Infamous Mass Grave of Young Women in Ancient City of Cahokia Also Holds Men: Study

Mound 72 human sacrifice

The scene, discovered by archaeologists in Illinois more than 40 years ago, depicts one of the most extravagant acts of violence ever documented in ancient America: A thousand-year-old pit found under a tall earthen mound, lined from corner to corner with skeletons — 53 in all — neatly arranged two bodies deep, each layer separated by woven fiber mats.

The victims all appeared to be women, mostly in their late teens or early 20s. Evidence suggested they were strangled, or perhaps cut at the throat, at the edge of their shared mass grave, and then interred, meters away from an ornate burial of two men thought to be clan elders, political leaders, spiritual guides, or all three.

But the women were not alone.

At the other of end the mound were three more mass graves, containing another 65 skeletons between them, also apparently of females.

By the time the entire mound had been excavated, two dozen burial pits had emerged, cradling some 270 human remains, each betraying signs of various degrees of violence — from having their jaws broken to being buried alive.

An artist envisions a mass sacrifice of young women in Cahokia around 1000 CE that may have filled one of the more notorious graves in Mound 72 (Credit: Herb Roe)
An artist envisions a mass sacrifice of young women in Cahokia around 1000 CE that may have filled one of the more notorious graves in Mound 72 (Credit: Herb Roe)

Archaeologists first uncovered this grim tableau in 1967 while excavating the prehistoric city of Cahokia, at its peak from 1050 to 1150 CE, the seat of the ancient Mississippian culture.

Now little more than a series of grassy hillocks outside St. Louis, Cahokia was once the metropole of a civilization whose trade routes and religious influence stretched from the Great Lakes to the Deep South, and whose culture shaped the ways of the Plains and Southern Indians.

(Learn more about Cahokia’s ancient rituals: “Ancient Americans Pounded Vomit-Causing ‘Black Drink’ 6 Times Stronger Than Coffee”)

As the largest display of ritual killing found anywhere north of Mexico, the cluster of Cahokia mass graves — known as Mound 72 — has been one of the most studied features in the country.

But the four “all-female” mass graves — and the one holding the 53 women in particular — have become something of a fixed idea in American archaeology: Experts have described their remains as “unblemished”; some speculated that they were virgins; others, taking a more economic view, suggested that their deaths were meant as a display of wealth, since women were the core of Cahokia’s workforce. Still others thought it was a way of eliminating possible future rivals in a matrilineal society.

CahokiaMound72massPit
The “all-female” mass grave during excavation

But new research casts doubt on this most-touted trait of Mound 72. A study published in the July issue of the American Journal of Physical Anthropology finds that men were also likely among the unfortunate dead, in all four of the mass graves.

“The idea of all-female sacrifice pits in Mound 72 has been reverberated in discussions of Cahokia and Mississippian culture in general for many years,” said the study’s author, Dr. Andrew Thompson, by email. “It is a very interesting and controversial idea.”

But even when the mound was first excavated in the 1960s and ’70s, there was little evidence that the victims were all women, he says.

Thompson, who conducted his research while a doctoral student in physical anthropology at Indiana University, points out that original analyses of Mound 72 found most of the skeletons were too badly decomposed to identify their sex.

Of the approximately 270 total remains found in the mound, he reports, only 117 could be sexed at the time.

And in those four graves in particular, there were 118 remains, of which only 56, or 47 percent, were confidently thought to be female.

Nonetheless, for decades those features in Mound 72 — especially the pit with the 53 bodies stacked chock-a-block — have been, and continue to be, described as “all-female” graves.

So in an effort to get a more accurate view of whom the graves held, Thompson turned to the hardest and most durable structures in the human body: teeth.

“Basically I took measurements of all the teeth that were recovered from Mound 72 and used those measurements to reassess sex in the four burial pits that were reported as being all female,” he said.

“In case you’re wondering,” he added, “teeth are indeed reliable indicators of sex—there is a measurable difference in the size of male vs. female teeth. There is, of course, quite a bit of overlap in tooth size between sexes, and this varies between populations.”

To account for these variations, Thompson created a baseline for average tooth size in Cahokia, by measuring teeth from other nearby graves. Specifically, he used samples from two local sites that held remains of people who lived at about the same time and place as the Mound 72 victims but were much better preserved and therefore easier to sex.

Using these averages for male and female tooth size as a yardstick for the general population, Thompson then compared them against teeth recovered from the four putative female-only graves in Mound 72 — representing a total of 88 victims.

Based on his measurements, Thompson estimates that 15 out of the 88 skeletons — or 17% — are male.

And in the grave with the 53 neatly-stacked bodies — the feature most often described as the “female burial pit” — he found at least 8 male victims.

Since sex has been so central to the graves’ interpretations, Thompson took an extra step: He went back to the skeletal remains of those 8 possible men, to look for clues in the bones themselves as to whether they were male or female.

Cahokia mound
Mound 72 as it appears today (Credit: Carptrash)

“I didn’t find much supporting evidence in this regard,” Thompson says.

“Most of the skeletal material is highly fragmented, which limits the observable features, and what material was observable was mostly inconclusive, at best.”

In the end, Thompson estimates that each of the four mass graves in the mound had at least 2 skeletons that could be classified as male by his measurements.

He concludes that it’s “questionable” that the dead found in any of Mound 72’s mass graves were all female.

