The Pochteca: History of Trade in Mesoamerica

The short lived Aztec Empire was made of various city-states tied together with “persistent and aggressive multifaceted trade networks” (Berdan 2017). Although the Mexica group led the expansion of the Aztec Empire’s military and politics, they did not pioneer markets or trade in central Mexico. Evidence points to the first markets appearing in Oaxaca from 500-100 BCE, and even earlier, the first evidence of established trade networks comes from 1400-950 BCE in the preclassic Olmec civilization. Trade continued into the classical era of Mesoamerican history, as it was prominent in the Mayan world, with goods such as “obsidian, jade, quetzal feathers, marine shells, igneous rock, and various craft” (Berdan 2017) being traded. In the postclassic Aztec Empire, commerce was the primary method of integrating the various city-states comprising the empire, with trade happening locally, regionally, and foreignly throughout the region.

Fig 1: Trade in the Aztec Empire (Berdan 2017)

One important aspect of this far-reaching trade system were pochteca, professional long-distance traders who specialized in expensive goods such as “jaguar pelts, jade, quetzal plumes, cocoa, and metals” (Maestri 2018) and whose primary consumers were the wealthy elite. Because of their role, the pochteca had their own social class, “higher than any non-noble person” (Maestri 2018). Additionally, the pochteca guilds had their own laws, god, ceremonies, and closely guarded secrets and trade knowledge only available to sworn guild members. Pochteca traveled in caravans in every direction from their stations in major cities. They would also sometimes act as spies for their clients as marketplaces and other trade centers were good places to gather information via local gossip, which would be reported back to the buyers. Conversely, they also could be informants for the Aztec State, as their travels took them all over the empire and they had the permission to travel to foreign lands beyond control of the Mexica emperor.

Artistic rendition of the pochteca

One very important good throughout the history of Mesoamerican trade is salt. The Olmecs were the first group in the region to begin actively engaging with the material by extracting it and trading it along the eastern coast. By the classical period salt was likely one of “Mesoamerica’s most widespread regional specializations” (Williams 2009). Salt (sodium chloride) is necessary for human survival and an important tool for preserving food, and was used by the Aztec state to maintain order within the empire, as the state had the power to limit or block trade supply of the resources to conquered communities, ensuring their obedience to the empire.


Berdan, Frances F. “Late Postclassic Mesoamerican Trade Networks and Imperial Expansion.” Social Studies, May 2017,

Maestri, Nicoletta. “Pochteca: Elite, Powerful and Deeply Distrusted Traders of Mesoamerica.” ThoughtCo, ThoughtCo, 13 Jan. 2018,

Williams, E. (2009). Salt Production and Trade in Ancient Mesoamerica. In: Staller, J., Carrasco, M. (eds) Pre-Columbian Foodways. Springer, New York, NY. 

Further reading

Smith, Michael E. “LONG-DISTANCE TRADE UNDER THE AZTEC EMPIRE: The Archaeological Evidence.” Ancient Mesoamerica 1, no. 2 (1990): 153–69.

McGuire, Randall H. “The Mesoamerican Connection in the Southwest.” Kiva 46, no. 1/2 (1980): 3–38.

Ritualistic Caffeine Consumption in Cahokia and Beyond

Although caffeine consumption in America is generally associated with the post-industrial world, its origins lie in Native American societies more than 900 years ago. For example, people living in Cahokia – the largest pre-Columbian city north of Mexico – frequently consumed a caffeinated brew made from the roasted leaves of the yaupon holly, a plant containing caffeine (figure 1). This dark tea, later coined “Black Drink” by European explorers, became central to Cahokian purification rituals. As noted by Euroamerican observers, these practices sought to purify the body before important events such as individual or community religious rituals, important political councils and negotiations, ball games, and war parties. (Crown et al. 2012). 

Figure 1. A photograph of a yaupon holly bush for the Florida Native Plant Society. Photograph by Shirley Denton.

