Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Astounding Mounds

In Cahokia: Ancient America's Great City on the Mississippi, Timothy R. Pauketat digs a view of a vanished American civilization

The following  review appeared this week on the Books page of the History News Network site.

Look in any recent U.S. history textbook and you're likely to find a passing reference to Cahokia, a thousand year-old Native American civilization best known for its scores of huge earthen mounds, near the site of modern-day St. Louis. It's likely to be a passing mention, in part because textbooks handle just about everything in drive-by fashion. But it's also because compared with the much-better known Aztec, Mayan, and Inca civilizations, Cahokia remains a bit mysterious to the archeologists and anthropologists who have been studying it. In Cahokia: Ancient America's Great City on the Mississippi, anthropologist Timothy Pauketat of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign provides an overview of a half-century's worth of study about Cahokian society as well as indicates some recent directions of research and interpretation.  The book, published last year by Viking and just out in paperback, is part of the Penguin Library of American Indian History.

Pauketat describes the flowering of Cahokian civilization as part of a "big bang" that occurred circa 1050 CE, and appears to have been a response to a supernova whose effects were visible in the sky around the globe. This event appears to have had some kind of religious significance, and prompted the effective replacement of one settlement ('Old Cahokia") with a much larger and more ambitious one. The still-evident feature of a city-sized settlement bigger than the London of its time -- one whose traces were evident to French and Spanish explorers, as well as Lewis and Clark and countless other visitors near what is now East St. Louis -- included gigantic sculpted piles of earth, whose massive construction was carefully sited and executed.

Recent digs near these sites have made a number of other discoveries. Besides discovering evidence of a widely and durably popular Native American game called "chunkey," a forerunner of lacrosse, researchers have also found evidence of widely dispersed Cahokian pottery, cuisine, and language. It's a great mystery that a civilization that appears to have sprawled from Wisconsin to the Mexican border has left behind so few traces. But the most striking recent discoveries at ground zero of Cahokia is the realization that the mounds there have been elaborately organized repositories for bodies that were buried in layers. This layering suggests a strongly hierarchical society, in which violent ritual human sacrifice was common, as indicated by dismembered remains at the bottom, as well as careful interments of what appear to be authority figures near the top.

One of the more intriguing aspects of Cahokia is Pauketat's generational approach to describing interpretations of this civilization, and the way changes in American intellectual life shape the priorities and emphasis in archeological research. New attitudes about gender, for example, appear to have sensitized researchers to the role of women in Cahokian society and mythology. Pauketat notes that recent scholars have embraced a more avowedly speculative approach to understanding Native American cultures, a tendency he embraces in a vivid chapter in which he "walks" his way into the heart of the settlement. Researchers have been confounded in their efforts to establish an unambiguous link between Cahokia and the much more densely documented Mesoamerican Indian societies, but Pauketat aligns himself with those who have extrapolated their way to concluding that such ties were strong.

In short, Cahokia is as much an introduction to the study of defunct civilizations as it is a survey of this one in particular. It's a brief, evocative little book that makes a nice addition for anyone trying to integrate an element of diversity into the study of American history.