The story of CahokiaPosted: October 29, 2014
Anyone who traveled up the Mississippi in 1100 A.D. would have seen it looming in the distance: a four-level earthen mound bigger than the Great Pyramid of Giza. Around it like echoes were as many as 120 smaller mounds, some topped by tall wooden palisades, which were in turn ringed by a network of irrigation and transportation canals; carefully located fields of maize; and hundreds of wooden homes with mud-and-straw plastered floors and high-peaked, deeply thatched roofs like those on traditional Japanese farms.
Located near the confluence of the Missouri, Illinois, and Mississippi Rivers, the Indian city of Cahokia was a busy port. Canoes flitted like hummingbirds across its waterfront: traders bringing copper and mother-of-pearl from faraway places; hunting parties bringing such rare treats as buffalo and elk; emissaries and soldiers in long vessels bristling with weaponry; workers ferrying wood from upstream for the ever hungry cookfires; the ubiquitous fishers with their nets and clubs. Covering five square miles and housing at least fifteen hundred people, Cahokia was the biggest concentration of people north of the Rio Grande until the 18th century.
That is from the great Charles C. Mann’s 1491: New Revelations Of The Americas Before Columbus.
I can’t recommend this book highly enough. Every American should read it.
Cahokia is very close to St. Louis – it’s about thirty miles away between what’s now East St. Louis and Collinsville, IL.
I wanted to visit, but I didn’t have a car. I explained the predicament to the Ethiopian taxi driver who picked me up at the airport. I asked him if he’d pick me up, take me there, wait an hour and take me back. So the next morning he took me out there. He and I visited the Cahokia Mounds Interpretive Center and Museum together. We watched the award-winning 17 minute movie. Cahokia Mounds is one of only 22 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the US, and they do a nice job.
“It was very interesting,” agreed the cab driver.
The idea that native Americans built cities was and remains a challenging ideas to different views of what life was like here before 1492. It fights with both 19th century views of Indians as primitive savages, and later ideas that they were chilled out wanderers in perfect harmony with nature.
How many people lived at Cahokia?
6,000, say some archaeologists, 40,000 say others. Charles Mann is really good at sorting through competing views of numbers, and if he says 1500 I’m prepared to believe him. In the grandest view, the museum’s view, at one time Cahokia looked like this:
and like this:
How did Cahokia emerge?
Cahokia archaeology is wildly controversial. But it seems like there’s more or less consensus that Cahokia grew up around the year 1000 in a “big bang.” Here’s Mann:
As the millennium approached, the American Bottom had a resident population of several thousand. Then, without much apparent warning, there was, according to the archaeologist Timothy R. Pauketat of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, what has been called a “Big Bang” – a few decades of tumultuous change.
To his way of thinking, the Big Bang occurred after a single ambitious person seized power, perhaps in a coup. Although his reign may have begun idealistically, Cahokia quickly became an autocracy; in an Ozymandic extension of his ego, the supreme leader set in motion the construction projects.
Don’t worry: there’s lots of arguing already:
[William] Woods [of U. Kansas, who spent 20 years excavating the mounds] disagrees with what he calls the “proto-Stalinist work camp” scenario. Nobody was forced to erect Monks Mound, he says. Despite the intermittent displays of coercion, he says, Cahokians put it up “because they wanted to.”
Who knows? Julian Jaynes might say that these people just started building because the two hemispheres of their brain weren’t yet in alignment so they heard voices like schizophrenics:
But that’s a topic for another day.
At the Cahokia gift shop, I picked up a copy of Pauketat’s book:
It’s terrific, just the right length. Pauketat says:
Civilizations can rise and fall, to adapt Margaret Mead’s famous quotation, as a result of the actions of a small group of people combined with the inaction of many others. Making sense of these actions and inacations can be a difficult task for archaeologists, who must distinguish between how people lived and how they wanted to be perceived as living. Cahokia’s big bang is a case study in how people can combine to great historical change.
