Unraveling the Mystery of the Beaded Burial: Skeletons Identified as Female Nobles
In the ruins of the Native American city Cahokia, which flourished hundreds of years ago, there is a burial mound with the remains of a royal or noble couple. Buried around them in the mound are the skeletons of many people who were brutally chopped up, strangled or bled to death in apparent sacrifices.
The “beaded burial” at the center of Burial Mound 72 was previously thought to contain bodies of six highly important men. But a new study concludes that some of the 12—not six—high-status skeletons include women and one child. Buried at the very center of this central beaded burial feature is the couple—that is, a man and woman.
“The fact that these high-status burials included women changes the meaning of the beaded burial feature,” archaeologist Thomas Emerson of the Illinois State Archaeological Survey said in a University of Illinois press release. “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 press release does not make clear whether any of the 12 people in the beaded burial were sacrifice victims. The burial mound was used from about 1000 to 12000 AD.
Cahokia was a large Native American city that flourished around 700 to 1400 AD in what is now the state of Illinois
Inside the burial mound, rediscovered in 1967 by archaeologist Melvin Fowler, were five mass graves with between 20 to more than 50 bodies. Many of them were sacrificed. The mound is also called the “beaded burial” because two of the bodies at the center of the grave contained two bodies on a bed of luxurious beads.
This graphic by Julie McMahon shows the arrangement of the beaded burial, which had a man and woman, not just two men as was previously believed. (Image courtesy of Illinois News Bureau)
“Mound 72 burials are some of the most significant burials ever excavated in North America from this time period,” said Dr. Emerson in the press release. “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.”
Dr. Emerson conducted a recent study with anthropologist Kristin Hedman and skeletal analysts Eve Hargrave, Dawn Cobb and Andrew Thompson. The results of their research have been released in an article in American Antiquity.
They say that Fowler and other researchers erroneously concluded the beaded burial was of two high-status men who were buried with their servants. They thought the beaded cape or blanket was in the shape of a bird, which are symbolic to warrior societies and mythology in Native American culture.
So Fowler concluded that the beaded burial was of two male warrior chiefs. Researchers extrapolated these conclusions to surmise that Cahokia had a “male-dominated hierarchy.”
The press release states:
A fresh look at the early archaeologists’ maps, notes and reports and the skeletal remains told a new and surprising story. First, the researchers found that there were 12 bodies associated with the beaded burial – not six, as had been previously reported. And independent skeletal analyses conducted by each of the co-authors – Thompson, Hedman, Hargrave and Cobb – revealed that the two central bodies in the beaded burial were actually male and female.
Further analyses revealed other male-female pairs on top of, and near, the beaded area. Some were laid out as fully articulated bodies. Others were disarticulated bodies, the bones of which had been gathered and bundled for burial near these important couples. The researchers also discovered the remains of a child.
Researchers had speculated that victims of human sacrifice found at Cahokia were brought in from outside the area, perhaps as tribute. But an analysis of the element strontium in the victims’ teeth shows they were mainly local—especially the 39 people brutally killed and unceremoniously dumped in a mass grave.
Mound 72 at Cahokia held several mass graves but also burials of high-status individuals, some of which included items like these artifacts. Pictured here are chunky stones likely used in games, Cahokia-style tri-notched projectile points, and marine shell disc beads like those used in the beaded burial at Cahokia. Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
As Ancient Origins reported in 2015, Mound72 had groups of people, some of them victims of sacrifice, buried in large pits. Many are laid out in neat rows and had little sign of trauma. Researchers speculate they died of strangulation or blood-letting.
From about 700 to 1400 AD, Cahokia was apparently one of the biggest cities in the world. At its height it had 15,000 residents. The complex society at Cahokia, part of the Native American Mississippian Culture, prospered in the fertile lands off of the Mississippi River across the river from modern St. Louis, Missouri.
The University of Illinois press release has links to the American Antiquity article and other recent articles relating to Mound 72.
Top image: A recreation of Cahokia, painting by William R. Iseminger of the Cahokia Mounts State Historic Site
By Mark Miller