Yaupon holly has a caffeine content as high as six times that of strong coffee, causing it to induce sweating. When consumed in high quantities in rapid succession, it can even lead to vomiting. As part of the purification rituals, men would likely sit in circles, sing or chant, and take turns chugging Black Drink from cups made of marine shells and vomiting. In fact, the historical use of yaupon holly to vomit is what has given it its scientific name to this day: Ilex vomitoria (Richmond 2018).  

Interestingly, Black Drink connects to our discussion of Cahokians’ interconnectedness with other Native peoples, as the holly trees from which the leaves were taken are found in the Coastal Plain of the southeastern US from Virginia to Florida and west to Texas (Crown et al. 2012). Thus, these trees were hundreds of miles away from Cahokia, requiring complex systems of trade to transport their leaves – a “level of political organization not before seen in North America” (Yates 2012). 

However, this practice of long distance trade wasn’t unique to the Cahokians, as various other Native American civilizations also procured holly leaves via trade, likely using them for ritualistic purposes as well. An expert in the Chaco Canyon, archaeologist Patricia Crown led a team that analyzed 177 pottery samples from 18 sites across the American Southwest and Mexico. They found caffeine residue on pieces of jars, pitchers and mugs – such as the drinking vessel shown in figure 2 – in 40 samples from 12 sites and concluded that the groups likely consumed stimulant drinks in communal, ritual gatherings (Carpenter 2015). The fact that Black Drink was not just consumed by American Southwesterners and Cahokians, but also that both groups show signs of using it ritualistically tells of a remarkably interconnected pre-Columbian North America. Perhaps along intertwining trade routes such cultural practices as purification rituals were exchanged, creating the interconnectedness that the widespread use of holly leaves suggests.

Figure 2. A drinking vessel found with caffeine residue from the Grasshopper Pueblo archaeological site in central Arizona. Photograph by Patricia Crown.


  • Crown, Patricia L., Thomas E. Emerson, Jiyan Gu, W. Jeffrey Hurst, Timothy R. Pauketat, and Timothy Ward. “Ritual Black Drink Consumption at Cahokia.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109, no. 35 (2012): 13944–49. 
  • Richmond, Ben. “The Forgotten Drink That Caffeinated North America for Centuries.” Atlas Obscura, January 9, 2020. 
  • Yates, Diana. “Researchers Find Evidence of Ritual Use of ‘black Drink’ at Cahokia.” Illinois, August 6, 2012. 
  • Carpenter, Murray. “1,000 Years Ago, Caffeinated Drinks Had Native Americans Buzzing.” NPR, September 8, 2015.

Further Reading:

Flint Clay Figures and Women at Cahokia

Cahokia, the ancient city nestled in modern Illinois, was a thriving hub of early Mississippian civilization, known for its monumental earthen mounds and remarkable culture has received much attention by archaeologists. The impressive trade networks and agriculture have been extensively documented, but it’s critical to take note of the pivotal role women played in forming such a remarkable society. By examining flint clay figures found at Cahokia, along with other archaeological evidence, we can glean deeper insight into the lives of Cahokian women and the power they may have held within the farming system (Everding 19). 

While excavating the mounds at Cahokia, archaeologists have found flint-clay statues depicting women in a distinct style to Cahokia. These figures often include plants, hoes, and other objects that represent agriculture. It’s thought that flint-clay was a rare material (Emerson & Boles 2010). The rarity of this resource is supported by the spiritually and culturally important figures that flint-clay figures show, many of whom are women. There is a woman depicted in many of these statues that has come to be known as Grandmother and Corn mother (Isselhardt 2022). Below, figure one depicts one of these statues of the Corn Goddess or Corn mother, a woman sitting upon a pile of corn cobs. Rock art from other Native American groups indicates that this figure is the same one modern Siouan speaking tribes worship (Everding 19). Archaeologists have uncovered many figures similar to this one, all expressing the same message of intrinsic female spiritual power over agriculture, and ultimately over prosperity for the society. 

Figure 1- Many scholars describe this statue, commonly known as the Keller Figurine, as a “Corn Goddess” (Vickers 2009 via Wikimedia Commons).

