Back to Home Page


Cahokia to Spiro - The Leadership Migration
By Larry and Christopher Merriam

As amateur archaeologists, it is interesting to speculate about events in prehistory and develop our own ideas about the past. This article presents the results of one such speculation: a theory of a migration of political/religious leaders from Cahokia to other sites including Spiro. This article does not present detailed justification for this theory, but it is hoped that the article will lead others to consider these possibilities.

From 1000 to 1300 AD, if you lived in what is now the United States, Cahokia was the place to be. It was the largest, most prestigious city in America. The top leaders of the Mississippian culture lived at Cahokia. Evidence of their wealth and power was everywhere to be seen. The 100-foot high "Monks Mound" was the largest north of Mexico. Skilled craftsmen turned out superb works of art: some of the finest arrowheads ever made, beautifully engraved conch shells and fantastic carved stone statues. The rituals and ceremonies outdid all others. It was an incredible run of success, but that was about to change. Within 75 years Cahokia would fall from grace and be abandoned.

What caused the fall of Cahokia? There are many theories. The truth is probably a combination of causes. Climate change had to be an important factor. As the world got colder, during the "Little Ice Age," the crops would not do as well. Food production may have become a problem. The old methods were no longer working. Environmental stress caused by working the same lands for so many years was probably a factor. It has been suggested that they had deforested the surrounding area, thereby requiring them to travel significant distances just to obtain wood vital to their lifestyle.

Most likely the power structure at Cahokia involved extended family units of political/religious leaders. As their culture started to decline, this ruling class would have come under increasing pressure to fix things. To stay in power they had to lead people to a successful life and this wasn't happening. They had to develop a strategy of what to do and they may have been looking for a sign to guide them. That sign came between 1300 and 1350 AD. It may have been catastrophic flooding of the Mississippi River, plague or disease, attacks from rival societies, or possibly a major earthquake along the New Madrid fault zone (The strongest recorded earthquake in America outside of Alaska occurred along this fault zone in 1812.)

Whatever event occurred, the leadership took it as a bad sign and decided to get out of town. They gathered up their most important symbols of authority, their most valuable prestige goods, their most skilled artisans, their bodyguards and most trusted advisors. They loaded up their giant canoes with seeds, food material and everything they would need to transplant their society to new locations. Although they would leave behind a vanguard of old leaders, Cahokia would never regain its old status and would continue to decline as a center of power, eventually being abandoned around 1375 AD.

Once they left Cahokia, their plan was simple: the family would split up and head to important existing centers of the Southeast Ceremonial Complex that had developed under the influence of the Cahokia leadership. It is possible that they already had their representatives present at these sites. One branch of the family headed to Etowah, another to Moundville, but the most important group would settle at Spiro.

It must have been an impressive sight as the giant canoes approached the Spiro ceremonial site. Large banners were flying from mast-like poles on the boats declaring the authority of the individuals coming to the site. Here the Cahokia leaders would try to start over. As they passed away they would have their symbols of authority and prestige goods buried with them in the new Great Mortuary of The Spiro (Craig) Mound. These burials would be surrounded by a structure created by widely spaced cedar poles plastered with a cement-like mud creating the Central Chamber that would make Spiro famous. Later, as the "Great Temple" mound at Spiro grew above the Central Chamber, the new burials had no associated prestige material goods. (See Figure 1.) It appears they were unable to recreate the success they had had at Cahokia. This was the beginning of the end for greatness at Spiro. Within 100 years the site was abandoned and the culture ceased to exist.

This story presents a theory that would answer two important questions of American prehistory - what happened to Cahokia and how did all the prestige goods get to Spiro? It might be possible to prove this theory using DNA and other associated testing. DNA from elite burials at Cahokia could be compared to DNA from elite burials at Spiro. At Spiro we need to compare burials from within the underlying Great Mortuary to the elite burials above the Great Mortuary in the Central Chamber. Additionally, these should be compared to burials from other areas within The Spiro Mound and other places within the greater site. Such a study might answer many questions.

Since it is unlikely these tests will ever be done, we will present some of the evidence which lead us to propose this theory. Consider that from 1100 to 1300 Cahokia was characterized by rich high-status burials, then between 1300 and 1350, they stopped. At the same time, from 1300 to 1375 the richest high status burial suddenly appeared at Spiro. This hardly seems coincidental. There certainly could be a relationship between the two events.

