Cahokia’s Progressive Social Structure

The city of Cahokia is known for being a prehistoric site in North America made distinguishable by various earth-like mounds or pyramids spread across the Mississippi river for what is now known as the modern city of St Louis. During the twelfth century, this was a settlement with an ever-increasing population thanks to their advancements in trading, technology, and agriculture. However, before Cahokia became a prominent capital city, it was a series of many villages that regularly interacted, exchanging social and cultural ideas. As time progressed, the city of Cahokia came to be with the relocation of many people from various tribes bringing with them new cultural practices, languages, material culture, and cuisines. Cahokia’s transformation is considered a civilizing social movement, with even references to the “Big Bang” due to its explosive growth and advancement(Pauketat 2009).


  Today Cahokian remains lie along the Mississippi river and are constantly threatened by modern projects and construction allowing for the deterioration of these sites. Archeologists are racing against time in efforts to preserve the monuments and study the great Cahokian city that once was. In its study and interpretation we constantly are questioning what was life like and how did these people live? What was the power dynamic? The power structure of Cahokia perplexes many as it doesn’t pertain to today’s standards and norms. With many concluding as to how welcoming and progressive the city may have seen, there were also signs of a hierarchal system in place.

The power dynamic between families was shown with the more prominent individuals and families living atop the mounds


Evidence of the hierarchical system is constantly illustrated by the physical organization of the city and the clear disposal of resources that more prominent and wealthier families had. The leaders of the Cahokian society, often religious leaders or chiefs, lived atop the mounds and looked down on the rest of the citizens. They consolidated power not by hoarding but by giving away goods illustrating their access to and surplus of goods. Cahokia developed a ranked society with a chief and elite class overlooking workers in the lower classes(Seppa, 1997). The infrastructure of the city was divided into zones for administrative and ceremonial functions, elite compounds, residential neighborhoods, and even suburbs. One of its largest features was the central plaza encompassing nearly 40 acres which were centered for communal ceremonies and rituals that brought people together (Woods, 2007).

This image is able to illustrate the similar construction of all the houses in Cahokia society

However, despite Cahokias ordinary hierarchical system that is often present in most if not all city-like societies, there was such peace and order in Cahokian society that it was often through minuscule differences that the presence of social classes was known. In the book “Cahokia: Ancient America’s Great City on the Mississippi”, Pauketat mentions a traveler going through the city of Cahokia at its height to illustrate the structure and organization. From the perspective of the traveler, there’s a mention of very specific styles and “rigidity of orientation”(Pauketat 2009). What can we infer from the uniformity of the houses? Does it illustrate a strict and overarching power structure or does it illustrate Cahokia’s attempt to be fair? It recalled in the book that despite there being a hierarchical system, everyone had access to resources and despite the different placements of homes, they all had very similar sizes, no matter how prominent or influential the family or individual was.


Even with a social divide, Cahokian society was progressive in its nature to provide all its citizens with the necessities of life. Although leaders of Cahokian society had more resources at their disposal, even individuals on the lower end of society had enough to live a stable life. This social infrastructure is impressive as even today’s society, which is often considered as advanced, still has individuals suffering at the hands of a large social divide in which individuals have to tackle aspects such as poverty, hunger, and illness.

Reference list:

  • Pauketat, Timothy R. 2009. Cahokia: Ancient America’s Great City on the Mississippi. New York, N.Y., Viking. 
  • Seppa, Nathan. 1997. Metropolitan Life on the Mississippi. The WashingtonPost. 
  • Woods, William I. 2007. Cahokia Mounds. Britannica.


Additional resources:


The Presence of Garbology in Middens

Image 1: Illustration of the overwhelming amounts of trash in landfills

Trash is our most widespread artifact and one of our most identifiable landmarks. In an average life span, Americans toss 102 tons of trash from clothing to broken pieces of technology and even plastic water bottles. These objects are important in framing how we think about the world. When a new model of the object comes out and the one we have doesn’t serve us any purpose, we throw it away. It’s the height of capitalism driving consumerism, ultimately filling up landfills with artifacts. Artifacts can be defined as an object made or altered by humans at any time and place (Renfrew 2018). Often found secreted under sediments, they provide essential clues about life by allowing a glimpse into a society’s culture and era. We make sense of people’s beliefs and practices by studying the treasures and objects that serve a function in humans’ daily lives.

Recently, scientists like William Rathje have studied how the materials in landfills decompose in various environments, identify how waste shifts over time, and then draw conclusions about artifacts and behavior through landfill excavation (Ian McTaggart 2015). When studying trends of human behavior, trash is an important physical data point. It looks at consumerism in aspects such as diet, clothing trends, and planned obsolescence in tech.  Most of Rathje’s studies have taken place in moderately modern landfills dating from the early 1970s to the early 2000s which constantly leads to the connotation that garbology is about more present-day artifacts (Jeff Harrison 2012). However, the notion of garbology, studying the waste of a specific society, has been present for some time within the boundaries of archaeology. From lithic debitage to middens, waste or byproducts have been studied to give context to the specific diet and practices of a society.

Image 2: William Rathje and his team work through a landfill sifting and identifying artifacts

Middens are archives of lifeways and environments. Archeologists have studied middens through the shell refuse and soil which builds up at these trash sites, resulting in the formation of mounds on what was once level ground. These middens preserve a record of occupation by providing a record of ancient inhabitants. These archeological studies have included food processing methods, seasonality, and even other purposes for the shell mounds.

Image 3: An excavation of a shell midden showing the different layers of artifacts such as bone, ash, and shell

More specifically,  in shell middens, bone artifacts, shell artifacts, food remains, and oftentimes, even ceramics are preserved. They are found throughout the world, on coastlines, near lagoons, and tidewater flats, along major rivers, and even in small streams. Most shell middens have been dated to the Late Archaic or Late Mesolithic periods(around 4,000-10000 years ago) thanks to the use of radiocarbon dating (K. Kris Hirst 2019). Middens are flourishing with waste and they help give archaeologists an enhanced perspective of ancient livelihoods.

Although garbology remains a term more often used in the modern sense, the study of human waste has had a large presence within the field of archeology. Artifacts range from an array of subjects but human waste is abundant in this world and it’s what allows us to keep learning information about human behavior. 


McTaggart, Ian. 2015. “A Tale of Garbage.” Earth Common Journal 5 (1),

Harrison, Jeff. 2012. “William L. Rathje: 1945-2012.” The University of Arizona News. 

Hirst, K. Kris. 2019. “The Archaeological Study of Shell Middens.” ThoughtCo. 

Renfrew, Colin, and Paul Bahn. 2018. Archaeology Essentials: Theories, Methods, and Practice. Fourth edition. Thames & Hudson.


Further Readings: