from this wild article by Charles King about Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson.
How many of Jimmy Buffett’s Big Eight (now the Big Ten) could you name? A few weeks ago I could’ve gotten two for sure, maybe three, I’m no Parrothead. When I thought of “Jimmy Buffett,” I thought of MW’s story of listening to his greatest hits on cassette on their way to family vacation, with his mom reaching over to frantically fast forward whenever “Why Don’t We Get Drunk and Screw” came around.
In Mile Marker Zero I loved the origin story of Jimmy Buffett: down on his luck in Nashville, goes to Miami for a gig, only to find either he or the club owner got the dates wrong. Stuck, he calls his friend Jerry Jeff Walker, whose girlfriend suggests they take the unexpected week and go down to Key West. When Jimmy Buffett sees the lifestyle there he knows he’s in the right place and never turns back.
The Margaritaville retirement community was profiled in The New Yorker. How many of the singer-songwriters of the ’70s have a retirement community based on their worldview? John Prine? Kris Kristofferson? Only one. At the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting they sold a Jimmy Buffett boat. The man is a phenomenon. Why?
On a warm spring morning driving from Chapel HIll to Wilmington, NC in a rented Ford Escape armed with Sirius Satellite XM, I put on Parrothead Radio. They were playing a live concert from March 2001. “Before 9/11,” I thought. The contagious fun of this man came through, and the joy of the audience. It’s strange since, can you even really picture Jimmy Buffett? You can picture what kind of shirt he wears.
He’s in that kinda shirt on the cover of the mass market paperback of A Pirate Looks at Fifty. On a sunny beach obviously. Behind him is an enormous Albatross seaplane, the Hemisphere II.
This is a travel book, and a great one. I’d rank it up there with Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines, which it references a few times. I bet more of A Pirate Looks at Fifty is true. I saved this book to read on the beach in Malibu – perfect setting. The book, leisurely, describes a trip around the Caribbean Sea to commemorate his fiftieth birthday, with stops in Grand Cayman, Costa Rica, Cartagena, St. Barts. A treasure map opens the book, you can follow the voyage. Along the way, Buffett tells of his rise and his adventures. He desired to be a Serious Southern Writer, but that wasn’t him. As a boy he was struck by a parade at Mobile Mardi Gras of Folly chasing Death. That was him. Catholicism plays a bigger role than you may suspect, with St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans his home church, but plenty of bad behavior to balance the ledger. A friend at Auburn teaches him the D and C chords on a guitar. He busks on the corner of Chartres and Conti in New Orleans.
My talent came in working an audience.
Buffett begins the book with four hundred words summing up his life to present. An excerpt:
I signed a record deal, got married, moved to Nashville, had my guitars stolen, bought a Mercedes, worked at Billboard magazine, put out my first album, went broke, met Jerry Jeff Walker, wrecked the Mercedes, got divorced, and moved to Key West. I sang and worked on a fishing boat, went totally crazy, did a lot of dope, met the right girl, made another record, had a hit, bought a bought, and sailed away to the Caribbean.
Having brought us up to speed, he gets going. This is a memoir more of flying and fishing than of music. Buffett is a pilot, and recounts many adventures in the air, usually flying somewhere to fish or surf.
In looking back, I see there wasn’t that much difference between Jimi Hendrix playing “The Star-Spangled Banner at dawn at Woodstock and Jimmy Stewart playing Charles Lindbergh in “The Spirit of St. Louis.”
Memorable meals are described: cucumber and tomato sandwiches at the brassiere on the Trocadero in Paris for example. And bars: Buck Forty Nine, New Orleans; Trade Winds, St. Augustine; The Hub Pub Club, Boone NC; Big Pine Inn; The Hangout, Gulf Shores; The Vapors, Biloxi; Le Select, St. Barts.
Of a visit to paintings of Winslow Homer and Frederick Edward Church:
I can’t put the feeling into words; the closest I can come is to say that the sights and sounds of such things may enter the body through the senses but they find their way to the heart, and that is what art is really about.
Anyone bellying up to a bar with a few shots of tequila swimming around the bloodstream can tell a story. The challenge is to wake up the next day and carve through the hangover minefield and a million other excuses and be able to cohesively get it down on paper.
“I have a definition of what I do,” Wolpert told the WGAW in 2008. “If you put a boat on the stormy ocean, you’ve got an action picture. You put somebody on that boat you give a damn about, you’ve got an adventure. I write adventure.”
from this Deadline obituary for writer/producer Jay Wolpert.
We started out as nomadic. It may be the most natural state for human beings. We’re kind of returning to people freedom they lost starting in the Dark Ages. It was with the discovery of seeds that people ceased being nomadic—and my opinion, by the way, is that people remain nomadic by nature—but it is for economic reasons that we became fixed in our location.
Craig McCaw talking about wireless phones, quoted here by Tren Griffin. This 2013 Vanity Fair piece by Elise O’Shaughnessy, about tycoons of the new media/wireless world at Herb Allen’s Sun Valley summit, seems to be the original source, and it’s full of interesting stuff.
Ovitz showed up with the world’s best-trained orangutan, which had been carefully coached to hold a microphone and lip-synch a speech in imitation of Allen & Company Inc. managing director and master of ceremonies Jack Schneider.
As America’s military-industrial supremacy has waned, the nation is emerging as an information-and-entertainment superpower. “It’s a little bit like the advantage Henry Ford had at the turn of the century,” Malone points out. “Only America was big enough to justify building mass-production centers for Fords. So, here, in the latter part of the century, our market is the only one large enough to justify building the next Microsoft Windows software, or the next Terminator 2, Jurassic Park. That gives us, as an exporter, a huge edge.”
“Ted Turner is the classic four-year-old and man in the same body,” says Craig McCaw. “He’s pure. . . . People who are pure, like Ted, are required to do the obvious, because by the time it becomes completely obvious, people like him have already done it and the other guys haven’t. You’ve got to ask yourself why, what conceivable possible reason, is it that Ted Turner is the first man to do a news network. I mean, it blows your mind.”
One thing led to another and I read a long oral history with mining entrepreneur Stanley Dempsey. Here are some li’l nuggets of mild interest. On pursuing claims in Nicaragua:
on the mining boom towns of Colorado:
Sometimes, not being an expert is an advantage:
The 1872 Mining Law, which creates self-initiated rights, kind of unique to the United States, seems very important to this country’s development.
for leisure he would climb a nearby hill, Roseberry Topping.
Cooks’ Cottage, his parents’ last home, which he is likely to have visited, is now in Melbourne, Australia, having been moved from England and reassembled, brick by brick, in 1934.
In 1745, when he was 16, Cook moved 20 miles to the fishing village of Staithes, to be apprenticed as a shop boy to grocer and haberdasher William Sanderson. Historians have speculated that this is where Cook first felt the lure of the sea while gazing out of the shop window.
Fantasizing about a trip to Hawaii, I was reading up on Captain Cook. This led me to the poem Five Visions of Captain Cook, by Kenneth Slessor. An excerpt:
Cook was a captain of the powder-days
When captains, you might have said, if you had been
Fixed by their glittering stare, half-down the side,
Or gaping at them up companionways,
Were more like warlocks than a humble man—
And men were humble then who gazed at them,
Poor horn-eyed sailors, bullied by devils’ fists
Of wind or water, or the want of both,
Childlike and trusting, filled with eager trust—
Cook was a captain of the sailing days
When sea-captains were kings like this,
Not cold executives of company-rules
Cracking their boilers for a dividend
Or bidding their engineers go wink
At bells and telegraphs, so plates would hold
Another pound. Those captains drove their ships
By their own blood, no laws of schoolbook steam,
Till yards were sprung, and masts went overboard—
Daemons in periwigs, doling magic out,
Who read fair alphabets in stars
Where humbler men found but a mess of sparks,
Who steered their crews by mysteries
And strange, half-dreadful sortilege with books,
Used medicines that only gods could know
The sense of, but sailors drank
In simple faith. That was the captain
Cook was when he came to the Coral Sea
And chose a passage into the dark.
Kenneth Slessor seems interesting; how many poets wrote about rugby for Smith’s Weekly? Maybe when I head to Hawaii I’ll bring a copy of Slessor’s 100 Poems.