At this same time other changes were occurring in the artistic style seen on shell engravings, copper plates and other art works. The classic Braden style had developed at Cahokia. This style was also seen on the works of art found at the other sites prior to the demise of Cahokia as the center of leadership. It is after this demise of Cahokia that new styles began to blossom. As the wealth of Cahokia is redistributed to other sites, we also see the development of new art styles. At Spiro we see the Craig style, at Etowah the Hightower style emerges and the Hemphill style is developed at Moundville. This would make sense if the artisans had migrated with the leadership to the new locations and were now independent of each other and free to develop their own styles.

Trade between Cahokia and Spiro had existed prior to the time of the proposed migration. To prove a migration of people to Spiro from Cahokia it is necessary to identify a large cache of prestige goods that would be associated with this change in leadership. We can't prove a migration by citing a few examples of items that show a connection between Cahokia and Spiro because they could have resulted simply from trade. First, we should study artifacts that were made of materials found in the Cahokia area that were discovered at Spiro. We need to determine where they were crafted. We need to know when and how they traveled to Spiro. Lastly, we need to know when and under what circumstances they were deposited at Spiro. For the purposes of our theory, we are looking for items that were created at Cahokia prior to the migration, which migrated to Spiro with the leadership and were buried with that new leadership at Spiro.

For our purposes we are looking for high status goods, or symbols of authority, that would be associated exclusively with leadership individuals. The best evidence for this type of large transfer of wealth from Cahokia to Spiro can be found in the buried goods of the Central Chamber of the largest cone in The Spiro Mound. The Braecklein Photo taken on December 8, 1935 presents some of the most important pieces from the chamber. (See Figure 2.) An example of the types of goods we are looking for would be the seven maces found in the cache in the chamber and shown in the photo. At least four of these maces are made of Kaolin or Mill Creek cherts from southern Illinois. Most likely these pieces were created at Cahokia and later brought to Spiro. They were symbols of authority that would be associated with elite leadership!

A second example would be the "Big Boy" Pipe, the most significant piece of artwork found in the Central Chamber. This magnificent sculpture is made of Missouri Flint Clay from quarries near St. Louis, across the river from Cahokia (Emerson 2003). This piece was obviously created at Cahokia. One argument for this belief is that the ears are decorated with long-nose god masketts typical of Cahokia, but almost unknown at Spiro where earspools are seen on most figures. There are other characteristics of the piece that point to it being made at Cahokia and later transferred to Spiro. The "Big Boy" Pipe is not the only example of a statue crafted at Cahokia from Missouri Flint Clay that traveled to other sites where they were converted to use as a pipe -- The "Big Boy" Pipe is simply the finest example known.

Evidence that the pipe was transported over a long distance can be inferred from an observation made by Hamilton (1952), "The figure evidently lay on its face on a flat surface a considerable portion of the time when it was in use by the indians for it shows a great deal of wear on the nose and forepart of the headdress, and the front of each knee." This wear is quite obvious when looking at the piece, but it seems unreasonable to think that this wear occurred while the piece was in storage or being smoked. On the other hand, if the piece were packed lying on its face during a long canoe trip down the Mississippi River and up the Arkansas River while being tossed back and forth by the waves, then the heavy wear makes sense.

But, is there any evidence of large canoes at Spiro? There are four shell fragments from Spiro that show at least two large canoes that have been identified as being from one large shell cup (Phillips and Brown 1979). One canoe has three masts with banners or symbols of authority hanging from them (See Figure 3.) This cup has been the subject of much speculation. The symbols have been called the sails on a Viking ship or a representation of a Phoenician goddess of the sea. We believe it identifies the canoe as belonging to a powerful leader! This shell was created at Spiro in the Craig style. Since it is the only instance showing a watercraft, it seems reasonable that it records an important event. That event could be the migration of leaders from Cahokia to Spiro.

There are many examples of artifacts connecting Cahokia and Spiro. However, most of these do not necessarily give evidence of a migration of leadership individuals and their associated artisans from Cahokia to Spiro. One example that may relate to the theory of a migration is a comparison of the Spiro Tribute (or Craig) points to the classic Cahokia arrowheads, such as those from Mound 72. (See Figure 4.) The Tribute Points show an obvious influence from the Cahokia points, but they are made from materials local to the Spiro area. This would indicate they were made at Spiro and not Cahokia. But many people think they are so similar that someone from Cahokia could have made them. Could these have been made by artisans that came to Spiro as part of migration of leadership from Cahokia? This seems to be a reasonable conclusion.

