching. These were the icons and arrows of war, symbolizing the prowess of Cahokians and perhaps the threat of Cahokian retribution. Hundreds of exaggerated versions of these arrowheads were interred with the carefully laid-out bodies of the new regional overlords and their attendants in what archaeologists call Mound 72, a high-status burial mound at Cahokia.

Based on these artifacts and on what is known about the pre-Mississippian tribal peoples, it may be surmised that Cahokian warfare was, in some ways, an extension of the tribal feud on a grander scale. Small-scale raids and ambushes, usually limited to isolated revenge killings, characterized the less-organized pre-Mississippian peoples and those in the prairie lands to the north and west, who fringed the early Mississippian world even after Cahokia emerged as a regional capital. But Cahokia elevated the feud to a new political level; it became a high-stakes affair with dramatic consequences. In part, the new feuding was a function of Cahokia’s population density–ten thousand people in one place can scarcely be expected to live according to the old tribal rules. Cahokia’s brand of warfare was thus a product of the expanding population of this first Mississippian chiefdom.

The war parties of Cahokia’s first few decades were likely drawn from all able-bodied persons. If the burials in Mound 72 include the remains of actual combatants, then women as well as men may have taken part in warfare. Assuming that all able-bodied adults (i.e., more than twenty and less than fifty percent of the capital’s residents) were potential combatants, then the Cahokian chief could have fielded between two thousand and five thousand warriors. This was irrespective of the hundreds more who could have been mobilized from outlying subordinate settlements.

Given the potential size of the Cahokian fighting force–larger than anything a prospective enemy could field (and even larger than any force that European explorers would encounter centuries later)–Cahokia likely precipitated the adoption of increasingly standardized military tactics, weapons, and organizations for assaulting its neighbors. Projectiles, shock weapons, and shields were employed in such forays. The bows, arrows, knives, and clubs used in Cahokian warfare were larger and more elaborate versions of ordinary utilitarian hunting, cutting, and chopping tools. Fired from bows measuring up to six feet, war arrows had an accurate range of as much as two hundred yards. These projectiles’ stone and bone points were serrated to maximize internal damage and to inhibit easy removal. Shock weapons included an array of knives and clubs specially made from stone and wood and highly prized by their owners. Shields, presumably made of wood, were used in hand-to-hand combat and to deflect enemy arrows.

Given what is known about later Southeastern chiefdoms, Cahokian warriors most likely were organized into units, each with as many as several hundred combatants and broken down into subunits of various sizes commanded by war captains. Their assaults against enemy villages, even the capitals of outlying competing chiefdoms, almost certainly were not aimed at anyone but chiefs and a few warriors and captives. Presumably, annihilating entire villages not only would have violated the military standards of the eleventh and twelfth centuries but also would have negated the possible economic benefits of warring: the acquisition of food stores and valuables, and the establishment of tributary relations that funneled such things toward Cahokia.

Rival leaders were undoubtedly killed if necessary, members of opposing factions may have been executed, and long-distance raids were undertaken to eliminate rivals. Yet the frequency with which Cahokian arrows, warclubs, and flint knives were brought to bear against human flesh and bone is difficult to measure archaeologically, given the dearth of formal cemeteries. Unfortunately for archaeologists, most of the region’s dead were not buried in the flesh, but were laid out on scaffolds or in charnel houses, the bits of bone later removed for burial or dispersal at special burial sites at Cahokia or at remote locations.

Nineteenth-century diggings, often by amateurs, and twentieth-century archaeological excavations have, however, uncovered pits containing the remains of the society’s high-status men and women. These excavations reveal much about the cause and context of death. The late-eleventh-century pits indicate that there were mass sacrifices of women, retainer executions, and beheadings and delimbings associated with plaza rituals. In one case, thirty-nine men and women (a ratio of three-to-one), from ages fifteen to forty-five, had been killed–three beheaded and at least two shot in the back with arrows. Their bodies filled a trench that was then partially covered with earth and capped with a second layer of dead, presumably killed at the same time and carefully arranged side by side on cedar litters. In another case, the severed legs and arms of at least three people were buried in a small pit beside the central post of a neighborhood plaza at Cahokia.

Cahokians may have used such killings to help control a region of up to several hundred square miles. War parties extended the Cahokian threat even farther afield, neutralizing enemies along the central portion of the Mississippi River. The absence of moderate- to large-sized chiefdoms within two hundred river miles of Cahokia is evidence of the success of this policy. Cahokian dominance of the middle Mississippi lasted until the thirteenth century. Its disappearance is explained in part by a military crisis that emerged in the twelfth century.

Evidence that Cahokia experienced a military crisis around 1200 includes the construction of a log palisade that enclosed the central mound-and-plaza precinct of the Cahokian capital. It was a massive structure, some two to three miles in length, built and rebuilt four times over a span of roughly fifty years. Each construction entailed the cutting, delimbing, debarking, hauling, and placement of twenty thousand logs. The walls featured L-shaped shielded entryways, catwalks, and bastions, the latter built from posts slightly larger and taller than those of the palisade itself. Spaced along the wall approximately every twenty yards, a total of about 150 to two hundred bastions lined the fortification. The spacing between these works allowed an enfilade of arrows to be shot down onto would-be attackers all along the palisade. Moreover, the bastions permitted the entire central precinct of the capital to be guarded from potential raiders by as few as three or four hundred sentries.