OK, groovy – but why did this happen around the year 1000? If I can jump ahead in Pauketat’s story: This combination of the cultural power of immigrants and the economic base of Old Cahokia [don’t worry about that], with its access to large amounts of easy-to-farm river bottom, was a recipe for explosive growth. That explosion might have been sparked early one morning in 1054.
On that morning, recorded by a Chinese astrologer as July 4, a brilliant new luminary appeared in the sky. It was a “guest star,” a supernova, a visitor in the constellation Taurus, visible today with a high-powered telescope as the Crab Nebula. One of only fifty supernovas ever recorded – only three in our own Milky Way galaxy* – this nuclear detonation was the last gasp of a dying star. The inaudible explosion discharged a billion times more energy than the small star had previously emitted, and that morning a brilliant beacon – four times brighter than Venus – appeared in the daylight adjacent to a crescent moon…
Whatever i might have meant to the native peoples, a New Mexican Mimbres valley potter commemorated the celestial event by painting a pot with a star ad the foot of a crescent-shaped rabbit, a representation of the rabbit many indigenous North Americans believed resided in the moon. Ancient rock art in Arizona also appears to illustrate the supernova, as do petrogylphs in Missouri, which show the moon and supernova astride rabbit tracks. And in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, a map of the night sky in July 1054 was painted on the sandstone cliffs above a palatial-sized, multi-story Great House called Penasco Blanco, under construction at about the same time in the middle of the eleventh century. The pictograph shows the exploding star next to a crescent moon and a human hand, the later possibly representing a group of stars still known among Plains Indians today as the Hand constellation. Also in Chaco Canyon, construction began around this time on a massive new kiva, an underground ceremonial building, now called Casa Rinconada, just south of the largest Great House, Pueblo Bonito.
Pause for a sec. This is a sexy theory: a supernova creates a new star, and everyone goes into a religious building frenzy. But let’s take a look at the Penasco Blanco petroglyph. Here is is, in a photo by Ron Lussier:
Could it be that we’re stretching things a BIT here? That star/moon pattern appears in other petrogylphs that weren’t from the 1054 period.
Anyway, here’s some things we do know about Cahokia:
They had human sacrifices.
Pakutet, talking about Cahokia’s “Mound 72”:
Over the next four summers, Fowler’s crew turned up pit after pit and row after row of human skeletons in other parts of the mound. The lengths and widths of the pits were precisely suited to contain exactly the number of bodies interred within them. The excavation of the largest pit was supervised by Al Meyer, who noticed the telltale signs of a tomb originally lined with logs (which had since disintegrated) as he dug around the pit’s margins downward to the bottom. At the bottom were the remains of fifty-three sacrificed women, fifty-two of whom were young (most between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five). The fifty-third individual was an “elderly” (thirtyish) female, whom Meyer thought of as “the matron,” sparking the notion that she had been the elder wife of some man’s harem. Since there were no skeletal indications of how the women had died, it is likely that they were poisoned or strangled or that their throats had been slit…
the bodies of thirty-nine men and women who had, without a doubt, been executed on the spot. In the dispassionate language of a forensic report, Rose describes: […]
Evidence of violence also distinguishes these burials from the other mass graves. Three individuals had been decapitated prior to being thrown into the pit. The heads were thrown in before the burials were covered. Another male appears to have been incompletely decapitated
They played a game called chunkey.
Man, read about Cahokia and you are gonna hear a lot about chunkey. It was a game where you rolled a stone, and then tried to hit it with a spear. It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it’s all over what little art we have from the Mississippian culture. Pakutet has a lot more patience than me for the differences in various chunkey stones found at Mississippian sites:
Anthropologists seem to think that this was the same game native Americans were playing seven centuries later when whites first saw them. Said Swiss painter Rudolf Kurz, who was traveling around:
they bet high; here you may see a savage come and bring all his skins, stake them and lose them, next his pipe, his beads, trinkets and ornaments; at last his blankets and other garments, and even all their arms, and after all that is is not uncommon for them to go home, borrow a gun and shoot themselves; an instance of this happened in 1771 at East Yasoo a short time before my arrival.