I come back to pictures of Roseberry Topping. You picture Cook in the Pacific, encountering these wild exotic landscapes, but on the other hand this hill in north Yorkshire, doesn’t it look like it could be some outcropping in the South Seas?
A beautiful film in many ways, maybe a little slow-paced for today’s documentary viewer. Wasn’t sure how I felt about the ethics of this expedition. It seemed, at its heart, a little pointless compared to the dangers it courted? Not just to the expedition members, but to the 700 paid Sherpas and other porters. But maybe I’m just looking for an excuse to justify why I haven’t skied down Everest. I’m no Yuchiro Miura, that’s for sure.
A surprising number of readers of Helytimes found their way here looking for lists of mountaineering movies. A category where even the bad ones are good.
The inhabitants known for their bloodthirstiness would’ve killed me if I approached any further than the Unholy Gate.
This collection of essays from 1973 gets an A+ on cover alone.
Undoubtedly one of the major reasons that anthropologists for so long underestimated the importance of hallucinogenic substances in shamanism and religious experience was that very few had partaken themselves of the native psychotropic materials (other than peyote) or had undergone the resulting subjective experiences so critical, perhaps paradoxically, to an empirical understanding of their meaning to the peoples they studied. Most, although not all, of the authors in the present book are an exception…
I’ll say! From Michael J. Harner’s essay “The Sound Of Rushing Water”:
When I first undertook research among the Jívaro in 1956-57, I did not fully appreciate the psychological impact of the Banisteriopsis drink upon the native view of reality, but in 1961 I had occasion to drink the hallucinogen in the course of field work with another Upper Amazon Basin tribe. For several hours after drinking the brew, I found myself, although awake, in a world literally beyond my wildest dreams. I met bird-headed people, as well as dragon-like creatures who explained that they were the true gods of this world. I enlisted the services of other spirit helpers in attempting to fly through the far reaches of the Galaxy. Transported into a trance where the supernatural seemed natural, I realized that anthropologists, including myself, had profoundly underestimated the importance of the drug in affecting native ideology. Therefore, in 1964 I returned to the Jívaro to give particular attention to the drug’s use by the Jívaro shaman.
South American shamanism and hallucinogens is one of the topics explored in
Yet the essay our reader found of most interest in this volume was was “The Role of Hallucinogenic Plants in European Witchcraft,” also by Harner. The topic of witchcraft, European and American, has been of great interest to Helytimes.
What was going on with the wild bursts of witchcraft persecution in medieval Europe and early colonial America?
A prevalent attitude among present-day historians and scholars of religion (e.g. Henningsen, 1969: 105-6; Trevor-Roper, 1969:90, 192) is that late medieval and Renaissance witchcraft was essentially a fiction created by the Church.
says Harner. But what this essay presupposes is: what if it wasn’t?
Probably the single most important group of plants used by mankind to contact the supernatural belongs to the order Solanacæe (the potato family)… each of these plants contains varying quantities of atropine and the other closely related tropane alkaloids hyoscyamine and scopolomine, all of which have hallucinogenic effects (Claus and Tyler, 1965: 273-85; Henry, ,1949: 64092; Hoffer and Osmund, 1967:525-28; Lewin, 1964: 129-140; Sollmann, 1957: 381-98).
From here, Harner goes on to suggest:
As is familiar to every child in our culture, the witch is fantasized as flying through the air on a broomstick. This symbol actually represents a very serious and central aspect of European witchcraft, involving the use of solanceaous hallucinogenic plants. The European witches rubbed their bodies with a hallucinogenic ointment containing such plants as Atropa belladonna, Mandragora, and henbane, whose content of atropine was absorbable through the skin. The witch then indeed took a “trip”: the witch on the broomstick is a representation of that imagined aerial journey to a rendezvous with spirits and demons, which was called a Sabbat.
Wild claim! More:
The use of a staff or broom was undoubtedly more than a symbolic Freudian act, serving as an applicator for the atropine-containing plant to the sensitive vaginal membranes as well as providing the suggestion of riding on a steed
Historical evidence seems thin. Harner presents a case from 1325, when a Lady Alice Kyteler was investigated in Ireland:
…in rifleing the closet of the ladie, they found a Pile of oyntment, wherewith she greased a staffe, upon the which she ambled and galloped through thick and thin, when and in what manner she listed.
