Paradigm shift

In Cahokia, America’s “first city,” both men and women held rank

Cahokia (Photo by: Brown Bear/Windmil Books/UIG via Getty Images)

The burial mound at Cahokia, site of what researchers consider to be North America’s first city, was once thought to only contain men. But a recent archaeological study at the site near St. Louis, Missouri, has revealed the bodies of women in the mound, a discovery that has forced scholars to rethink previous assumptions that the city was “a male-dominated hierarchy.”

The gigantic mound, erected between A.D. 1,000 and 1,200, was discovered by archaeologist Melvin Fowler in 1967. The site, now called Mound 72, contained five separate mass graves and more than 270 bodies buried by themselves or in groups. Two bodies in particular, placed on top of each other and surrounded by a blanket of beads, were thought to be high-status men. The beads, Fowler noted, appeared to be cape or blanket that had once been shaped like a bird — a motif typically related to warriors or supernatural beings in Native American cultures. Fowler suggested that the two men represented mythical warrior chiefs — experts concluded that Cahokia had been a society dominated entirely by men.

A recent re-examination of the site, co-led by Illinois State Archaeological Survey Director Thomas Emerson, has discovered that the high-status pair were not men, but, rather, a man and a woman. Bodies found near the couple were also found to be male-female pairs, and one individual was discovered to be a child. “The fact that these high-status burials included women changes the meaning of the beaded burial feature,” said Emerson. “What we have at Cahokia is very much a nobility. It’s not a male nobility. It’s males and females, and their relationships are very important.”

The location of women in the burial mound, in accompaniment with trappings of status such as beaded blankets, indicated that Cahokia honored not only high-status men, but high-status women as well. “When the Spanish and the French came into the Southeast as early as the 1500s, they identified these kinds of societies in which both males and females have rank,” Emerson explained. “Really, the division here is not gender — it’s class.”

Read the full story at Live Science.

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