Ancient remains discovered at ‘America’s first city’ reveal women held high-power positions

  • Cahokia is an ancient Native American city just outside modern St. Louis 
  • Earlier analyses suggested the city ran under ‘male dominated hierarchy’
  • It was thought that remains in a ‘beaded burial’ were high status men
  • But new analysis reveals there were women and even a child in the burial 

Almost 50 years ago, archaeologists excavating an ancient city just outside of St. Louis discovered a mass burial site with an unusual central feature – two bodies arranged atop a bed of beads, with several other bodies encircling them.

It was once thought that the elaborate ‘beaded burial’ structure at Cahokia was built as a monument to male power – but now, researchers suggest this is not the case.

A new analysis of the remains reveals that one of these central bodies is actually female, and researchers say the discovery of similar male-female pairs and the remains of a child indicates that women played an important role in society.

It was once thought that the elaborate ¿beaded burial¿ structure at Cahokia was built as a monument to male power ¿ but now, researchers suggest this is not the case. In a new study, they discovered female remains in this central structure. The ancient city is pictured above

It was once thought that the elaborate ‘beaded burial’ structure at Cahokia was built as a monument to male power – but now, researchers suggest this is not the case. In a new study, they discovered female remains in this central structure. The ancient city is pictured above

WHAT THEY FOUND

While earlier studies reported that there had been six bodies at the beaded burial, the researchers found there were actually 12, with one of the central figures being a woman.

According to physical anthropologist Kristin Hedman, the discovery of females in this structure was ‘unexpected.’

And, they found other similar pairs on top of and near the beaded area, with some laid out as fully articulated bodies, and others among bundles of bones gathered for burial.

Along with this, the team found the remains of a child.

In the new study, published to the journal American Antiquity, researchers with the Illinois State Archaeological Survey at the University of Illinois and colleagues found that there are both male and female remains buried at the site of the Native American city, Cahokia.

Cahokia is said to be North America’s first city, and is the largest pre-Columbian settlement north of Mexico.

Now known as ‘Mound 72,’ the massive burial site discovered by archaeologist Melvin Fowler in 1967 contains 270 bodies, with five mass graves each containing at least 20 bodies, and some exceeding 50.

Later analysis revealed that the burials occurred between the years 1000 and 1200 during the rise and peak of Cahokia.

Some of the bodies were laid on cedar litters, suggesting these individuals were of high-status in their lives.

‘Mound 72 burials are some of the most significant burials ever excavated in North America from this time period,’ said ISAS director Thomas Emerson.

‘Fowler’s and others’ interpretation of these mounds became the model that everybody across the east was looking at in terms of understanding status and gender roles and symbolism among Native American groups in this time.’

It was thought that the beaded burial involved two high-status males, with their servants surrounding.

And, the beads were thought to be the remains of a cape or blanket in the shape of a bird, which is associated with warriors and supernatural beings in some Native American traditions.

While earlier studies reported that there had been six bodies at the beaded burial, the researchers found there were actually 12, with one of the central figures being a woman. Along with this, the team found the remains of a child

While earlier studies reported that there had been six bodies at the beaded burial, the researchers found there were actually 12, with one of the central figures being a woman. Along with this, the team found the remains of a child

Almost 50 years ago, archaeologists excavating the pre-Columbian Native American city, Cahokia discovered a mass burial site with an unusual central feature. The city sits just outside of what is now St. Louis 

Almost 50 years ago, archaeologists excavating the pre-Columbian Native American city, Cahokia discovered a mass burial site with an unusual central feature. The city sits just outside of what is now St. Louis

THE BEADED BURIAL

The central feature of Mound 72 is a ‘beaded burial.’

In this structure, two bodies are arranged atop a bed of beads, with several other bodies encircling them.

It was thought that the beaded burial involved two high-status males, with their servants surrounding.

And, the beads were thought to be the remains of a cape or blanket in the shape of a bird, which is associated with warriors and supernatural beings in some Native American traditions.

According to the new study, however, one of these central bodies is actually female.

‘One of the things that promoted the concept of the male warrior mythology was the bird image,’ Emerson said.

Because of this, Cahokia was thought to be a ‘male-dominated hierarchy,’ the researcher explained.

In the new study, the researchers analyzed early maps, notes, reports, and skeletal remains.

While earlier studies reported that there had been six bodies at the beaded burial, the researchers found there were actually 12, with one of the central figures being a woman.

According to physical anthropologist Kristin Hedman, the discovery of females in this structure was ‘unexpected.’

And, they found other similar pairs on top of and near the beaded area, with some laid out as fully articulated bodies, and others among bundles of bones gathered for burial.

Along with this, the team found the remains of a child.

According to the researchers, the materials often symbolized life renewal, fertility, and agriculture. Artifacts discovered at the ancient site are pictured above

According to the researchers, the materials often symbolized life renewal, fertility, and agriculture. Artifacts discovered at the ancient site are pictured above

‘The fact that these high-status burials included women changes the meaning of the beaded burial feature,’ Emerson said.

‘Now, we realize, we don’t have a system in which males are these dominant figures and females are playing bit parts.

‘And so, 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 researcher explains that these findings are more in line with other materials from Cahokia than the scenarios presented by earlier studies.

‘For me, having dug temples at Cahokia and analyzed a lot of that material, the symbolism is all about life renewal, fertility, agriculture,’ Emerson said.

Now known as ¿Mound 72,¿ the massive burial site discovered by archaeologist Melvin Fowler in 1967 contains 270 bodies, with five mass graves each containing at least 20 bodies, and some exceeding 50

Now known as ‘Mound 72,’ the massive burial site discovered by archaeologist Melvin Fowler in 1967 contains 270 bodies, with five mass graves each containing at least 20 bodies, and some exceeding 50

‘Most of the stone figurines found there are female. The symbols showing up on the pots have to do with water and the underworld. And so now Mound 72 fits into a more consistent story with what we know about the rest of the symbolism and religion at Cahokia.’

By focusing on warrior symbolism, Emerson explains that previous studies have misinterpreted the culture of Cahokia, and this time period.

‘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,’ says Emerson.

‘Really, the division here is not gender; it’s class.’

‘People who saw the warrior symbolism in the beaded burial were actually looking at societies hundreds of years later in the southeast, where warrior symbolism dominated, and projecting it back to Cahokia and saying: ‘well, that’s what this must be. And we’re saying: ‘No, it’s not.’’