World History 1 133 - 8.3.3 Complex Societies in North America

After many centuries of cultivating maize to supplement their hunter-gatherer lifestyle, around 500 BCE, groups in the American Southwest began to establish permanent villages supported by farming. Over the next few centuries, settled villages with permanent homes supplied with large storage pits for maize proliferated across the region. The agricultural peoples of these villages are often subdivided into three major cultural groups: the Mogollon tradition in the south, the Hohokam tradition in the west, and the Anasazi or Ancestral Pueblo tradition in the north (Figure 8.38). They were in contact with each other and shared a number of similarities. Their early settlements consisted of a number of oval and circular pit houses, partly underground and built of wooden poles covered in dried mud. These could be ventilated by rooftop openings accessible by internal ladders. Such homes were especially well suited to the sun-drenched environment and provided a cool escape from the hot outside temperatures. They also efficiently preserved heat during winter, when conditions could get exceedingly cold.

A map is shown of an area of land. In the southwest corner the Pacific Ocean is labeled next to a thin slice of land highlighted green and labeled “Baja California Sur.” To the east of that is the Gulf of California. The states labeled in the map, from north to south, are: Utah, Nevada, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. An oval section of the map comprised of eastern Nevada, southern Utah, southwestern Colorado, Northern Arizona and northwest New Mexico is highlighted green and labeled “Anasazi.” Within this green area the Colorado River is labeled as well as three areas with red triangles: Mesa Verde, Canyon de Chelly, and Chaco Canyon. To the west an oval area is highlighted purple. In southwestern Arizona an area is highlighted orange and labeled “Hohokam.” The city of Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Tucson are labeled with black dots and Montezuma Castle and Pueblo Grande are labeled with red triangles within this orange area. The southeastern corner of Arizona, the southwestern corner of New Mexico as well as a half circle shaped area below the states is highlighted green and labeled “Mogollon.” Within this area the cities of Las Cruces, El Paso, Ciudad Juarez, Hermosillo, and Ciudad Chihuahua are labeled with black dots. Labeled with red triangles are: Hawikuh, Gran Quivira, Gila Cliff Dwellings, Paquime, Cueva de la Olla, Trincheras, Cuarenta Casas, Cueva Grande, and Huapoca. Rivers labeled within this area are: Gila, Sonora, Yaquil, Conchos, and the Rio Grande. The southeastern portion of Colorado, the eastern portion of New Mexico, a small eastern portion of Texas, and the lands shown on the south of this map are all highlighted yellow. In the south, the areas are labeled: Chihuahua, Coahuila, Sinaloa, and Durango. Cities labeled within this yellow area, from north to south are: Pueblo, Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Odessa, and Torreon. The Arkansas River in Colorado is labeled, as well as the Pecos in New Mexico, and the Fuente east of the Gulf of California.
Figure 8.38 Three large and distinct cultural traditions emerged in the Southwest beginning around 500 CE: the Mogollon, the Hohokam, and the Anasazi. (credit: modification of work “Regions of ancient regional tribes in the southwestern United States and Northwestern Mexico” by “Ricraider”/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0)

Settlements varied in size from a handful of homes to as many as sixty. The design of the dwellings and the complexity of the settlements varied as well, with both generally increasing over time. By around 700, for example, large ceremonial meeting-house structures called kivas had become common in the central and northern areas. These were likely the local centers of religious ceremonies and civic life. In the centuries after 700, the settlements evolved into larger collections of multiroom structures built of dried adobe clay and stone. By 900, similar permanent settlements dotted the larger southwestern landscape, including in modern New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Texas, and the Mexican state of Chihuahua.

Some of the most impressive settlements that remain include Pueblo Bonito in New Mexico, Cliff Palace in Colorado, and Casas Grandes in Chihuahua. Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon began to expand into the large masonry settlement visible in its ruins today around 800, when its residents abandoned their pit houses for the larger pueblo-style rooms. Pueblo architecture used stone or wooden frames covered in adobe clay. The houses and other buildings made in this way tended to have flat roofs that could be used as terraces.

At Pueblo Bonito, the houses were organized in a U-shape around the old pits from the pit houses, which were then used as kivas. This settlement reached its peak around 1000, which may have meant a modest population of about one hundred people, though its six hundred pueblo rooms could have housed as many as one thousand. In addition to being an important agricultural settlement, Pueblo Bonito was a major ceremonial center and likely attracted groups from the surrounding area for significant events. Some residents were clearly of particular importance, as indicated by the 130 burial sites and associated objects discovered there.

In addition to Pueblo Bonito, at least seventy other communities of varying sizes were scattered across the larger Chaco Canyon area. The total population of these settlements may have included as many as 5,500 people. Connections between them are suggested by shared pottery and architectural styles, and by the network of roads that pass through some settlements while radiating outward from the canyon like spokes on a wheel.