Some archaeologists hold that “the vast majority of Cahokia’s farmers were women” and explain that the knowledge they held of all kinds of crops solidified them in “positions of power and respect at every level of the society” (Everding 2019). It’s thought that artifacts found at Cahokia such as the flint-clay statues indicate that female farmers of Cahokia were likely praying to the often depicted Grandmother figure to aid their harvest of native grains pre-maize. Other archaeological evidence suggests the possibility that Cahokia was a matrilineal society in which women held and shared crucial knowledge through ritual feasts. (Everding 19).

Figure 2- The Exchange Avenue figurine was found in a Stirling phase temple near the mound center (Patton 2018).

Figure two above shows The Exchange Avenue Figurine was found in a temple at the north edge of the mound center. This figure is typical of the female depictions found in excavations at Cahokia. The context of this artifact indicates that Cahokian society associated female figures with the high-status temple environments, an idea that is supported by the excavation of other flint-clay objects in similar contexts (Emerson & Boles 2010). Examining what artifacts are made of, their archaeological context, and their association with each other is critical in understanding how these flint-clay representations of women depict the broader role of women in Cahokian agriculture and society. The statues allow us to broaden our conception of the kind of work women did in ancient societies, and understand the way that women held power in Cahokia. 

Additional Reading

Works Cited

Emerson, Thomas, & Boles, Steven   ‎‎ 2010  Contextualizing flint clay Cahokia figures at the East St. Louis Mound Center. Illinois Archaeology, 22(2), 473-490.

Everding, Gerry  ‎ ‎ ‎ 2020  Women shaped cuisine, culture of ancient Cahokia – the source – washington university in St. Louis. The Source.’s%20clear%20that%20the%20vast,the%20society%2C%E2%80%9D%20she%20said.

Isselhardt, Trinity ‎ ‎ ‎ 2022  Girlhood and the downfall of Cahokia. Medium.

Patton, Angela ‎ ‎ ‎ 2018  Exchange Avenue figurine survives to tell us about Cahokia. News. 

Vickers, Tim ‎ 2009 Keller Figurine. Wikimedia Commons. ‎ ‎ ‎

Ancient Mayan and Aztec Jewelry

In some Cahokian digging sites, archaeologists found maskettes and earrings made to resemble gods. Some archaeologists debate whether Cahokia was influenced by Mesoamerican societies as a lot of their legends and gods have a resemblance to one another. Not only do their gods have a resemblance, but their jewelry does too. So what did Mesoamerican jewelry look like? What did their jewelry symbolize and who could wear what?

Mayan civilization dates back as early as 1500 BCE with agriculture based on maize, squash, beans, and cassava cultivation. Along with a complex agricultural system, Mayans perfected irrigation and even had a complex hieroglyphical system of writing (, 2023). Even though evidence of Mayan civilization can be found around 1500 BCE, evidence of their jewelry can only be dated back approximately 5,000 years. From artifacts found, it seems as though Mayans were the masters of jewelry making. Using materials such as gold, copper, silver, bronze, and jade, their jewelry is just as complex as their agricultural and irrigation systems. Both men and women in Mayan society would wear the same jewelry aside from lip and nose plugs which were typically reserved for men with high social status. One of the most prized and sacred commodities for the Mayans was jade as they saw it as the ultimate symbol of all that is good and holy. They believed that jade represented eternal love. Religion was incredibly important to Mayan civilization which was often reflected in the jewelry they created, especially on jade beads. The Mayan elites would often present jade jewelry as gifts or as offerings to the gods. Jade jewelry would also be used as a prize in Mayan ball games. Overall, Mayans used their jewelry to show their societal status and rank (Cunha, 2021).

