Wednesday, 10 October 2012


My reading must seem erratic.  I've blogged about South America, southern Africa, human sacrifice, the Indo-European expansion, classic ethnographies of highland southeast Asia, and Alfred Russel Wallace.  I'm not an expert on any of these things, but I do read a lot, and I read a very diverse range of books.  I just want to know more about the history of humankind, and ideally, I'd like to spread awareness of the brilliant craziness of so much of it whether I'm an expert or not.
The book I read last - finished in one day, in fact, as it is fairly short - was Timothy Pauketat's Cahokia (2009, Penguin Press).  It's a short, popular introduction to Cahokia, possibly the only true city in North America before the arrival of Europeans.  There were, of course, large villages and towns throughout the continent, but Cahokia, on the border between Illinois and Missouri, seems to have outdone them all.  In terms of social complexity, functional specialisation, the grandeur of it architecture, and the endurance of its cultural influence, Cahokia really was the most important site in pre-Columbian North America.  I read Pauketat's book as build-up to reading more academic works on Cahokia and Mississippian societies, but it's a very readable and exciting account on its own, and I'd recommend it if you know little about North America and want your preconceptions to be blown apart by archaeological fact.

I first read about the place a long time ago, when I was a kid.  I lived in the USA as a boy, and as you do when you're a foreigner in an interesting country, my parents bought quite a few books on American history and prehistory.  We also visited lots of Civil War sites - I have fond memories of walking around antique cannons on a balmy summer evening, and of listening to an audioguide based on the Ken Burns' series in the car.  As I grew up, back in England, I took more of an interest myself in these things.  Not so much the Civil War (although my brother still reads book on Shiloh, &c), but indigenous life and society.  On the bookshelf on the landing outside my bedroom, there was a copy of Native Americans: The Life and Culture of the North American Indian by Norman Bancroft Hunt (Mallard Press, 1991), which I read through several times.  Before I had even started secondary education, I was already pretty familiar with Paleo-Indians, the Hopewell and Adena cultures, the debate surrounding the arrival of humans to the Americas, and so on.  I knew about each culture area - the Eastern Woodlands, Great Plains, the Arctic, the Great Basin.  I knew a bit about Cahokia.  In my teens, I even bought a couple of books on the Mohawk and Lakota languages (the latter is much easier to learn than the former).  I'm fairly sure that reading that book, and subsequently many others, is part of the reason why I decided to study anthropology, despite my focus shifting to other people and other parts of the world.

So Pauketat's Cahokia is a bit of a blast from past.  It's great to be able to look at the old and familiar cultures and societies with fresh eyes, and with much more knowledge and experience.  I can now understand a bit about how Cahokian religion must have worked, how the labour force was generated by agricultural surplus, how social complexity develops.  It's great.  Cahokia seems to have started its life as a city in 1050 CE, around the time Edward the Confessor was having problems deciding on his successor, and when the Song dynasty was revving up in the wake of the post-Tang fragmentation of China.  Cahokia then declined in the fifteenth century, before Cristoforo Colombo reached the Caribbean in October 1492.  This is, incidentally, the same time period archaeologists give for the flourishing of Great Zimbabwe.

Cahokia was an awesome place, in the old sense of that word.  The most visible parts today are gigantic mounds scattered over quite a wide area.  Many of them are arranged in a neat horseshoe shape around a plaza, named the Grand Plaza by unimaginative archaeologists.  Several of the mounds contained human remains; several sites contained the remains of humans, most of them female, who had been killed at the very place in which they were interred.  Most were decapitated and had had their hands removed.  As most of them were female, and as most were killed in public, it seems reasonable to suppose that, in the likely-matrilineal society of Cahokia, the killings were simultaneously sacrifices and the results of succession troubles, although of course it is difficult to prove this.  They may have been killed in connection with the funeral of two men dressed in finery found at the site - Mound 72, to be precise.

Cahokia, being such a grand site and one of memorably violent sacrifices and huge feasting events, had an enormous impact on the surrounding area, and maybe even far outside the Midwest.  Artefacts from throughout the Midwest have been found there, as have Cahokian artefacts outside of Cahokia.  One of the things I liked about Cahokia, the book, is that the author provides evidence of cultural influence from a wide range of fields - not just language and religion, but  sport as well.  Pauketat proposes that Cahokia was the origin site of chunkey, a sport played across North America from Montana to Florida involving chunkey stones - stone quoits the size of a hockey puck - and long, flexible spears.  The stone would be rolled along a prepared ground (sand was often used) and the players had to throw their spears at it.  The winner was the one who hit nearest to the stone.  In historical times, it was far from unknown for native Americans of various linguistic and cultural backgrounds to gamble their savings, and even their liberty, on a roll of the chunkey.  (I was aware of the game before reading the book, but it's pretty cool to know that Cahokia's influence may have been strong to have spread the game almost single-handedly.)

It was also good to see a discussion of possible Mesoamerican influence on North America.  Much of it is, of course, disputable; Mesoamerican civilisations were separated from Illinois by a considerable distance and a great variety of ecological zones.  But some things are undeniable - people in Guatemala and New York grew many of the same crops, for instance.  Either way, Cahokia developed in a way quite similar to the cities of Mesoamerica, and used many of the same crops and cultural features, including, of course, a variation of human sacrifice.  As such things can be employed without any connection between sites, it doesn't prove anything, but it's tantalising to consider the possibility of a trans-continental connection.

Before Europeans came along, North, South, and Central America all had cities of some kind or another.  People on the Amazon and Mississippi lived in complex, stratified societies with functional specialisation and a surplus of food and exotic goods.  It seems to me that such societies are so commonly found in the same situations that it isn't right to think of civilisation as developing in a single location, like Mesopotamia, and spreading.  The development of social complexity seems like an inevitability given the right conditions, and at Cahokia off the Mississippi river, those conditions were present.  The resulting city had a profound impact on the lives of American peoples whose societies and cultures were seen as primitive or nobly savage by the Europeans and Euroamericans who came into contact with them only after their decimation by warfare and disease.

I'm looking forward to reading more about Cahokia in the next few weeks.  But in the meantime, I'd recommend Cahokia by Tim Pauketat to anyone wanting to know more about pre-Columbian North America's greatest urban centre.

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