A long period of drought after 1130 led the residents of Chaco Canyon and Pueblo Bonito to abandon their settlements for other areas that promised sustenance. By about 1200, the old settlements were empty. Some eighty miles to the north in Mesa Verde, conditions were wetter and natural resources more plentiful, and groups there built a number of impressive cliffside dwellings. Construction of one of the largest settlements, today called Cliff Palace, began around 1190. Archaeologists believe this settlement was made as a defensive measure when competition for scarce resources was becoming more intense. Similar cliffside settlements were built in other places in the region for the same reason. Cliff Palace had twenty-three kivas and 220 rooms made of sandstone, mortar, and wood. They extend up the side of the cliff, some towering twenty-six feet tall (Figure 8.39). Like Pueblo Bonito, Cliff Palace also likely had a population of about one hundred people. And for just over a century, the settlement prospered, until expanding drought conditions forced the residents to abandon it and the many other Mesa Verde settlements around 1300.

A photo is shown of a black and beige cliff at the top. Below the cliff are seen remains of stone buildings. The buildings run the length of the photo and are stacked in tiers of varying heights, They go deep into the canyon below the cliffs. Windows, and doors can be seen on the buildings, and walls are seen in varying sizes all over. Ten round areas set into the ground are seen toward the right of the canyon. A path is seen running the length of the photo along the front of the structures. Trees are seen at the right of the photo while bushes are seen along the bottom right where the ground dips down. At the left more canyon walls are seen.
Figure 8.39 Construction of the impressive cliffside dwellings at the Cliff Palace site in modern southwest Colorado began about 1190. Residents used wooden ladders to reach their elevated homes. (credit: “Trail of the Ancients - Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde National Park” by U.S. National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Far to the south of Mesa Verde were the settlements of the Mogollon tradition. One of the more impressive is known today as Casas Grandes or Paquimé (Figure 8.40). Set in a flat arid portion of northern Chihuahua, Mexico, near the modern U.S. border, Casas Grandes emerged as an important agricultural settlement in the fourteenth century. Far more agriculturally productive than its northern Anasazi neighbors, Casas Grandes may have had a population of almost 2,300 people at its height. These people lived in adobe structures clustered close together and surrounded by a large enclosure wall.

A photo is shown of a flat, sandy landscape in the front with clear blue skies in the back. In the middle stand the ruins of a brown structure. Rounded walls are seen with rooms visible with no roofs. The rooms appear in a maze like formation. A lone tower stands on the left. Mountains can be seen in the far off distance.
Figure 8.40 The ruins of Casas Grandes stand as a testament to the productivity of this once-large city. Its population—more than two thousand at its height in the fourteenth century—was far larger than that at settlements like Pueblo Bonito or Cliff Palace. (credit: “Wide view of Paquime” by Luis Serrano/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Because of its adobe design, Casas Grandes bears a superficial resemblance to some Anasazi communities. But the site actually has more in common with the Mesoamerican civilizations far to its south. For example, there are no kivas at Casas Grandes, but there are ruins of a large I-shaped Mesoamerican-style ball court. Among the valuable trading goods produced at Casas Grandes were colorful macaw feathers commonly used in Anasazi rituals. These indicate that trading networks existed between Casas Grandes and the Anasazi to their north. By the start of the fifteenth century, however, Casas Grandes was entering a period of decline; by the end of the century, it had been abandoned.

Around the same time that settled agricultural communities were becoming common in the Southwest, the Eastern Woodlands region was going through its own cultural transformations. On the former site of the Adena and Hopewell traditions, a new mound-building culture called the Mississippian tradition began to emerge around 700. This large and sophisticated culture constructed some of the biggest and most impressive of all the ceremonial mounds in the region.

The Mississippian tradition was apparently sparked by the adoption of maize agriculture from much farther south. Maize may have arrived in the Eastern Woodlands as early as 800 and was adopted by groups already accustomed to farming edible plants like sunflowers and bottle gourds. By 1000, its cultivation had become common throughout the region, even among groups that had not used agricultural techniques before. Bean cultivation was also spreading around the Eastern Woodlands, and at about the same time, people in the area began to use the bow and arrow, especially for hunting small animals like birds.

Combined, these changes brought about a major cultural shift in the Eastern Woodlands marked by the appearance of large settled agricultural communities and the spread of common cultural, architectural, and technological practices. A number of settlements arose throughout the Mississippi River valley and as far away as Georgia and Florida. Most were small chiefdoms built around one or just a few earthen mounds. Occasionally, smaller settlements were grouped into larger chiefdoms, and in a few important places, the settlements were exceptionally large, with populations in the thousands. Archaeological discoveries reveal that these settlements communicated and traded with each other, maintaining large trading networks that linked their many urban centers. Artifacts have been found many hundreds of miles from the site of their manufacture, and common architectural and artistic details suggest that cultural ideas too were disseminated far and wide.

