Ceremonial centers built by American Indians from about 2,200 to 1,600 years ago existed in what is now Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan, as well as elsewhere. The people who built these centers had previously lived more simply as hunters and fisherman and some had begun to domesticate native plants, such as goosefoot, which provided a more reliable food supply. Some communities had begun to make pottery and to bury their dead in or under conical mounds made of earth. Then, a new religion swept through the region, attracting followers who built ceremonial centers along rivers and lakes. They lived in small settlements of kinspeople led by senior family members. The settlements of these believers were oriented to mounds and earthworks, that is, ceremonial centers that were constructed several miles apart along waterways. The believers made pilgrimages to the center nearest them, bringing offerings to spirit beings, who were sources of power, and to accompany burials of some of their deceased relatives.

Most of the conical mounds at these centers were built over wood structures that served as temples for prayer in general or over crypts. Valuable objects imported from great distances were left as offerings to accompany the prayers. Groups of pilgrims representing kin groups or religious societies buried deceased men and women leaders with collections of offerings and in this way asserted their collective identity.

The burial mounds represented the various social groups that oriented themselves to the center. Such burials remind us of Westminster Abbey in London in which the burials of people of historical importance memorialize the history and achievements of England. The mounds that covered ceremonial chambers were built over several generations by small groups of people carrying earth, sod, sand, and mud in baskets. Probably the religious leaders at the centers fed these volunteers from their stores of food.

What did the valuable offerings look like?

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About 1,600 years ago, communities throughout the region began to lose interest in the ceremonial centers and focused instead on local rituals. They built only small burial mounds for local mortuary ceremonies. Then, over time the population grew, settlement became denser, and people increasingly relied on the plants they cultivated, including maize or corn imported from the south and altered to thrive in a colder climate. Two new cultural traditions arose, the effigy mound complex in the Upper Mississippi River region and the political-ceremonial centers that emerged in southwest Illinois and spread outward.


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Video Transcript

In what is now southwest Illinois, a city now called “Cahokia” was built around A.D. 1050 over the top of the razed remains of an earlier village. It flourished for the next 250 years. A large-scale population movement from the hinterland and resettlement in the sphere of this multiethnic urban center enabled farmers to produce much corn and other food and provided the labor for the construction of public monuments. A ruling elite took responsibility for defense, administration of the center, and ceremonial life. Subordinate to the rulers at Cahokia were secondary ones in neighboring smaller political-ceremonial centers. By 1400 Cahokia’s population had largely dispersed, but its ideas and rituals continued on in adapted form to influence other communities throughout the Midwest.

What did their sacred art look like?

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In Wisconsin, a political-ceremonial center (now called Aztalan) was founded by people from the Cahokia tradition about A.D. 1075, and it came into competition or conflict with the people of a widespread effigy mound cultural tradition already there.

Effigy mound centers contained large mounds sculpted in the shape of birds, animals, and creatures of the watery underworld.

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