Kyteler fled the country, but her servant was flogged and burned to death. Her house is now a pub:
We ran this idea by one of our female editors, who pointed out that if you were going to apply some salve to your vaginal membranes, you’d probably use something a little softer than a broomstick, perhaps a vegetable. The biodegradable nature of such an applicator perhaps explains why archaeological evidence is so scant.
Thought-provoking, in any case.
Getting pretty close to having read all of Larry McMurtry’s nonfiction. LMcM has a rambling, conversational way in these books, I enjoy it. Here is some previous coverage about his book Hollywood, and his road trip book Roads, and the best one of all imo, Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen.
Oh What A Slaughter is definitely worth a read. A good quality of McMurtry and my all time favorite Evan S. Connell is that they really capture the weirdness of history.
How about this, as McMurtry describes the buildup to the Wounded Knee massacre?:
How can you not like a book that has this in it?
Sacagawea’s Nickname wasn’t as compelling to me.
It collects essays McMurtry wrote for the New York Review Of Books: a couple about Lewis & Clark, one about the great one-armed explorer/surveyor/ethnographer/proto-environmentalist John Wesley Powell:
But for title alone I was def gonna read it. Like every American kid I was taught about Sacagawea in school, whose name we were told was pronounced “Sack-a Jew-ee-uh.”
Imagine my shock years later when my friend Leila, who was schooled in Oregon and thus had some cred on the issue, told me her name was pronounced “Sack Ahj Way.” Well, sure. How could we know? Both Lewis and Clark, Clark especially, were crazy spellers, so their clues are confusing. From Wiki:
Clark used Sahkahgarwea, Sahcahgagwea, Sarcargahwea, and Sahcahgahweah, while Lewis used Sahcahgahwea, Sahcahgarweah, Sahcargarweah, and Sahcahgar Wea.
Anyway let me go ahead and give you a spoiler that Sar car Ja we a’s nickname was Janey.
Death Valley Days ran for 18 seasons and 452 (!) episodes.
You can’t top Death Valley for place names. Just reading the map is a pleasure.
But hey, the map is not the territory. So the boys and I went out to have a look:
Things aren’t what they used to be in old Chloride City:
Just as well I didn’t know what these mountains were called.
On to Titus Canyon:
Rendezvous in the twilight:
Morning at camp:
Ever since I heard about the sailing stones I’ve wanted to see the Racetrack:
Not the easiest trip.
Let’s go have a look:
Bobby will do whatever it takes to get the shot:
These guys have a long walk ahead:
Keep going lil buddy!:
(is there anything so human as “rooting” for a rock in its meaningless decades-long journey across a dry lake bed?)
How about the crater?:
“Let’s drive down the old Lippincott Mine road!”
Shoutout to the rad Tom Harrison map of Death Valley.
Stirring clip from Death Valley Days:
We know that the ancient Inca used systems of rope-based accounting called quipus or khipus. Beyond that, it seems like many scholars have come close to losing their marbles trying to sort them out.
Were they something like an abacus? Musical notation? A binary system like a simple computer code? How about this, from Wikipedia:
The Khipu Database Project (KDP), begun by Gary Urton, may have already decoded the first word from a quipu—the name of a village, Puruchuco, which Urton believes was represented by a three-number sequence, similar to a ZIP code. If this conjecture is correct, quipus are the only known example of a complex language recorded in a 3-D system.
Marcia and Robert Ascher, a married couple, he an anthropologist and she a mathematician, collaborated on on ethnomathematic projects, including a good hard look at quipus/khipus and came up with this :
For example, if 4s represents four simple knots, 3L represents a long knot with three turns, E represents a figure-of-eight knot and X represents a space:
- The number 731 would be represented by 7s, 3s, E.
- The number 804 would be represented by 8s, X, 4L.
- The number 107 followed by the number 51 would be represented by 1s, X, 7L, 5s, E.
