Sunday, August 30, 2009

ArtsPaper Books: Bringing an ancient American city back to life

By Chauncey Mabe

Throughout American history, Indians have been viewed as either bloodthirsty savages, to be exterminated in the name of Manifest Destiny, or, more recently, noble savages who lived in reverence of Mother Earth.

Though one of these conceptions is more benign than the other, they are equally products of white condescension and bigotry. Neither leaves room for the possibility Native Americans may have been capable of developing a sophisticated urban civilization.

Timothy Pauketat’s Cahokia: Ancient America’s Great City on the Mississippi River, the latest entry in Penguin’s excellent Library of American Indian History, will come as a shock to most readers. In clear and jargon-free language, Pauketat provides what is known to date about Cahokia, an ancient city a few miles east of St. Louis that, at its height in the 13th century, had a population of 20,000 – more than contemporary London.

This thriving metropolis rivaled the more famous Mayan and Aztec cities in grandeur, scale and influence. Centered on a 100-foot high pyramid and a 50-acre plaza, Cahokia was the capital of a political-religious culture that dominated the middle portion of the North American continent.

An archaeologist and professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois, Pauketat tells three interlocking stories: how Cahokia could have been missed for 400 years; the struggles of archaeologists, often working just ahead of bulldozers, to excavate priceless sites; and the story of Cahokia itself.

One reason Cahokia went undiscovered until recent decades is that its builders used the materials at hand in the Mississippi Valley – timber, clay, sand. These structures left not the monumental ruins of, say, Mayan stone temples, but vast, eroding mounds. And these mounds were plowed by farmers, removed for housing developments, cut to make way for roads. The site is now protected as Illinois’ Cahokia State Park, but only 80 of its 120 mounds still exist.

One fascinating figure in Pauketat’s book is Henry Breckenridge, a frontier lawyer who visited Cahokia in 1811 on his way to St. Louis. With remarkable clarity, Breckenridge immediately recognized the site, with its hundreds of mounds and regular layout, as of Indian origin, “a stupendous monument of antiquity.”

His insights were ignored for more than a century, until Warren King Moorehead began digging into the mounds in 1921. Pauketat also gives credit to Preston Holder, Melvin Fowler and Warren Wittry, among other archaeologists.

Pauketat handles his historical, anthropological and archaeological material well. It’s not his fault that a hole exists in the center of the book, the hole of what is not known about the Cahokian people – who exactly they were, why they disappeared after only 150 years, who their descendants might be, or even what they called themselves. The word “Cahokia” is borrowed from a tribe that lived nearby in historic times.

But what is known thrills and disturbs. Cahokia emerged, seemingly all at once, in what Pauketat calls a “big bang," in the middle of the 11th century, possibly inspired by a supernova visible in 1054. A village, also known as Cahokia, was razed and the city built on the same site. The dynamic new culture, by means of religion, force and public ceremony, converted or subjugated populations for hundreds of miles in every direction.

As in most Native American societies, sport played a key role, although it certainly had religious meaning as well. Cahokians were mad for “chukney," a game in which spears or sticks are thrown at a disc-shaped stone rolled across the ground. Betting on the game was fierce, with some people, Paukatet says, losing all they possessed.

Human sacrifice played a “gruesome” role in Cahokian culture. Archaeologists digging into the mounds have made amazing finds, including piles of chukney stones, thousands of beads, and numerous ceremonial graves containing an astounding number of human remains. In one mound, two male bodies, buried with pomp and honor, are accompanied by 53 young women, chosen possibly for their beauty.

Cahokia was also a center of wealth, stratified between elites, who ate meat-rich diets, and everyone else, who ate mostly corn. One garbage pit contained the remains of 3,900 deer, thousands of pots, quantities of corn, pumpkin and berries, and more than a million charred tobacco seeds — evidence of gigantic festivals.

If Paukatet errs, it’s in a too-ready acceptance of the notion Cahokians were influenced by Mayan or other Central American civilizations. Human sacrifice, sophisticated astronomy, a bird-snake deity – all recall Meso-American culture. While it is possible trade existed between the Mississippi Valley and Mexico, it’s equally plausible Cahokia is an entirely North American development. After all, Indians had been building pyramids for centuries. One mound in Louisiana has been dated to 3400 B.C.

That’s a small objection in a book that does so much, so well. Although Paukatet resorts frequently to words like “possible,” or “perhaps,” as he speculates on potential connections between Cahokian culture and other known aspects of Native American belief and custom, it rarely strains credibility.

Pauketat seldom goes more than a few steps from what is actually known, to his credit as a scientist and a writer.

Chauncey Mabe, the former books editor of the Sun-Sentinel, can be reached at Visit him on Facebook.

CAHOKIA: Ancient America's Great City on the Mississippi. By Timothy Pauketat; 194 pp.; Penguin; $22.95.

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