Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Animals, agriculture, and religion among Native Americans in Precontact Illinois: An interdisciplinary analysis of perception and representation
by Aftandilian, Dave, Ph.D., The University of Chicago, 2007, 585; 3287099
Abstract (Summary)

It is often said that by adopting agriculture, humanity took its first and most important step away from nature. Yet such arguments tend to be based more on assumptions extrapolated from current industrial monocultural farming, rather than on specific cases in which peoples transitioned from gathering and hunting to intensive agriculture.

My thesis explores the impact of the transition to intensive agriculture among Native Americans who lived in Illinois from about two thousand years ago (the Hopewell period) until about six hundred years ago (the end of the Mississippian). Specifically, I investigate whether and how the Illinois Mississippians' perceptions of animals changed after they began farming maize intensively. For my primary data, I use artistic representations of animals on artifacts. I compare animal representations made by the earlier Hopewell peoples (who practiced a mix of gathering, hunting, and garden-level horticulture) with those of the later Mississippian farmers. Moreover, I also apply a new, interdisciplinary method that I have developed for studying the meanings of animals in cultural context. This method involves four interrelated steps: formal analysis of the artworks, study of their archaeological contexts, exploring the natural history of the animals depicted, and surveying relevant ethnohistoric and folkloric information on what Native American peoples thought of these animals.

I have found that the Illinois Mississippian farmers represented relatively fewer animal species than did the Hopewell peoples. On the other hand, certain animals nevertheless played key roles in Illinois Mississippian worldview and religious rituals. Many of these rituals involved agriculture. For instance, frogs and snakes were called upon to increase agricultural fertility and provide the proper amount of water for the growing crops, while Spider Woman helped bring the fertilizing power of the Sun down from the heavens. But other animals that were represented quite frequently by the Illinois Mississippians seem to have had nothing to do with agriculture, including beavers and owls. My study has shown, then, that while the adoption of intensive maize agriculture did change Illinois Mississippians' relations with animals, farming did not entirely distance them from the natural world. Instead, animals remained central to their religious beliefs.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Buikstra, Jane E., Dietler, Michael
Commitee:
School: The University of Chicago
School Location: United States -- Illinois
Source: DAI-A 68/10, Dissertation Abstracts International
Source Type: DISSERTATION
Subjects: Religion, Archaeology, Native Americans, Native studies
Keywords: Agriculture, Animals, Hopewell, Illinois, Mississippian, Native Americans, Precontact, Religion
Publication Number: 3287099
ISBN: 9780549296157