The decision to build the first palisade had serious implications, as it forced the reorganization of the capital grounds. A wall sacrificed the vistas, open spaces, and avenues that had previously connected mounds with plazas and residential wards. It cut neighborhoods in half, and this would not have been done without good cause. The construction of the palisade signals a major reorientation of military strategy from an entirely offensive focus to a combined offensive and defensive stance.

The wall would have allowed an effective defense of the central ceremonial space. With a moderately small force, the entire sacred precinct could have been defended, shifting archers from bastion to bastion depending on the direction and thrust of attack. The defending force itself need not have been skilled in the use of shock weapons in hand-to-hand combat. For archers, anyone skilled in the use of a bow and arrow, anyone with some hunting experience, would have sufficed. The young and old could have performed this task, thereby freeing warriors for offensive maneuvers, including hand-to-hand combat beyond the palisade. Those not capable of shooting arrows would have been on hand to help in sentry duty or to resupply bastions with quivers of arrows.

The palisade, with its defensive advantages, thus may have allowed for offensives aimed at maintaining the regional dominance that Cahokia had known in years past. The allocation of fighting forces that the palisade required was all the more important to Cahokia’s survival because the population of the capital, and the entire region, had been declining from its eleventh century peak. While the reasons for this decline are unclear, by 1200 no more than five thousand, and perhaps as few as three thousand, residents occupied the capital. A similar two- to three-fold drop in population density characterized Cahokia’s rural farmlands. In order to administer their territory, much less project their interests beyond, Cahokians had to field a fighting force sufficient to continue to intimidate any foes or potential usurpers of their regional authority.

Potential threats would have been found quite close to home. All major town-and-mound centers within a twenty-mile radius built palisades at this time as political conditions deteriorated, and their high-status families were likely subsidiary to Cahokian paramounts only when they were forced to be. Without the palisade that enabled fewer warriors to stay home, Cahokia’s offensive maneuvers would have been extremely curtailed, and Cahokia’s dominance would have ended, as in fact it did less than a century later.

Cahokia’s decline was probably not simply related to failures in battle, to political ineptitude, or to outmoded warfare. Chiefdoms and kingdoms around the world have experienced long-term demographic and organizational changes that were beyond the control of administrators. In Cahokia’s case, the initial inclusive, communal governmental coalition of the late eleventh century seems to have evolved during the twelfth century into a more aristocratic system in which upper-echelon families received preferential treatment.

Typically, warfare becomes an elite pursuit in such aristocratic societies, an enterprise restricted to young, upper-class men seeking notoriety. The net effect, of course, would have been to downsize the warring capacity of the chiefdom, since these men made up no more than thirty to forty percent of the total elite population and no more than ten to twenty percent of the entire regional population. The twelfth-century Cahokian capital, if populated by five thousand individuals (a high-end estimate based upon archaeological evidence), might have been able to field a maximum force of only 150 to four hundred men, not counting those families contributing warriors from outside the capital’s boundaries.

By 1350, Cahokia and most of the surrounding region had been abandoned. People moved away for reasons that are not entirely clear. Given the signs of shrinking population and a military crisis, warfare certainly seems to be part of the reason for the demise of this ancient society. However, the real lesson Cahokia offers is how warfare, in its ancient form, contributed to the emergence of civilization. The events surrounding the summer of 1050, involving limited but deadly accurate strikes against individuals and small groups, were critical in establishing the foundation of large-scale political administration. The administrators–Cahokian overlords–defined Mississippian warfare as an elaboration of the political feud of earlier times. Cahokian warfare was, for all intents and purposes, a stick behind the rather plump carrot of Cahokian largesse bestowed selectively on loyal clans. With both carrot and stick in hand, Cahokians retained regional dominance as established during and shortly after the Cahokian summer. This was not the large-scale conquest warfare of Mesoamerican or Mesopotamian states but the thuggery and retribution, sophisticated and disguised, of native chiefs.

Perhaps part of the reason that archaeologists have difficulty locating direct evidence of Cahokian warfare lies in its peculiar form at and shortly after 1050. The weapons, tactics, and organizations of later Indian warfare were first defined here, during Cahokia’s reign along the Mississippi. Warfare was not yet the endless chiefdom-against-chiefdom contest that it would become in later centuries, and it certainly was not the no-holds-barred killing of men, women, and children seen along tribal peripheries. It was directed as much at internal resistance as it was at external, long-distance foes. Until the Cahokian summer, in fact, there were no dividing lines to distinguish between internal versus external or Cahokian versus other people. There were no other chiefdoms of any size with which to contend at the time. Cahokia would construct these divisions as it raided its neighbors, eliminated its potential competitors, and manufactured its war arrows, knives, and clubs. People within or at the edge of the Cahokian world had little option but to accommodate, emulate, or succumb.

In this way, Mississippian civilization, a distinctive warrior-chief culture, spread south and east. In its wake, Cahokian attempts to stave off factional infighting and collapse–such as constructing the palisade to bolster its declining offensive options–ultimately failed. Eventually, the largest of Mississippian chiefdoms succumbed to some combination of political fissioning, demographic decline, and the desecration of its sacred precinct by its enemies.