A jade Mayan funeral mask for King Pakal the Great, the ruler of the Mayan city of Palenque. Pakal ruled for 68 years in Palenque and transformed the city into something powerful. Jade masks like this were typically reserved for high-status, royal Aztecs and would be used to establish a relationship through the mask with the spirit world. Mask can be found in the National Museum of Anthropology (Atlas Obscura).
A gold Aztec labret (lip plug). These labrets were manifestations of political power and the serpent could be seen as a symbol of rulers. The design could mark this serpent as Xiuhcoatl, a fire serpent used as the weapon of the Aztec sun god, Huitzilopochtli. This labret would typically be worn on ritual occasions and on the battlefield. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Throughout Aztec history, there were strict rules enforced as to who could wear what ornaments. For example, only royalty could wear certain headdresses with gold and quetzal feathers. Leather earplugs were often gifted to warriors who reached high ranks and green earrings with bells were gifted to merchants who participated in a conquest. A higher-status Aztec person would wear more and better quality jewelry than a lower-status Aztec. A wealthy Aztec might wear gold or turquoise earplugs but a lower-class Aztec would wear obsidian earplugs. Both men and women in their society would decorate themselves in bagels, chokers, and necklaces. Overall, though, Aztec jewelry had such variety and the Aztecs really perfected the art of metalworking. Because they prized metalworking so highly, most Aztec jewelry was made of gold and silver, however, they also used feathers, shells, leather, and stones for ornaments (, 2023). Bells were a popular style in Aztec society and they were often fashioned to look like little flowers. These bells would often be hung from necklaces or earrings. These metalworkers and craftsmen would dedicate their lives to the craft. Like the Mayans, they would also use religion and symbolism in their jewelry (


Additional Reading:

The Creation and Use of Shell Beads in Cahokia

In the book we’re reading on Cahokia, Timothy R. Pauketat spends a lot of time on the human sacrifices and burial rituals that were so prevalent in the city. What stood out to me was the way that important men were buried, specifically the beads so present in their burial mounds. Pauketat describes the “beaded burial” (Pauketat, 73) of two important men. Their bones were wrapped in cloth and placed on top of animal pelts and thousands of shell beads sewn onto a now-decomposed piece of fabric. This made me very curious about the significance of beads in Cahokia, as well as where they came from and how they were modified.

Beads from the “beaded burial” (Kozuch).

The “beaded burial” site can shed a lot of light on the importance of beads. Shell beads were likely used as a marker of status, seeing as “over 32,700 columella beads … from Mound 72 were associated with high status women,” and “most LW [abbreviation of lightning whelk] beads were buried with mound mortuaries … associated with higher status individuals” (Kozuch, 65). There is also earlier research stating that marine shells were likely reserved for only the highest class citizens (Holley, in Kozuch, 67). It’s very interesting to reflect on how items that are currently seen as worthless were once so important. The city of Cahokia, including the greater surrounding area, had many bead-crafting workshops. These could be identified through specific tools that would’ve been used to form shells into beads (Mason, Perino, and Morse, in Kozuch, 67). The existence of these bead workshops, and the thousands upon thousands of beads used in burials, indicate that Cahokians saw beads as a symbol of status and wealth, much as modern society views precious gems. However, it wasn’t as if shells were reserved for only the rich. There was a large “presence of marine shells at non-elite Mississippian residences” (Prentice, 207). To me, this could create a hierarchy of beads: rare ones such as the lightning whelk shells were owned by elites, while common ones were dispersed among the masses. This makes sense, considering Cahokia’s proximity to the Mississippi river, but conflicts with Holley’s earlier research that says the opposite.

“Cahokia bead workshops and mounds with beads. 1 Kunnemann Tract and Mounds, 2 Groves Borrow Pit, 3 Powell Mound, 4 Fingerhut Tract, 5 Dunham Tract, 6 Tract 15B, 7 Ramey Tract, 8 Wilson Mound, 9 Mound 72.” (Kozuch)

The abundance of shells and the many bead workshops at Cahokia made me a bit curious about trade in the region. It is clear that trade routes existed in the ancient Americas, and shells were transported along these routes (Prentice, 200). Many theories exist, including ones about shells being used as money or being traded at set prices (Prentice, 200 – 207), but these are unproven. Seeing as Cahokia was such a large city and important trading center, it is an understandable conclusion that some level of shell trade took place.

