Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The News from Cahokia

In, Andrew O'Hehir reviews, at length, Cahokia: Ancient America's Great City on the Mississippi, Timothy Pauketat's new book about the largest pre-Columbian city in North America. Cahokia was the largest of a group of Native American city-states which flourished in the greater Mississippi Valley between 900 and 1300 CE, then rapidly declined, leaving behind enormous earthen temple mounds and immense archaeological remains. Pauketat's book makes at least three observations about the enigmatic metropolis that I hadn't read before. First, rather than growing slowly over time, Cahokia appeared quite rapidly: its founders built it around 1050 CE on the (razed) remains of a previous agricultural village. Second, the Cahokian priesthood and nobility practiced mass human sacrifice: excavations of Mound 72 in the late 1960s revealed the remains of more than 80 young men and women who were all killed at approximately the same time and buried with two high-status men, probably members of the nobility. Third, the sacrifices were probably linked to massive public feasts: another excavation in the 1960s uncovered a 900-year-old midden, so deeply buried that the contents were still decomposing (one can only imagine the smell), filled with the remains of several thousand deer, various plant foods, and millions of tobacco seeds. The feasts that generated this garbage probably consisted of several days of communal gorging and smoking, and helped prop up Cahokia's civic morale – and palliated the hunger and hardship that otherwise were the lot of most of the city's residents. In sum, these excavations help explain why so many Indian "commoners," even those not held in slavery, were willing to live in a setting that must (given the Cahokians' lack of running water and concomitant problems with sanitation) have been unpleasant for them: it was a place of "pomp and pageantry," drama, excitement, and periodic excess, just like any other big city.


Ryan said...

Just ordered the book, thanks to your post. I'm wonder if it falls under the elastic "historical archaeology" designator. I suppose that categorization requires narrative.

Dave Nichols said...

Perhaps it does, Ryan; I'd always assumed "historical archaeology" referred to the material analysis of cultures that already had written records. But that covers a pretty broad sweep of time in Eurasia and Africa. In North America, "historical archaeology" could apply to excavations of Native sites dating to any time during the post-Columbian era. The city of Cahokia wouldn't fall into this category, but the 18th-century Cahokia Indians, from whom the site takes its name, would.