I’m telling you, the guys who get into Cahokia get deep into chunkey:
Emerson took the next step. He worked with a geologist and an archaeometric specialist to develop, with the aid of the National Science Foundation, a new short-wave, infrared-light-beam method of measuring the mineral composition of rock. Their device is called a Portable Infrared Mineral Analyzer (PIMA for short) and has the advantage of being able to precisely measure a specimen’s mineralogy without damaging it. Functioning like a ray gun, the PIMA is powerful enough to determine where the Chunkey Player pipe and two dozen other Cahokia-style objects were made. Between 2000 and 2003, Emerson and his team published their results: the red stone sculptures were made not from bauxite but from a raw material called flintclay, which could have been obtained only at a single source of stone originating from an outcrop as close as twenty miles west of Cahokia.
I gotta say, chunkey does not seem that fun to me that I can understand why they were shooting themselves over it seven centuries after it was invented but I’ve never tried it.
They had massive feasts.
Based on the sheer density of excavated remains, individual feasts that took place over the course of just a few days would have involved killing, butchering, and carting in as many as thirty-nine hundred deer, the use of up to seventy-nine hundred pots, and enough smoking tobacco to produce more than a million charred tobacco seeds.
I have no idea how much tobacco that is. A lot? Worth noting that Charles Mann points out that the tobacco back then was way stronger, possibly even slightly hallucinogenic.
Now as I’m reviewing Pakutet’s book I can’t help but be impressed by how much he likes archaeology. here he is talking about a site that wasn’t even very important, it was basically twelve huts from poor people who lived miles away from Cahokia Central:
The trash itself was impressive, in both amount and type.
Imagine spending years digging up people’s trash from a thousand years ago so you could make discoveries like “THEY ATE DOGS!” and “THEY ATE MOSTLY CORN”!
At Cahokia Mounds Interpretive Center they make a big deal out of “borrow pits,” places where they took the dirt to make the mounds. Borrow pits? It’s like: “dude, do you mean holes?”
God bless you, archaeologists. Some of the characters he describes were pretty wild:
[Preston] Holder also joined the armed forces. He signed up with the navy and was sent to fight the Japanese. Years later, he would tell stories about his time as a coast watcher on a small island in the Pacific. The Japanese had established an airbase on one side of the island, he was stationed on the opposite side, and the people of Espiritu Santo, who had practiced head-hunting before the war, were trapped in between. Holder, intrepid archaeologist that he was, apparently convinced the natives to revive their traditional practice, and they began taking heads again, this time preying on the unsuspecting Japanese troops. Holder’s unusual ploy demoralized the Japanese, and when American forces finally retook the island in 1945, the Japanese were all too ready to surrender.
They were into a mythological birdman.
That was the only Birdman image I saw at the Interpretive Center, but artist Herb Roe has painted a more fanciful depiction of the Birdman supposedly crucial to the Mississippian culture or “Southeastern Ceremonial Complex.”
Now, what don’t we know about Cahokia?
What happened to them?
Nobody knows, seems to have collapsed around 1250.
Did they have any connection to the big cities that sprang up in Mexico?
There’s no evidence of it, really, unless you realllllllly stretch the birdman idea. Some of the archaeologists got into the idea that the 52 human sacrifices has something to do with the Mayan calendar, but c’mon bros.
I find the idea of a pre-Columbian city in the what’s now United States fascinating, and the tantalizing, inevitably frustrating effort to sort out what was going on in a place that left no record is a cool mystery. As usual, the history about the history is as good as the history. Here we have archaeologists spending five years digging in the mud of Illinois to try and figure out why people 1000 years ago dug in the mud of Illinois.
On the other hand, what we’re talking about is some piles of dirt.
Anyway, glad someone’s working on it.