Perhaps the strongest argument for the Migration Theory involves the creation of the Great Mortuary and the Central Chamber. (Refer to Figure 1.) The Great Mortuary upon which the Central Chamber rested was created by digging up remains of high status individuals from different locations around the site and reburying them along with some associated offerings. This created a floor upon which the Central Chamber was created. Within the Central Chamber, contemporary elite burials were placed along with massive amounts of prestige goods. It has been described by Brown (1996) that it was as if there was a new direction in mortuary practices; as if a new leadership had been buried on top of the old leadership in a manner to tie the two together, but with the new leadership in a superior position above the old leadership. Since the new leaders were being imported from outside the area, it may have been desirable to create a link between the old and new to gain acceptance. By placing the new leaders above the old this would show the new leaders to be superior to the old and, therefore, better for the people. Whether the new leadership was accepted we may never know. Subsequent burials above the Central Chamber contained no prestige burial goods, indicating a lack of material wealth coming into the site. Within a few years the site would be abandoned and by 1450 the Spiro culture would cease to exist.

This theory presents a possible scenario that could explain many of the unusual occurrences at Cahokia and Spiro around 1300 to 1400 AD. This is not an in-depth analysis, but hopefully it might open the door for the exploration of such a migration theory.


Larry and Christopher Merriam are authors of the book The Spiro Mound : A Photo Essay, Photographs from the Collection of Dr. Robert E. Bell, published by Merriam Station Books.


Brown, James A.
1996 The Spiro Ceremonial Center. The Archaeology of Arkansas Valley Caddoan Culture in Eastern Oklahoma. Memoir Number 29, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2. Museum of Anthropology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Emerson, Thomas E., Randall E. Hughes, Mary R. Hynes
2003 The Sourcing and Interpretation of Cahokia Style Figurines in the Trans-
Mississippi South and Southeast. American Antiquity, Vol. 68, No. 2

Hamilton, Henry W.
1952 The Spiro Mound. Missouri Archaeologist, Vol. 14, Missouri Archaeological Society, Columbia, Missouri.

Merriam, Larry and Christopher
2004 The Spiro Mound : A Photo Essay. Photographs from the Collection of Dr. Robert E. Bell. Merriam Station Books, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

Phillips, Phillip, and James A. Brown
1979 Pre-Columbian Shell Engravings from the Craig Mound at Spiro, Oklahoma, Vol. IV. Peabody Museum Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Copyright 1979 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.


Figure 1: Cutaway View of The Spiro Mound

This view shows the buried features that created the ultimate shape of The Spiro Mound. The large cone on the left grew around and above the Great Mortuary and Central Chamber that were created between 1350 to 1400 A.D. Large caches of status goods were associated with these features. It is these precious objects that give Spiro its reputation as the riches site north of Mexico. The later burials, above the Great Mortuary and Central Chamber, would contain no significant associated grave goods. The drawing by Patrick Foster is taken from The Spiro Mound : A Photo Essay by Larry and Christopher Merriam.

Figure 2: Braecklein Photograph - Artifacts from the Central Chamber at Spiro

This photo was taken December 8, 1935 in J. G. Braecklein's Indian Store in Kansas City, Missouri. Key pieces in this picture are the 11" high Big Boy Pipe and the cache of seven maces. The maces are symbols of authority and signify the presence of leadership individuals of great importance at Spiro. The objects shown here are noteworthy enough to secure Spiro's place as a principal site of the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex. Photograph is from the collection of Dr. Robert E. Bell and is taken from The Spiro Mound : A Photo Essay by Larry and Christopher Merriam.

Figure 3: Conch Shell cup from Spiro showing two large canoes.

This picture is based on an interpretation by Phillip Phillips and James A. Brown (1979) of four shell fragments found at the Spiro site. They believe the fragments are from a single conch shell cup. This is the only cup showing watercraft. Each canoe has large banners or symbols of authority identifying the canoes as belonging to individuals of importance. Drawing by Patrick Foster.

Figure 4: Comparison of a Tribute Point from Spiro with Cahokia Points

The center point is one of only 23 known Tribute Points found at Spiro. The two outside points are examples of ceremonial points from Cahokia. The Tribute Point variety is considered by most people to have been created as a tribute to an important leader at Spiro. The Tribute Point fits stylistically within the range of Cahokia examples. The Cahokia exotic forms are also considered to be offerings to powerful rulers of Cahokia. The similarity between the two point types has led many people to see a connection between the two sites. Photograph by Christopher Merriam.



Back to Home Page