Growing a New Way of Life (4,000-600 years ago)

Native American gardeners domesticated a variety of native plants, producing surplus food and storing it for later consumption. This new way of life was accompanied by technological advancements such as pottery, more trade, and changes in social organization and religion. By 900 years ago, maize, a tropical grass hybrid from Mexico, was grown in Illinois. Maize production required more labor but yielded more food, both of which sparked population growth and unprecedented changes in every aspect of Native American life. Illinois’ first metropolis, Cahokia, a community of perhaps 20,000 people, commanded the economic, social, and political landscape of the Midwest for nearly three centuries.

“Long-nosed god” Maskette

Image of "Long-nosed god" maskette.
Small ornaments of this type were part of the ceremonial dress of leaders who wore them on the ear. They are carved from a piece of marine shell imported from other parts of the country and are often carved in a triangular shape with circular eyes, a long nose, and a squared-off crown.

Otter and Raven Effigy Pipes

Image of Otter effigy pipe, White County, Illinois.
The animals that provided food, clothing, and tools for Native people, and that were the basis for stories and legends, often appear as subjects of artwork that adorns pottery and other decorative and ceremonial objects. These animal effigy pipes (Raven and Otter) were found in southeastern Illinois.

Kingfisher-Effigy Bone Hairpin

Image of kingfisher effigy bone hairpin.
For people of the late Woodland Period living about 1,000 years ago, animals provided more than just meat for their diets. In the Lower Illinois River Valley and American Bottoms (where Mississippian culture and the City of Cahokia would eventually rise to prominence), archaeologists have discovered significant collections of bone tools and ornaments.

The Mackinaw Cache

Image of two of the Mackinaw Cache blades.
Despite the best efforts of archaeologists, serendipity often plays a role in the most significant finds. In the case of the Mackinaw Cache, a group of boys hauling gravel on a farm near Mackinaw in 1916 uncovered about 40 spectacular “bifaces” on the slope of a hill just a quarter of a mile from the Mackinaw River. A biface is a stone implement that has been worked on both sides.

Mississippian Pottery

Image of Mississippian pottery vessels.
Before Christopher Columbus set foot on San Salvador in the West Indies in 1492, Native American Mississippian culture rose and fell starting about 1,000 years ago (A.D. 1050). The Mississippians got their name from archaeologists who identified the main centers of culture were found in the Mississippi River Valley. The culture that created the City of Cahokia near present-day East St. Louis flourished for 400 years through A.D. 1450. Mississippian people lived throughout southern and west-central Illinois. In all, archaeologists have identified 2,379 sites in Illinois, most along river and stream corridors.

Mound 72 Arrow Points

Image of arrow points from Mound 72 at the Cahokia Mounds site.
This selection of arrow points is part of a much larger cache of several hundred arrowheads, all of exceptional craftsmanship and made with a variety of materials. They were discovered in a burial in Mound 72 at the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site near East St. Louis, Illinois, almost 50 years ago. The points originated from distant places like Oklahoma, Tennessee, southern Illinois, and Wisconsin. They probably were offered in tribute to a person of great importance who was buried there.

Carolina Parakeet

Image of Carolina Parakeet
It’s a story that was disturbingly familiar at the turn of the 20th Century. The Carolina Parakeet once was found in abundance throughout the eastern and Midwestern United States. The parrot with the northern-most distribution, the colorful and noisy Carolina Parakeet was hard to miss when it gathered in large flocks. By the late 19th century it was rare. By the early 20th century it was virtually extinct, with the last known individual dying in captivity in 1918.

The Rise of Corn

Image of ancient corn cob and modern-day corn.

Compare the size of ancient corn cob with modern-day corn.

Pictured here is a vial containing a corncob that was found in a fire pit at Cahokia Mounds. The pit and its contents are about 800 years old.  Note the size difference between the ancient specimen and the modern sweet corn purchased from a local grocer. 

The Origins of Pottery

Image of early decorated ceramic jar fragment.

Early Decorated Ceramic Jar Fragment.

To understand the significance of the invention of pottery, consider the modern Sunday barbecue where one might hear the sizzle of grease from the hamburger as it drips through the grill and into the fire. But for Native people, the fat going up in smoke represented the loss of crucial calories. Hunters spent hours of physical exertion stalking, killing, butchering, and transporting their game home. Meats and other foods were then cooked by placing the pot in a fire with no loss of those hard-won calories.

Wood and Plant Fiber Fabric

Image of Wood and Plant Fiber Fabric

Early Late Woodland, ca. A.D. 550 - 850 Newbridge Site, Greene County, Illinois

This carbonized, woven fabric was recovered in 1974 during archaeological excavations at the Newbridge site in Greene County, Illinois, by Northwestern University. Perhaps part of a fringed skirt, the fabric is approximately 1150 to 1450 years old, dating from the early portion of the Late Woodland period.

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