This reading can be confirmed by a fortunate fact: quipus regularly contain sums in a systematic way. For instance, a cord may contain the sum of the next n cords, and this relationship is repeated throughout the quipu. Sometimes there are sums of sums as well. Such a relationship would be very improbable if the knots were incorrectly read.
Now comes news in the NY Times, “Untangling an Accounting Tool and an Ancient Incan Mystery” by William Neuman, that some quipus have been found in an excavated Incan storehouse in Incahuasi, Peru:
Says the Times:
Now the Incahuasi researchers hope that by studying the khipus and comparing them with others in a large database, they may find that the khipus discovered with the peanuts contain a color, knot or other signifier for “peanut.” The same goes for those found with chili peppers, beans and corn.
“We can look at how the chili pepper khipu differs from the peanut khipu and from the corn khipu in terms of their color and other characteristics and we can build up a kind of sign vocabulary of how they were signifying this or that thing in their world,” said Gary Urton, a leading expert on khipus who is studying the new trove with Alejandro Chu, the archaeologist who led the excavation.
“It’s not the great Rosetta Stone but it’s quite an important new body of data to work with,” he said, adding, “It’s tremendously exciting.”
Prof. Urton has been working on khipu for almost as long as I’ve been alive. He started his archaeological career helping out at Cahokia.
The Times article introduces us to Patricia Landa, who cleans and untangles the khipu. It sounds like she takes a reverse Marie Kondo approach:
“You have a very special relationship with the material,” Ms. Landa, 59, said. “I talk to them. I say, ‘Excuse me for disturbing your rest but you’re helping us to understand your ancestors.’ ”
There is something deeply moving and wonderful and absurd and human about spending years of your life trying to decipher how 15th century people counted beans and corn. What a worthy challenge to try and sort this out:
To the khipu guys and gals, I say: good luck.
You can read more about khipu/quipu and the Inca/Inka in my book, The Wonder Trail: True Stories From Los Angeles To The End Of The World, coming June 2016.
Devoted ten minutes to the puzzle, after discovering I myself had no idea really.
Let’s start with basics.
One problem is it’s hard to render these distances on any map. Take just sun to Earth, for instance.
Sun to Earth
93 million miles.
The earth’s diameter is 7,918 miles. The sun’s diameter is 864,327 miles. So if we made a map, where the Earth was one inch, the sun would have to be nine feet tall and 978 feet away.
Another way: if Earth is a golf ball (1.68 inches diameter) the sun is a 15.26′ ball, five and half football fields away.
OK, how about to the edge of our solar system?
Well, what’s the edge? Neptune’s the most distant planet, right (after that unpleasant Pluto business)?
Sun to Neptune
4.18 light hours (or .00047684 light years)
But the real edge of our solar system, people seem to think, is way crazy farther past even Pluto.
It’s in a place that is still mostly just a theory, a sphere of wandering ice comets called the Oort Cloud:
Very difficult to render how far away the Oort Cloud is, at this level the scaling is so ridiculous that a 2D map with like dots on it becomes pretty irrelevant.
From the sun to the Oort Cloud – the edge of the solar system – is something like 1.87 light years.
The next solar system over, Alpha Centauri, is 4.37 light years from the sun.
VERY good chart, thanks so much NASA/Penn and also for putting that map in the public domain, although I guess as a federal taxpayer I do own it kind of.
You can see Alpha Centauri with your naked eye, I believe, I think our excellent friend Jeff even pointed it out to us once. From Earth it appears to the eye as a single object even though it’s a two-star system:
Us and Alpha Centauri are in the Milky Way. You can see the Milky Way from Earth, even though we’re in it, because it’s a spiral, and we’re in the spiral:
The laser in this picture is pointing toward the Galactic Center, which is 27,000 light-years away from the sun.
The Milky Way is 100,000-120,000 light years in diameter.
How many stars are in there? Maybe: 100-400 million stars they think. These numbers are much revised over history and expect will be revised many times again.
The closest galaxy over is Andromeda, which is 2.5 million light-years from Earth.
It is in our (comically named) “Local Group,” which has more than 54 galaxies in it.
Comically named I say because the diameter of the Local Group is 10 million lightyears.
From Earth to the edge observable universe in any direction is 46 billion lightyears.