Reference list:


Additional reading:


Cahokia and its Waterways

Grace Hill

A point of Timothy R. Pauketat’s writing of Cahokia: Ancient America’s Great City on the Mississippi that sticks out to me is highlighted in it’s title: Cahokia’s positioning along the Mississippi river. Specifically, what interested me, is how this alignment along waterways has added to the growth of Cahokia itself, as well as the establishment of food and crop production, travel, trade, and is suggestive toward the importance of waterways in major U.S. cities today. 

Throughout Timothy R. Pauketat’s text on the ancient indigenous civilization of Cahokia, the settlement’s location along the Mississippi River is also consistently mentioned. Specifically, Cahokia had an interesting placement near the junction of the Mississippi river, Missouri river, and parts of the Illinois rivers. Pauketat acknowledges the benefits of this proximity to vital and flourishing water sources in ancient Cahokia in various ways. On page 139 of “Cahokia,” for example, Pauketat mentions how Cahokians might have used the Mississippi and Missouri rivers as routes for trade, raiding or interaction with other communities along the waterways (Pauketat 2009:139 ?). Page 18 also briefly mentions agriculture production along the Mississippi (Pauketat 2009:18). Despite Pauketat’s brief descriptions of these points, they are not to be ignored. Cahokia’s geographic positioning along North America’s waterways goes hand-in-hand with the civilization’s cultivation of power and steady growth into one of Ancient America’s most astounding civilizations. 

Cahokia’s position on a map.

Similar to Pauketat’s brief descriptions of the importance of the surrounding rivers on the Cahokia civilization, the Mississippi river has had ties to many Indigenous nations and groups throughout American history. According to Northern Illinois University, “The Choctaw, Chickasaw, Quapaw, Osage, Caddo, Natchez, and Tunica” (Burton et al.) were among the many groups who aligned themselves along the Mississippi river throughout generations. This alignment to these bodies of water would have put Native communities into direct contact with each other, as well as European settlers and traders in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries (Burton et al.). Alignment along the flourishing Mississippi river created distinct lines of trade and commerce, be it for better or for worse. It is interesting to think about how Cahokia’s positioning close to this waterway hundreds of years earlier, in addition to its proximity to the Missouri and Illinois rivers, would have created vital passages to neighboring communities and trade routes, along with the other benefits of proximity to flourishing bodies of water.  

In addition to the indigenous presence along the Mississippi river, it is interesting how the presence of waterways in various civilizations has evolved many major, bustling cities of today. New York City, San Francisco, and Chicago are among the multitude of cities that have grown out of a long history of trade, commerce, and agriculture along rivers and oceans. St. Louis, itself, was born out of almost the exact geographical positioning as Cahokia, along the junction of three of America’s most important waterways. 

A map of the Mississippi river and it’s extending waterways.
The Mississippi River.

Works Cited

Burton, Vernon, et al. “Forced Over the Great River: Native Americans in the Mississippi River Valley, 1851-1900.” Mark Twain’s Mississippi, Northern Illinois University Digital Library, N/A, Accessed 4 November 2023.Pauketat, Timothy R. Cahokia: Ancient America’s Great City on the Mississippi. Viking, 2009.

Additional Links:’s%20Longest%20River&text=Louis%2C%20forming%20the%20world’s%20fourth,people%20over%20thousands%20of%20years.

Lacrosse; The Haudenosaunee Game, The Creator’s Game, and The Medicine Game

The game of lacrosse is another game along with Chunkey and Stickball, that Native Americans created and played, that still lives on prominently today. In its early Native American forms, lacrosse was played with a wide range of rules and strategies that differed in different areas, but across the board the game was played with wooden sticks, oftentimes with nets attached to them and with a ball made from deer hide. The Haudenosaunee were the original creators of the game, and played it with teams of between 100-1,00 men, on borderless fields. The original form of the game tended to be quite violent with broken arms and legs being a frequent circumstance, and games could last even span multiple days. Much like Chunkey and Stickball, lacrosse games were played to prepare tribes for war, as well as being seen as a social event where tribes would get together for trade and fun. Tribes would often play lacrosse in order to settle territorial disputes, while keeping intact diplomacy between tribes and avoiding warfare and the loss of human life. Often Native Americans would even gamble on lacrosse games, and “some would not hesitate to wager their wives, children, and themselves into servitude.” (Aveni).

