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Archaeological evidence for social stratification
The central issue behind archaeological debates on the Mississippian Period of the American Bottom for the last 30 years is just how powerful and complex was the Cahokia chiefdom. Some archaeologists divide Mississippian settlements into a hierarchy ranging from urban centers (Cahokia), to large towns with mounds (mound-towns like Mitchell and Lunsford-Pulcher), to groupings of a moderate number of houses with one mound (single mound villages), to groupings of a moderate number of houses without any mounds (villages), to settlements comprised of just a few households (hamlets), and to single, isolated individual houses (the farmstead).

Model of a highly integrated Cahokia chiefdom.

In this view Cahokia was a stable complex chiefdom that exercised enormous influence not only over groups in the American Bottom, but also over peoples throughout eastern North America. Evidence cited for this interpretation includes (a) a four-tier or more settlement pattern with settlements of varying size and internal complexity, (b) planned mound center layout including open plazas, (c) a large urban population, (d) extensive trade throughout eastern North America, and (e) widespread commonality in religious symbolism in the eastern U.S. (the so-called Southeastern Ceremonial Complex). Some have even argued on the basis of these data that Mississippian Cahokia was so integrated that it attained a quasi-state level of social organization, much like the pre-Columbian states of the Aztecs, Toltecs, and Mayans of Mexico and Central America.

Alternative model of the Cahokia chiefdom.

Recently, however, other scholars have argued that an all powerful Cahokia of quasi state-like status with far-reaching influence is questionable because it "stretches" the available archaeological data. To be sure, this conservative view agrees that Cahokia was the center of a complex Mississippian chiefdom, undoubtedly the most densely populated, politically powerful, and religiously important in this stretch of the Mississippi River valley. What many take issue with is the stability of the socio-political system and the level of control and influence that the Cahokia elite were able to exercise over people within and far removed from the American Bottom. In this view, other towns with mounds and associated smaller communities represent largely self-sufficient and autonomous chiefdoms that were not immediatly responsive to every whim of the Cahokia elite. Accordingly, the political and social landscape of the American Bottom is believed to have been segmented into a series of separate districts, each led by a chief highly. Relations among them were highly competitive and volatile. As the power of quasi-autonomous chiefs waxed and waned, so too did their threat to, or support of, the paramount chief at Cahokia. Thus, the stability and cohesion of the Cahokia dominated regional chiefdom varied over time. Furthermore, according to this interpretation of the archaeological evidence, while Mississippians of the American Bottom certainly interacted with various other cultures throughout eastern North America, their influence in these distant places was quite limited and often indirect.

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