In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Thomas Emerson of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign explains a microscopic discovery that reveals big things about culture and ritual at one of North America’s largest pre-Columbian settlements.
Thomas Emerson is a professor of anthropology and Director of the Illinois State Archaeological Survey at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. His research is centered on the archaeology, religious ideology, and political economy of late prehistoric Mississippian cultures, with a particular focus on the Upper Mississippi River Valley region. He holds a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
Dr. Thomas Emerson – Ritual at Cahokia
An ancient settlement we call Greater Cahokia once extended across more than five and a half square miles in what is now St. Louis, East St. Louis and the surrounding five counties. It is the largest known pre-Columbian settlement in North America north of Mexico. The people who lived in Cahokia 700 to 900 years ago were engaged in an early experiment in urban living. As many as 50,000 people lived in and around Cahokia at its peak.
Researchers have spent decades trying to uncover Cahokia’s vast buried secrets, rushing to finish the work before new developments erase much of the history of the area. For the last five years the Illinois State Archaeological Survey has been leading one of the largest excavations at Cahokia, in East St. Louis. Our team just published a study that focused on some unusual beaker-shaped pottery vessels we found at Cahokia. These vessels often have imagery on them representing water, or the underworld, and seem to have been made only at Cahokia.
We wanted to know what they were used for, so we turned to researchers at the University of New Mexico, the Hershey Technical Center, and Millsaps College who had experience analyzing chemical residues in ancient pottery shards. They found key chemical markers of a ritual drink made from the Yaupon holly, a plant that grows hundreds of miles away along the Gulf Coast. We know that historically some native peoples used this drink, called Black Drink, in ritual purification ceremonies.
Our discovery is the earliest known use of this “black drink” in North America. It pushes back the date by at least 500 years, and adds to the evidence that a broad cultural and trade network thrived in the Midwest and southeastern U.S. as early as A.D. 1050. This finding opens to us a whole wide spectrum of religious and symbolic behavior at Cahokia that we could only speculate about in the past.