Figure 1:  Image of large lacrosse game with many players on field without boundaries (Vennum Jr).

Within the lacrosse world, it is commonplace to refer to lacrosse as “the medicine game”, or “the creators game”. This comes from the belief of the Haudenosaunee people that the game was a gift from the creator and was to be played for the creator. It is said that the act of playing the game has a medicinal effect and is said to be able to heal the sick. This belief in the medicinal powers of the game of lacrosse carries on as the game has evolved and the present day Haudenosaunee continue to play the game that was given to them by the creator, with its medicinal nature always in mind.

It is Haudenosaunee tradition for children, when they are born to be given a lacrosse stick with a shaft made from shagbark hickory that is repeatedly dried and steamed until it is bent like a shepherd’s crook. Next, sticks are cut down to size, and the pocket is made from leather or rawhide. These sticks are supposed to stay with them their entire lives and when Haudenosaunee lacrosse players die, they are buried with their stick by their side. As the game of lacrosse has grown and spread beyond the Haudenosaunee nation, equipment and sticks have changed and in present day lacrosse, most players opt for a metal shaft and plastics head with a synthetic pocket, but many present day Haudenosaunee lacrosse players choose to continue the tradition of playing with the wooden stick in honor of the game and it’s history within their culture.

Figure 2: Team Iroquois Lacrosse Players with Traditional Sticks at 2014 World Games. (Maracle, 2023).

Reference List:

Kennedy, Lesley. November 19, 2021. “The Native American Origins of Lacrosse.”

Aveni, Anthony. “The Indian Origins of Lacrosse.” The Colonial Williamsburg Official History & Citizenship Site.

“Brief Origin Of Lacrosse.” Nabb Research Center Online Exhibits.

Maracle, Candace. July 1, 2023. “Master lacrosse stick maker Alfie Jacques passes on tradition before dying.” CBC.

Vennum Jr., Thomas. “The History Of Lacrosse.” Brooklyn Lacrosse Club. 

Further Reading:

The Making of a Wooden Lacrosse Stick:

Timeline of the History of Lacrosse:

2,600 Year Old Tomb Discovered

The Etruscan civilization existed in Italy between the 8th and 3rd century. This civilization was significant not only for its influence on the development of ancient Roman art and culture but for the Italian Renaissance as well. The Etruscans were the first “superpower” of the Western Mediterranean and developed some of the earliest flourishing cities in Europe. Some of the most important cities in modern Tuscany (Florence, Pisa, and Siena) were originally established by the Etruscans and have been inhabited since then. The Etruscans dominated Italy until their demise in the Roman-Etruscan wars to the Roman Empire in the 4th century B.C.

On October 27th, in the municipality of Giugliano in Campania, Italy, a tomb from the Etruscan civilization was discovered, having been hidden for approximately 2,600 years.  Sealed and blocked by multiple slabs of stone, the interior of the tomb, a double chamber dug into the rock, was found by archaeologists to hold numerous artifacts, including a collection of pottery and amphorae, the jars likely having contained wine from the island of Chios, Greece. Utensils, cups, and numerous pieces of ceramic were also found inside the tomb, as was a tablecloth that may have been used for a funerary ritual offering called the “meal of the dead.” The amount of valuable items found within the tomb suggests that the person to whom it was made was either extraordinarily wealthy or of extreme importance, though their identity has yet to be uncovered.

A painting in the tomb depicting ichthyocentaurs, creatures that had the upper body of a human, the lower body of a horse and the tail of a fish.

