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.

Frog Effigy Pipe

Image of Frog Effigy Pipe

Frog effigy pipe Madison Co., ~ 800 - 900 years old

Carved in the image of a frog, this effigy pipe was created more than 700 years ago. It was found not far from East St. Louis in the American Bottoms area, which is also home to the City of Cahokia. The pipe is made from flint clay, likely obtained from the Ozark Highlands. The right forefoot holds what is likely a rattle to be used in ceremonies, such as those that include song and dance. The bowl to hold tobacco is on the frog’s back, and the draw hole is located near the hind legs.

Underwater Monster Bowl

Image of ceramic bowl
For two thousand years, many Native Americans in the southeastern United States believed their World was divided into three parts. There was the Upper World, where the life-giving sun was found; the Middle World was where people lived on the surface of the Earth; and finally, the Lower World, which was the source of fertility. According to legend, the Underwater Monster depicted on this bowl inhabited this Lower World, where it was admired and feared. Thunder, rain, water, and other powers were also attributed to it.

Cahokia Mounds Bird Man Tablet

Image of sandstone tablet
This small sandstone tablet, only about four inches tall, shows a man in a bird costume (possibly representing an eagle or peregrine falcon). The reverse side features a crosshatch design that may depict a snakeskin.

Marine Shell Spider Gorget

image of Marine shell gorget Fulton Co

Marine shell gorget
Fulton Co., ~ 800 – 900 years old

Gorgets are pendants that are worn on the chest and hung from a string or on a necklace. The term gorget typically refers to armor worn to protect the throat. A number of similar gorgets have been found throughout the Mississippi River Valley and in the southeastern United States. This gorget was found near Dickson Mounds and was made around A.D. 1300.

Cross-in-Circle Gorget

Image of cross-in-circle gorget
This pendant-like object, or gorget, was worn around the neck, probably suspended with a cord threaded through the holes on the outer edge. Another object may have been suspended from the opposite hole(s).

Stone Mace

stone mace, approx. 7" tall, from southern Illinois
In the early 20th century, a farmer living near Pearl, Illinois, found this object in a cultivated field. About 7 inches tall, the outline of this object is comparable to that illustrated on a marine shell from Oklahoma. It was made from Mill Creek chert, a glass-like stone found in Union County, Illinois, and the same material used to make hoes and so-called dance swords, an object also portrayed in some of the shell engravings.

Emmons Rattle Mask

Image of Emmons rattle mask
Found in Fulton County, the Emmons rattle mask, which dates from the Middle Mississippian Period about 800 years ago, is extremely rare. There has been nothing else like it found in Illinois or elsewhere. Because it is made of wood, probably cedar, the odds of such an object surviving so long are extremely low.

Pottery Bowl

image of pottery bowl  with spoonbill decoration from Pike County, Illinois.
Two thousand years ago, the Native American artisan who created this small clay pot drew an abstract image of what appears to be a bird in the soft clay. What is the meaning of the image? Such puzzles are common in archaeology, and answers generally begin with the phrase "to the best of our knowledge."

Ceramic Figurine

Image of ceramic figurine from Jackson Co
Willie Smith found this elegant, 2,000-year-old fired-clay figurine in Jackson County in 1950. It portrays a woman with a distinctive hairstyle, and she's seated with one leg crossed over the other. It appears that there is no hair on the right side of her head. Hair on the top and left side of her head appears to be drawn together, and what may be a braid extends to her left shoulder. There appear to be circular disks attached to her earlobes. Identified as ear-spools, archeologists have recovered examples of these spools made from bone, stone, and sometimes copper.

Cultivated Plants

Image of several plants cultivated by native people.
Given how crucial they were in the development of North American agriculture, it's ironic that today these plants are considered to be unexceptional. Two of the specimens were collected along roadsides, and one was collected along a railroad right of way. Another is referred to, without ceremony, as a weed. But these plants sowed the seeds of what would be the domestication of plants, a change that laid the foundation for agricultural societies to develop.

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