Still, he acknowledges that, even by his estimates, 80% of the dead still appear to be women — so their sex is still likely a key to deciphering what happened at Mound 72 a thousand years ago.

But since so many theories have been based on the idea that the victims were entirely women, Thompson suggests that some theories about what its macabre scene means may need to be reconsidered.

“I think the main significance of my study is that it questions one of the central discussions surrounding the events that led up to the construction of Mound 72,” he says.

“Females played a critical role in society during this time period. The idea of removing such a large segment of young women from a population is interesting both from demographic and socioeconomic perspectives.

“Many view the interment of such a large and specific segment of society as a statement of power and influence, two themes that are often discussed in Mississippian politics.

“If my study is accurate and not all of the individuals were biologically female, it would require some reinterpretation of the events involved with the construction of Mound 72.”

Sources:

• “Odontometric Determination of Sex at Mound 72, Cahokia,” American Journal of Physical Anthropology, Vol. 151, Issue 3 

Cahokia: Ancient America’s Great City on the Mississippi by Timothy Pauketat (2010) *Western Digs Book Club Selection*

Updated 8/12 to reflect that the research studied four “all-female” graves among the approximately 24 grave features in the Mound, and that there were 118 bodies in those graves and 270 in the mound total.

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Discussion

  1. Sargents Pigeon

    In reevaluating these graves, we should get beyond the projection of purely-modern motives for homicide such as all those hypothesized to date — namely “ritual” which has become a code word for our own concept of religion, or some type of status/power assertion. Mississippian cosmology was one of a vast continuum of incarnations, often referred to as the transmigration of souls. Indeed the mounds were mortuary structures built to assist the transmigration of departed spirits in various ways. It is entirely possible that the sacrificed victims were free and voluntary participants, who had built nearby earthworks in anticipation of their own transmigration at that chosen place, a concept of mass homicide for which we have no equivalent.

    1. Mike Cunningham

      Can you freely submit to being killed if you are brainwashed into “that is what God wants,?” Sort of like destitute families giving their church elder this weeks food money and letting their children go hungry. The elder is normally driving the latest model Cadillac by the way.

    2. Chris Amon

      I completely agree that discoveries pertaining to the Mississippians are far too often explained has have religious, ceremonial, or ritual meaning. I’ve been reading all the Spanish accounts of the DeSoto expedition and I find only scant reference to rituals other than music and dances and no examples theology debates between the Franciscan Friars and Jesuits priests and native medicine men. There are many references to king-like chiefs who lived on mounds and kept the bones of their ancestors and war trophies in charnel temples, they exacted yearly tribute in foodstuffs from vassals, had large populations, war slaves working in the fields had one foot crippled, the slaves were usually taken on small scale raids. Every statement comes from the DeSoto chroniclers and can be backed up by archeology. And this isn’t to say that the Mississippians weren’t religious, it’s just that, if you only read the current scholarly articles on the subject then you get the impression that religion was the most important thing in their lives.

  2. Anonymous

    Just a suggestion: If you are going to use someone’s artistic work to support your literary work, at least have the courtesy to credit them properly. The image of young women being sacrificed was NOT created by a Herb ROWE. It was created by Herb ROE!!! The artist himself may or may not complain because at least you attempted to give him credit, but as a longtime supporter of his work, I feel that I must say something. He deserves to be credited properly as I am sure it took a lot of time and work on his part to create the image. If you worked as hard on your article as he did on his art you would deserve as much credit and you would give proper credit, as well.

    1. Blake de Pastino

      Thanks for pointing this out. The image was acquired under Creative Commons license 3.0, and the author’s name is listed as Heironymous Rowe. But I looked into it, and although the author’s name is listed as Rowe, a note indicates the attribution should read Herb Roe. So, thanks again for pointing out the typo.

  3. Kelvin

    The men mentioned buried with the women. Is it possible they were berdache, or two-spirit. Has that been ruled out ?

    1. Blake de Pastino

      Thanks for writing, Kelvin; this is a really interesting question. If I recall correctly, the paper mentions toward the end that future research might want to consider the role, if any, of Cahokian gender identities when exploring why some men were buried with the women. But as a physical anthropologist, that’s not really this scientist’s turf. I plan on doing a lot of follow ups, so be sure to subscribe, follow and generally check in often. Thanks again!

  4. Lao Tzu

    This image is disgusting and these people were disgusting, killing all of those young women like that. I am happy that they are no longer around.

    Also, why is the picture having to show the woman naked? IS this some sort of sexual fetish among male anthropologist? So disgusting.

    1. Leroy Morte

      The women are not naked, they wear knee length skirts. They do happen to be topless. If you have ever looked at any Mississippian culture artifacts, such as the Missouri flint clay female statues found at Cahokia, you would see that the women in the illustration are dressed like the statues. Just because a prude like you has a problem with boobs doesn’t mean everyone else in the world does or that eh people of that clture did

  5. Chris Amon

    Were the males found in the grave killed differently than the females? Say with a club to the head instead of throttling? That might indicate that the men represented in Mound 72 were POWs.

    1. Daryl Cunningham

      I think the men were “hermorphadites”..They were used for heavy work and such according to some early writers of Indigunios(sp?) peoples..I am in NC where Pardo left Montoya at the Yadkin river(Salisbury NC) to live with the local people and I find artifacts with the same scence dipicted ie. gorrots around the neck of human sacrifices..Send email to [email protected] if you want to see photos of said artifacts…

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