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Did rolling stones spread Mississippian culture across North America?

[image] The Mississippian world included much of the eastern United States. Archaeologists have found Cahokia-style chunkey stones to the south of the city, as well as north of the core Mississippian area. (Courtesy of Cahokia Mounds Historic Site, Collinsville, IL)

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This 9-inch-tall stone depiction of a chunkey player about to release his stone was discovered in 1900 near Ocumulgee, Oklahoma. It was likely carved in Cahokia itself. (Copyright John Bigelow Taylor and Dianne Duble)

The chief standing at the summit of the black, packed-earth pyramid raises his arms. In the grand plaza below, a deafening shout erupts from 1,000 gathered souls. Then the crowd divides in two, and both groups run across the plaza, shrieking wildly. Hundreds of spears fly through the air toward a small rolling stone disk. Throngs of cheering spectators gather along the sidelines and root for the two teams as they play chunkey, a game that had a significant role in organizing social and political life at Cahokia, the great prehistoric city that arose around A.D. 1050 near present-day St. Louis, Missouri.

When Europeans began exploring the vast expanse of eastern North America, they encountered many tribes of farmers that still played the last, lingering versions of this once great game, which involved hurling spears or sticks at a rolling disk called a chunkey stone. The stories these Native Americans told of its history imply chunkey was significant to their Cahokian forbears. It's possible the Cahokians used this game, which was much more than a way of passing time, to win the hearts and minds of distant people.


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This pre-Cahokian sandstone chunkey roller measures 2.5 inches in diameter. Below, a 12th-century stone of 3.5 inches was made of quartzite found at a single source on the Mississippi. (Copyright John Bigelow Taylor and Dianne Duble)

Many, possibly most, Midwestern, Southern, and Plains Indians were in one way or another entangled in a history that began at Cahokia. The evidence is often indirect, but it is compelling, and points toward a singular history-changing moment 1,000 years ago, when social life, political organization, religion, art, and culture were all utterly transformed in the middle of the Mississippi River Valley. At the epicenter of events was a radical new kind of social and political experiment: a planned capital city. Someone--or some governing body--designed one from scratch at Cahokia. The leaders superimposed a new plan directly over an old village and supervised the construction of great earthen pyramids, open plazas, and huge wooden buildings. Then they gained control over people living throughout the region, an unprecedented move in the history of ancient America north of Mexico.

A new culture developed at the city, perhaps inspired by Mesoamerican models. The people of Cahokia practiced human sacrifice, incorporated obelisk-like timber posts into their worship, told stories of superhuman men and women, used Mesoamerican-style flint daggers, and understood the cosmos in ways similar to Mesoamerican notions. They then spread this new way of life, which included intensified maize agriculture, across the Midwest and into the South and Plains with a religious fervor. Archaeologists refer to the culture as Mississippian, after the river that flows by many of its known sites.

One of the primary vehicles for the growth of this new civilization may have been Cahokian envoys who carried chunkey stones in one hand and war clubs in the other as they ventured into the hinterlands with the purpose of making peace or political alliances. These emissaries seem to have established and enforced a region-wide peace of sorts, a veritable Pax Cahokiana, an important element of which may have been the game of chunkey.

Timothy R. Pauketat is a professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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