The Mississippian site at Cahokia near modern St. Louis is possibly the most elaborate and important researched thus far. Earlier settlements nearby were smaller and date to about 600. But around 1050, the large urban center of Cahokia began to emerge, reaching its peak about 1250 before experiencing a gradual decline. At its height, Cahokia and its surrounding settlements covered nearly four square miles, had a population as large as sixteen thousand people, and included well over one hundred different mounds. At the center was a network of large mounds organized around a 100-foot-tall temple mound, built in stages with a wooden structure at its summit and a large staircase leading up from the surrounding plaza (Figure 8.41). Wood and thatch houses of various sizes radiated out from the central plaza and into the surrounding maize fields. Around the central complex of mounds and the homes of the elite was a large defensive wall, with watchtowers spaced at intervals around it.

A photo is shown of a large, two-tiered mound with brown grass growing on it and a staircase leading from the bottom left to the top with railing on the sides. The grass at the bottom of the mound is green and a path can be seen in front of the mound running the length of the photo. The blue sky can be seen in the background with white clouds and trees are seen in the far left.
Figure 8.41 The terraced remains of Monks Mound at Cahokia, completed around 1100, stand today as the largest human-made earthen mound in North America. It rises almost one hundred feet above the surrounding landscape. (credit: “Monk’s mound panorama” by Tim Vickers/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Other mounds at Cahokia served as burial mounds and platforms for ritual performances. Some of the rituals included human sacrifice, not unlike those common in Mesoamerica. One of the excavated mounds at the site contained the remains of several dozen sacrificial victims. At the base of this mound, archaeologists found the remains of two men, one buried face down, one face up. The man facing up had been placed on a bed of more than twenty thousand shells arranged in the shape of a large bird, suggesting that he was a particularly important person. Among the items buried with this “birdman” were hundreds of arrowheads, copper pieces, and a number of stones, elements of a ritual ball game called chunkey that may have had the same significance for the Mississippians as the rubber ball game had for Mesoamerican civilizations (Figure 8.42).

An image of a painting is shown. In the painting a large group in standing in a circle in smaller clusters watching two figures in the middle throw long, thin sticks on a green grassy area with mountains in the far background and a green, yellow, and blue hazy sky. All of the figures are colored reddish and most wear just loincloths which blend in with their skin colors. Most have feathers in their hair. A group on the left holds long thin sticks as do a few in the group on the far right. Two figures in the middle wear long light colored robes with red designs. Some figures sit on the ground in the right forefront of the image. Dots represent eyes and short lines represent mouths on a few of the figures, but most show no facial features.
Figure 8.42 In this painting by the widely traveled nineteenth-century artist George Catlin, Native Americans living in North Dakota are shown playing the game of chunkey. The roots of this game, played with sticks and a rolling disk, go back to the time of Cahokia and perhaps much earlier. (credit: “Tchung-kee, a Mandan Game Played with a Ring and Pole” by George Catlin/Smithsonian American Art Museum/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

The “birdman’s” identity is not clear, but whether a leader, a shaman, or even an important warrior, he was a member of Cahokia’s elite. Cahokia and other large Mississippian settlements had a distinct nobility with access to luxury goods and a surplus of food produced by a large population of commoners who did agricultural work. Sites like Cahokia likely derived their power from their ability to exact tribute from surrounding groups, and from their control of long-distance trade routes that brought exotic items such as marine shells, rare stones, copper goods, and the feathers of colorful birds from distant lands.

Link to Learning

Learn more about the history and archaeological discoveries of Cahokia at the Cahokia Mounds Museum Society website. You can also explore an interactive map of Cahokia at this link.

Despite Cahokia’s obvious power, the settlement was relatively short-lived. By 1250, it had entered a period of decline, and ultimately it was abandoned. This did not mark the end of the Mississippian tradition itself, however. Sites like Moundville in Alabama, Etowah in Georgia, and many others bloomed in the wake of Cahokia’s demise. However, by about 1375, these large chiefdoms had begun to collapse as well. As the larger Mississippian tradition declined, so too did the long-distance trade routes. The people who had once lived at the large settlements became more dispersed across the Eastern Woodlands, leading to the emergence of a number of new groups. By the time the first Spanish explorers arrived in 1539, Cahokia was long gone. But from the records the Spanish kept, we know there were still a number of smaller chiefdoms scattered across the Eastern Woodlands. These were clearly different from the earlier Mississippian chiefdoms, but they still displayed many of the cultural traditions that had arisen centuries before.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax