World History in My Backyard: Cahokia Meets Bali

When I first came to Edwardsville, IL to teach more than 10 years ago, if someone had mentioned Cahokia Mounds to me I would have scratched my head wondering what they were talking about. I knew about the Gateway Arch and about the Mississippi (19 miles away from where I live now) and about Mark Twain’s boyhood home in Hannibal, Missouri (130 miles away), and I was familiar with the line from Oklahoma, “everything’s up-to-date in Kansas City” (260 miles away). I need not mention that Disneyland and Disney World loomed large in my imagination from the time I was young through to raising young children.

Little did I know that scarce 10 miles from my current home, lies Cahokia, the largest archeological site (in terms of land, the population that lived there, and the number of earthen mounds) north of Mexico. It is one of only eight UNESCO World Heritage culture sites in the United States (Cuba has 7, and Mexico 27).

It took me ten years to realize I had to incorporate Cahokia into my modern World History curriculum even though it flourished between roughly 1,000 and 1350 CE. In the past I would make a nod to it as a “backyard treasure” and show the compelling BBC film Cahokia: America’s Lost City to bring it to life. In sum,  I didn’t know much about the history and certainly didn’t appreciate its importance on the world stage.

This year I called the experts in, like an Emergency Response Team, to help me conjure its world historical significance and to help my students and I realize that what we have is more than a quaint link with a distant and all-but-invisible past. It is, in fact, a tangible connection between the land we live on and the history of the world. My colleagues Julie Holt and Michele Lorenzini  of SIUE’s Department of Anthropology are helping us find our way.


Monks Mound is the largest man-made earthen mound in the North American continent. It is named after Trappist Monks who lived nearby during the 19th century. Its base is comparable in size to the base of the Great Pyramid at Giza in Egypt and to that of the Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacan. My home is in the background.

Many of my students come from the area and may have taken school trips to Cahokia and are familiar with the diorama at the interpretive center and the fun of scaling Monk’s Mound which towers over a sea of lesser mounds, most of which have been destroyed and built upon over the last two centuries. But I am not sure they understand where it stands in the bigger picture. I didn’t. For that I had to go no farther than an article by Julie Holt, “Rethinking the Ramey State: Was Cahokia the Center of a Theater State?” (American Antiquity 74(2), 2009, 231-254).

The story begins with debates among scholars (archeologists mostly) about the nature of rule in Cahokia. One side holds that Cahokia was a chiefdom, that is, a relatively limited political system relying on the power of an individual. Others argue that Cahokia was at the center of a state which exerted political and economic influence far beyond this locale into the farther Mississippi Valley as far north as Wisconsin and Minnesota.


An excavated burial pit from Mound 72 at Cahokia is said to contain the remains of victims of female human sacrifice. According to some, this is evidence of the power of a state to control a population. Pictures by Jim Anderson.

A state, in contrast to a chiefdom, is sustained by institutions rather than by individuals. Such institutions include bureaucracies and standing armies. The term “Ramey State” derives from a style of incised pottery that originated in and flourished during Cahokia’s heyday, roughly from 1100 to 1200 CE. Ramey Incised pottery can be found throughout the American Bottom. (“American Bottom” might take some getting used to if you are not from this region, but there is nothing naughty about it. It simply refers to the Mississippi’s flood plain on the eastern side of the river in our part of southern Illinois). “Pro state” scholars, notably Patricia O’Brien, argue that to have held sway over the vast territory where this pottery is found meant that rulers in Cahokia had to have the standard tools of states at their disposal, namely a monopoly on the use or threat of use of legitimate violence; a class division of society including political elites; and a bureaucracy. Evidence of massive human sacrifice (including some 250 skeletons, mostly of young women, interred at Cahokia Mound 72) demonstrates that some group had a monopoly on the use of violence. Evidence of labor specialization and urban as well as rural communities point to class divisions and elite burial arrangements point to a bureaucratic hierarchy. My students will remember our discussion of Chinese statecraft and the concept of “tribute” that enabled the Ming dynasty (1368–1644 CE) to compel Koreans, Japanese, Vietnamese and other southeast Asian populations to recognize their suzerainty. Similarly, O’Brien, argues that evidence of exotic materials such as shark’s teeth, copper, and marine shells as well as more mundane materials found their way to Cahokia as tribute made by subordinate political entities in recognition of Cahokia’s power.