What’s that you say? How can that be? Back up.
Does the universe have a center? Are we the center?
If we’re the center then… what? If not then… what?
Well at this point, I’m afraid I’ve lost comprehension for now and more reading would be necessary to even begin to wrap a desperate brain-finger around the most basic essays into this fathomless question.
Many secondary sources have reported a wide variety of incorrect figures for the size of the visible universe. Some of these figures are listed below, with brief descriptions of possible reasons for misconceptions about them.
13.8 billion light-years
The age of the universe is estimated to be 13.8 billion years. While it is commonly understood that nothing can accelerate to velocities equal to or greater than that of light, it is a common misconception that the radius of the observable universe must therefore amount to only 13.8 billion light-years. This reasoning would only make sense if the flat, static Minkowski spacetimeconception under special relativity were correct. In the real universe, spacetime is curved in a way that corresponds to the expansion of space, as evidenced by Hubble’s law. Distances obtained as the speed of light multiplied by a cosmological time interval have no direct physical significance.
- 15.8 billion light-years
- This is obtained in the same way as the 13.8 billion light year figure, but starting from an incorrect age of the universe that the popular press reported in mid-2006. For an analysis of this claim and the paper that prompted it, see the following reference at the end of this article.
- 27.6 billion light-years
- This is a diameter obtained from the (incorrect) radius of 13.8 billion light-years.
- 78 billion light-years
- In 2003, Cornish et al. found this lower bound for the diameter of the whole universe (not just the observable part), if we postulate that the universe is finite in size due to its having a nontrivial topology, with this lower bound based on the estimated current distance between points that we can see on opposite sides of the cosmic microwave background radiation(CMBR). If the whole universe is smaller than this sphere, then light has had time to circumnavigate it since the big bang, producing multiple images of distant points in the CMBR, which would show up as patterns of repeating circles. Cornish et al. looked for such an effect at scales of up to 24 gigaparsecs (78 Gly or 7.4×1026 m) and failed to find it, and suggested that if they could extend their search to all possible orientations, they would then “be able to exclude the possibility that we live in a universe smaller than 24 Gpc in diameter”. The authors also estimated that with “lower noise and higher resolution CMB maps (from WMAP’s extended mission and from Planck), we will be able to search for smaller circles and extend the limit to ~28 Gpc.” This estimate of the maximum lower bound that can be established by future observations corresponds to a radius of 14 gigaparsecs, or around 46 billion light years, about the same as the figure for the radius of the visible universe (whose radius is defined by the CMBR sphere) given in the opening section. A 2012 preprint by most of the same authors as the Cornish et al. paper has extended the current lower bound to a diameter of 98.5% the diameter of the CMBR sphere, or about 26 Gpc.
- 156 billion light-years
- This figure was obtained by doubling 78 billion light-years on the assumption that it is a radius. Since 78 billion light-years is already a diameter (the original paper by Cornish et al. says, “By extending the search to all possible orientations, we will be able to exclude the possibility that we live in a universe smaller than 24 Gpc in diameter,” and 24 Gpc is 78 billion light years), the doubled figure is incorrect. This figure was very widely reported. A press release from Montana State University – Bozeman, where Cornish works as an astrophysicist, noted the error when discussing a story that had appeared in Discover magazine, saying “Discover mistakenly reported that the universe was 156 billion light-years wide, thinking that 78 billion was the radius of the universe instead of its diameter.”
180 billion light-years
This estimate combines the erroneous 156 billion light-year figure with evidence that the M33 Galaxy is actually fifteen percent farther away than previous estimates and that, therefore, the Hubble constant is fifteen percent smaller. The 180 billion figure is obtained by adding 15% to 156 billion light years.
OK, friend, you lost me. You’re on your own.
I guess the point is whether or not I do, today, finally remember to buy paper towels is not super important.
Who was it who recommended this to me? Hayes? Thanks! It’s on Netflix Instant.
Heyerdahl’s third wife was Miss France 1954:
Man. These are all pretty great. HT Jon Lee Anderson’s Twitter feed.
That is, apparently, Hubert Hudson. From here, I hope John F. Mann doesn’t mind:
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.