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Life on a Risky Landscape in the Prehistoric Western Great Lakes

By Richard W. Edwards IV, PhD, RPA, Project Archaeologist at Commonwealth Heritage Group, Inc.

1. Excavtation Block at the Koshkonong Creek Village (47Je379)

Starting at around AD 1050 the social, political, and environmental landscape of the western Great Lakes was in a state of transition. A warm and wet climatic phase was ending, and a cooler drier one was about to begin. This led to a risky and uncertain environment, where year-to-year temperatures and precipitation were difficult to predict. Simultaneously, heterarchical Upper Mississippian groups across Wisconsin and northern Illinois began to band together. While in the Mississippi and Illinois River basins, newly established and hierarchically organized Middle Mississippian polities started to expand their influence by setting up outposts at Aztalan, Fred Edwards, and Trempealeau in Wisconsin. Unlike in earlier time periods, both Mississippian groups aggregated on the landscape, formed defensive postures, and maintained large no man’s lands between settlement clusters. Meanwhile, at least two distinct Late Woodland groups continued to occupy portions of the Mississippian no man’s lands. This complicated political landscape was contentious. Evidence indicates there was an increasingly violent relationship among groups through time.

My research centers on understanding the relative risks the Upper Mississippian groups faced – how they mitigated the risks – and what that says about their internal and external political relationships. I focused on the Koshkonong Locality in southeastern Wisconsin, where a network of contemporaneous villages was placed. I rely on two primary datasets to reconstruct the economy of the villages: plant remains, and stable isotopes values obtained from dog bones. The plant remains provide a clear picture of what plants people were eating and a general sense of the economic importance of each plant. Stable carbon isotopes (δ13C) act as a proxy for maize consumption, and nitrogen (δ15N) indicate how much meat the animal consumed. The isotope values provide more specific data about the importance of these particular resources that are more easily compared among sites.

2. Large Upper Mississippian refuse pit at the Koshkonong Creek Village (47Je379)

Prehistorically, dogs are ideal sources for isotopic data because, prior to commercially produced dog food, they were fed and scavenged the same types of foods that their human companions ate, generally in similar proportions. Moreover, prior to indoor plumbing, dogs would literally eat the same food after the humans finished “processing” it. As a result, their bone chemistry closely mirrors the bone chemistry of the human population. Therefore, it is possible to obtain these  data without conducting destructive tests on human remains, which many find objectionable.

After analyzing the Koshkonong datasets, they were contextualized with other Upper Mississippian sites around Wisconsin and northern Illinois: Middle Mississippian datasets from Wisconsin, the Apple River Valley and American Bottom in Illinois, and Late Woodland datasets from Wisconsin. The data demonstrate that, for the vast majority of Upper Mississippian societies, the risk of attack was substantial, their economic systems and settlement patterns were geared towards minimizing the threat of attack, rather than mitigating climate-based threats (e.g., frosts, floods, etc.). This was largely accomplished by focusing on local and controllable resources. In conjunction, groups hunkered down in defensive locations and found ways to minimize the amount of time they needed to spend away from the protection afforded by the settlements. Generally, this meant increasingly sedentism, reducing long-distance trips, and relying heavily on agriculture and a limited number of local resources that can be artificially encouraged to grow with greater reliability. In the Koshkonong Locality this was accomplished through a heavy reliance on maize agriculture, wild rice, and placing villages at strategic locations so that resources required day to day could be obtained without traveling long distances from these safe points.

3. Dog Mandible from the Crescent Bay Hunt Club (47Je904)

Interestingly, the data also indicate that most Upper Mississippian groups were far more reliant on agriculture than many archaeologists previously thought. Upper Mississippian economies have traditionally been described as “diversified” where maize, squash, and other domesticated crops were a part of a larger economic system that also relied heavily on wild plants and animals. This is usually contrasted with the hierarchical Middle Mississippians who are regularly and rightfully described as agricultural. Even prior to their heavily reliance on maize, Eastern Agricultural Complex plants (e.g., barnyard grass and Chenopodium) were a dominant part of the Middle Mississippian economy. It is generally thought that agricultural surplus is what allowed for the creation of the monumental architecture and the formation of an elite class within society, and that embracing agriculture is in some ways linked or associated with the rise of hierarchical power structures and social inequality. However, the isotope data indicate that the average resident of Middle Mississippian sites did not consume significantly more maize than the average Upper Mississippian resident. Rather, each diet seems to mirror the social structures of its population. For Middle Mississippians, the inequity of the hierarchical system created a tiered subsistence, with the diets of the lowest ranked members of society consisting almost entirely of maize while the elites had greater access to meat, non-maize agricultural products, and wild plants. Conversely, there is much less variation in the Upper Mississippian diet. Everyone in these relatively egalitarian societies ate a lot of maize, but most of the meat and wild resources that were incorporated into the diet were widely available. Therefore, the often assumed and/or inferred relationship between agriculture and cultural complexity needs to be reexamined. On a per capita basis, smaller groups don’t necessarily produce smaller agricultural harvests, they just manage and distribute them more equitably.

My research is scheduled to be published as a book titled Indigenous Life Around the Great Lakes: War, Climate, and Culture by the University of Notre Dame Press in September 2020. The book is the inaugural edition of the Midwestern Archaeological Perspectives series. If you’re interested in reading more, it will be available for preorder shortly. Portions of my research will also be published in a special issue of the Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology which will be freely available to all members of the Midwest Archaeological Conference. The issue should be available in March 2020.

4. Me mapping in unit locations at the Koshkonong Creek Village (47Je379)

*All Images courtesy of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Archaeology Research Laboratory: Program in Midwestern Archaeology
* Research made possible in part by the National Science Foundation Dissertation Improvement (#1640364) and the UW-Milwaukee Department of Anthropology Preliminary Dissertation Grant

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