Prof. Holt, takes the debate between chiefdom vs. state in a new direction in her article. On the whole she agrees with O’Brien and those who make the case for a state. Cahokia’s shear size, prominence, and longevity (roughly 1000 to 1350 CE) means that institutions, rather than a succession of chiefs, had to be in place. But, she is not convinced that that standard mechanisms that scholars look for to explain the staying power of a state (bureaucracies and armies) are necessary or sufficient. Holt, an archeologist, turns, instead, to the work of anthropologist Clifford Geertz (d. 2006) to make the claim for a theater-state.


Clifford Geertz’s Negara (1980) makes the case for the power of performance and spectacle in the political realm.

Geertz’s most lasting influence is in the subfield of symbolic anthropology and his most important monograph focused on the Balinese state in the 19th century. In Negara: The Theatre State in Nineteenth-Century Bali (1980) he argues that court ceremonies were the driving force of politics and mass ritual, rather than being used to manipulate the populace. Rather, they fully engaged participants of all classes. In the case of Cahokia, argues Holt, such practices as human sacrifice do not necessarily point to coercion. Instead, as in Negara, people may have wanted to be part of the spectacle. Power is not, as we might imagine, just a question of territory or material wealth but of prestige, loyalty, and deference. Those who argue that Cahokia was simply a chiefdom point to the lack of evidence that the rulers of Cahokia were able to control large swaths of land. According the Holt, this is besides the point. There is plenty of evidence (in the form of artifacts spread all over the Mississippi Valley) for the prestige of Cahokia and its leaders.  This prestige itself is a sign of the power of the theater-state, a Negara on the Mississippi.

Two final points that Holt makes apply to principles we have used in our study of world history this semester. Both are intimately related to the concept of a theater state. Geertz and Holt argue that Western scholars usually search for characteristics that are familiar to them. Thus, the state conjures up the idea that ceremonies attached to states are purely functional, they serve to strike terror in the observer, to mystify the real nature of power, to celebrate a shared will or to legitimize a state’s rules. To their way of thinking this is a Eurocentric pitfall. I prefer to see it as common to all those coming from certain kinds of bureaucratized and militarized states, some of which are in the East. In either case, the functionalist explanations don’t account for ceremony and ritual as power in and of themselves. Secondly, this caution also brings to mind the work of Sam Wineburg, an educational psychologist who has studied the power of “historical thinking”. He argues that historians (and anthropologists and archeologists in this case) should strive to avoid relying on the familiar and, instead, stretch their imaginations to accommodate perspectives and behaviors that might not appear natural to them. Holt’s move away from the functionalism of most scholarship on the state to the concept of the theater-state does exactly that. It draws a line between 19th-century Bali and our dear Cahokia to boot. What more can someone struggling to knit world history together ask for?


About Steve Tamari

Ever since I was a child I wanted to blog. Here goes. I have crossed many borders and boundaries. My father is from Jaffa, Palestine and my mother is from Little Rock, Arkansas. We lived in the United States, Algeria, East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), and Haiti as I was growing up. Since then, I've lived in Greece, France, Palestine/Israel, Syria, Germany, Lebanon, and, now, southern Illinois. I study the Middle East and Islam and I live in the Midwest on the edge of the Bible Belt. I am a Quaker (and a pacifist) and I am attached to my students, many of whom serve(d) in the military. There are other contradictions and ambiguities in my life and in our world that I want to explore here. Please give me your feedback.
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