What made this extraordinary find particularly important to archaeologists and historians was the amount of Greek influence present in this Italian tomb. One example of this is the Greek wine found in the tomb, highlighting the importance of the wine trade of the time. A more substantial example is the amount of Greek mythological figures that littered the interior of the tomb, such as the vast depiction of Cerberus, the giant three-headed dog noted for its serpent tail and snakes growing out of its back; it is said that the job of this being was to guard the gates of the underworld both from escaping spirits and the invading living. The scene depicts Hercules arriving at Hades to capture Cerberus, in addition to ichthyocentaurs, creatures that have human upper bodies, lower bodies of horses, and fish tails. 

A painting from inside the discovered tomb shows the three-headed dog, Cerberus, being fought by Hercules.

Though it is at the moment unknown, archaeologists expect to be able to use further excavations of the site to find critical information about ancient Vulci, as much of the literary and historical texts from the civilization have been lost or destroyed. The language itself is only partially understood today. The architecture of the tomb, along with the discovered artifacts, provide valuable historical insights into life in Vulci as well as the lifestyle of its aristocracy at the civilization’s zenith. 

The entrance to the tomb when it was unearthed during archaeological surveys in southern Italy.

Works Cited

Killgrove, Kristina. “Mythical Hellhound and Sea-Centaurs Painted on 2,200-Year-Old Tomb Discovered in Italy.” LiveScience, Purch, 14 Oct. 2023,

Georgiou, Aristos. “Archaeologists Open Tomb Untouched for 2,600 Years.” Newsweek, Newsweek, 1 Nov. 2023,

Saraceni, Jessica Esther. “2,000-Year-Old Tomb Discovered in Southern Italy.” Archaeology Magazine, Accessed 5 Nov. 2023.

Additional Sources

Religion in Cahokia:

Cahokia was a city located east of St. Louis, Missouri, and made up of many large earthen mounds. This city was the largest pre-Columbus city north of Mexico and was a thriving community for around four centuries (Seppa,1997). There have been many speculations surrounding the possible religious aspects of Cahokians. It is difficult to determine the religious beliefs or practices of these people, as there was little time given to excavate and it has been demolished since then.

Painting of what Cahokia is believed to have looked like (Cahokia Mounds Historic State Site, Painting by William R. Iseminger)

Many theories around Cahokian religion support the notion that constellations played an important role in Cahokian religion. The practice of Cahokian descendants “observing religion based on earth and sky Gods including the Morning and Evening stars”(Pauketat, 2009, 20) was documented by French and Spanish colonizers. It is also believed that the mounds of Cahokia were made concerning celestial events, specifically the patterns of the moon and sun. This theory can be seen in Emerald, whose mounds are also linked to constellations, specifically the moon and its patterns, Emerald appears to be a smaller version of Cahokia connected by a road (Ahmad, 2023). Emerald is thought to be more of a religious destination than the bustling community of Cahokia. The mounds of Emerald are thought to have been built for religious reasons. “Over the past four years, excavations at Emerald have uncovered two dozen half-buried structures with burned materials in their hearths and a striking yellow plaster on their floors. Alt believes these are “shrine houses” that people would visit as part of a personal spiritual practice”(Witze, 2016). These mounds are hypothesized to be in some ways an attempt to be closer to god or the spirits above. There have been many remnants of burnt structures that are thought to have religious meaning, this has been documented in both Cahokia and Emerald. Although it is believed that Emerald held most of the religious ceremonies there is evidence that some of Cahokia’s mounds were religion-based too. Sculptures of Goddesses and powerful animals have been found in Cahokia, emphasizing the religious practices of Cahokians. During the excavation of Mound 34 at Cahokia, the archeologists found lots of buried shark teeth, beads, and arrow points. During a later excavation, they realized there had been a building atop this mound that had been burnt down and these charred remnants were dropped on the terrace below likely with religious intention (Witze, 2016). “They argue that Cahokians may have conducted a series of rituals at the mound, perhaps enlarging it in an effort to bring earthly activities closer to the sky above”(Witze, 2016). Although it is difficult to pin down precisely what the Cahokians believed or what their religious values were it seems clear that religion played an important role in Cahokian’s lives.

