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Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Cahokia: Bloody "Woodhenge" of the Midwest

Sacrificial virgins of the Mississippi | Salon Books

Andrew O'Hehir writes

As archaeologist Timothy Pauketat's cautious but mesmerizing new book, "Cahokia: Ancient America's Great City on the Mississippi," makes clear, Cahokia -- the greatest Native American city north of Mexico -- definitely belongs to human history. (It is not "historical," in the strict sense, because the Cahokians left no written records.) At its peak in the 12th century, this settlement along the Mississippi River bottomland of western Illinois, a few miles east of modern-day St. Louis, was probably larger than London, and held economic, cultural and religious sway over a vast swath of the American heartland. Featuring a man-made central plaza covering 50 acres and the third-largest pyramid in the New World (the 100-foot-tall "Monks Mound"), Cahokia was home to at least 20,000 people. If that doesn't sound impressive from a 21st-century perspective, consider that the next city on United States territory to attain that size would be Philadelphia, some 600 years later.

In a number of critical ways, Cahokia seems to resemble other ancient cities discovered all over the world, from Mesopotamia to the Yucat√°n. It appears to have been arranged according to geometrical and astronomical principles (around various "Woodhenges," large, precisely positioned circles of wooden poles), and was probably governed by an elite class who commanded both political allegiance and spiritual authority. Cahokia was evidently an imperial center that abruptly exploded, flourished for more then a century and then collapsed, very likely for one or more of the usual reasons: environmental destruction, epidemics of disease, the ill will of subjugated peoples and/or outside enemies.

Some archaeologists might pussyfoot around this question more than Pauketat does, but it also seems clear that political and religious power in Cahokia revolved around another ancient tradition. Cahokians performed human sacrifice, as part of some kind of theatrical, community-wide ceremony, on a startlingly large scale unknown in North America above the valley of Mexico. Simultaneous burials of as many as 53 young women (quite possibly selected for their beauty) have been uncovered beneath Cahokia's mounds, and in some cases victims were evidently clubbed to death on the edge of a burial pit, and then fell into it. A few of them weren't dead yet when they went into the pit -- skeletons have been found with their phalanges, or finger bones, digging into the layer of sand beneath them.

In "Cahokia: Ancient America's Great City on the Mississippi," Pauketat tells the story of what we now know, or can surmise, about the intriguing and bloody civilization that built Cahokia -- which looks comparable to a Mesopotamian or Greek city-state -- and also the tragic story of why it was overlooked and misunderstood for so long. Reading his book, one constantly marvels at the hair-raising archaeological discoveries that fly in the face of conventional understandings of Native American life, and mourns for how much more that could have been discovered is now lost or destroyed.

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Stacie Court said...

Well, you've got my attention! Maybe I can convince David to make this our next vacation destination, after our caving trip to north Alabama in October. Either way, I'm going to try to find the book. Thanks, Terry!

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