Bust of a red goddess sculpture found at Cahokia (Illinois State Archaeological Survey)

Future Research:


Ahmad, Fazal. “Places of Worship – Cahokia Mounds.” The Review of Religions, 29 Aug. 2023,

Anwar, Yasmin. “New Study Debunks Myth of Cahokia’s Native American Lost Civilization.” Berkeley, Accessed 5 Nov. 2023.

Bowdoin, Susan. “Religion and the Rise of Cahokia.” The Archaeological Conservancy, 12 Mar. 2016,

Pauketat, Timothy. “Ancient American Goddesses on Display.” ILLINOIS, 2 Feb. 2018,

Pauketat, Timothy R. Cahokia: Ancient America’s Great City on the Mississippi. Penguin Books, 2010.

Seppa, Nathan. “Metropolitan Life on the Mississippi.” The Washington Post, WP Company, Accessed 5 Nov. 2023.

Witze, Alexandra. “Religion and the Rise of Cahokia.” Issuu, from American Archaeology Magazine | Spring 2016 | Vol. 20 No. 1by American Archaeology Magazine, 27 July 2021,,one%20of%20Cahokia’s%20smaller%20mounds.

Death and Religion in Ancient Societies

Death has become a central aspect of human culture since we began living in communities. Every society suffers from death and each has different traditions and rituals that correspond with their culture and beliefs. One prominent ancient civilizations, the Ancient Egyptians, had their own burial system which included elaborate coffins and a long list of instructions for how to act in the afterlife (Lidz, 2023). The Egyptian Book of the Dead (Figure 1), which had been in private possession since the 19th century, was finally exhibited in the Getty Museum of Los Angeles for the public to see (Lidz, 2023).

Figure 1: A document containing spells and instructions on how to safely pass to the afterlife (Lidz, 2023)

This collection of documents shows us how the wealthy Egyptians were prepared for the afterlife, and shows us their cultures, beliefs and traditions regarding the dead. The documents contained a series of prayers and instructions on how they should be said which is supposed to facilitate the transition to the afterlife as well as obtaining control over your destiny (Lidz, 2023). These spells would protect you from harm such as snakes or being decapitated, but the objective of the entire document is to achieve safe passage to their version of paradise, lush fields that can provide sustenance for the gods (Lidz, 2023). In Ancient Egyptian culture, the purpose of their life on Earth was to be as morally good as they could be, so they are able to move into the afterlife safely and serve the gods for the rest of eternity. This shows how religion is a core belief in this culture as they live on Earth with the hope to work and feed the gods for the rest of their existence. 

This newly publicized artifact reminded me of the discussion about the human remains found in the mounds of the Native American city of Cahokia, and the role that religion may have played in this society. There are a lot of similarities between “Birdman” (Figure 2) and the burials of the Ancient Egyptian elites, as they all possessed lots of valuable grave goods (Seppa, 1997) as well as an elaborate coffin and support for an easy transition to the afterlife (White, 2023).

Figure 2: A depiction of how “Birdman” was buried, believed to be an important figure of Cahokia (White, 2023)

The stark difference between these two rituals are the remains of the many humans that were sacrificed found in Cahokia next to “Birdman”. Some were found right next to the supposed ruler, which are suspected to be close relatives, as well as over 50 other bodies placed in a line, which are believed to be human sacrifices (White, 2023). We discussed the possible reasonings behind these sacrifices, but I believe we can assume that religion played an important role. Looking at the Egyptians lifestyle, their entire lives seemed built around religion as they were eternally devoted to serving their gods. Although a completely different culture, the homogenous burial practices lead one to believe that the people of Cahokia may have shared a similar lifestyle that completely surrounded itself with one central idea, religion, which influenced their culture and the many human sacrifices.

Additional Information

More information on the Egyptian Book of the Dead:

More information on Egyptian Burial Practices:


Lidz, Franz. “Now Showing, an Ancient Spell Book for the Dead.” The New York Times, October 31, 2023.

Seppa, Nathan. “Metropolitan Life on the Mississippi.” The Washington Post, March 12, 1997.

White, AJ. “Cahokia.” Berkeley ORIAS. Accessed November 5, 2023.,religion%20and%20power%20at%20Cahokia.