Tuesday, September 28, 2010


It started out with me showing these two YouTubes in my class:

Cahokia - Mound builders - 500 Nations
KETC - Living St. Louis - Cahokia Archaeologists

A couple of details in them stuck in my craw; in the first, it was the suggestion that legends told by the Caddo, a tribe in Louisiana, would be related to the mound builder culture, and that their leader, a sun god, gave a string of commands that sounded like the ten commandments to the people of Cahokia. In the second, it was the fact that only 1% had actually been uncovered; that they had only been working on it for about 50 years, and that one could, in the shadow of interstates we know well, dig the earth oneself and find relics to connect to this culture.

So I spent some time over the weekend finding more:

Ancient Cahokia: Metropolitan life on the Mississippi, Washington Post
Mound 72: UMW Archaeological Laboratory
Status and gender differences in diet at Mound 72; JAA
Sacrificial virgins of the Mississippi, Salon Magazine
The Kassly Birdman Tablet

There were a number of things here that I couldn't believe. There is plenty written about the Cahokia culture, which flourished at about 1000-1100 but was around much longer; it did apparently have a strong leader, and there were, apparently, human sacrifices. They had contact with peoples as far away as the Rockies, the Gulf, Canada, the Carolinas, and the Great Lakes; they traded for shells and metals that they used ornamentally and for other purposes. Their city, now part of East St. Louis, was the largest in the Americas for over a thousand years, but was unconnected, as far as we know, to great empires in Mexico and South America.

Our unit was on artifacts, so we began talking about the actual things that were found there and nearby. One was the "Birdman tablet" which was found near Valmeyer IL around 2000 and given to a museum. The Bird man became a symbol of Cahokia as it was noticed that it played a role in their theology; while the bird man was good and represented order, light and good, the serpent was bad and represented the earth, chaos and the weeds that join the two. They alledgedly had a dualistic religion and the sun god, presumably, was tight with the bird man figure; they were aligned.

Back when I was in high school I got mad when our history class started with the arrival of Columbus and more or less floated right above the thousands of years of history that preceded it. When I questioned the teacher I found out what they knew: very little. These people still don't really have a name (Cahokia is a misnomer, belonging to a Kaskaskia tribe that came along later), and at the time I was in school, they were just making their first digs. But, when DeSoto came up from the Gulf, the Mississippians who remained (Cahokia was already covered with grass) turned back the Spanish, and other Native Americans came up and down the Mississippi for hundreds of years after their disappearance (they disappeared for unknown reasons between 1200 and 1300) until the first French started coming down the river, and even then didn't see the mounds. St. Louis was known as "Mound City" for years, but how many of these mounds have been studied systematically? How many other "bird man tablets" are out there? There's no way of knowing.

The web is full of speculation about where they came from, how they were connected to other world people, etc. It also has facts about what they've found, in Mound 72 and elsewhere, and some people have gone to lengths to document what they could see, generally by going to the historic center with a camera. It's not like anyone is hiding any of this stuff. But a major US city has been built around their empire, and in the process covered almost everything. In one story a man was building his swimming pool in a tract house in the 40s, and dug right into the main plaza of Cahokia. In another they moved the various interstates to accommodate what they knew, but still built a major intersection, 70 & 255, right over an important part; one archaeologist actually saw a bulldozer encounter one of the prize finds, a woman/serpent combination. You encounter the archaeologists and anthropologists, sometimes disagreeing with the methods of others, decrying the general lack of interest of the people of the area in the civilizations of years past.

A friend here lives down by the river which is known locally as "the bottoms"; in my reading, the area around Cahokia is knows as "the American Bottom." She says arrowheads are quite common in her family's farming experience, and appear every time it rains hard; in addition, there are a number of mounds that people simply farm around, not wanting to disturb an obvious grave area. This brings up a central problem of archaeology, to me: how do you justify rummaging through somebody's grave, even if they are over a thousand years old? Yet, if you don't, how do you learn everything you want to learn?

The second question of archaeology is this: they seem to assume that humans got more complex, more hierarchical, with time, as if egalitarian were the way of the primitive, back-to-nature tribes of the distant past, but only with European conquest did we get social classes, government, and progress. This is nonsense. Some of these things, government, cities, taxes, hierarchy, bureaucracy, etc. seem to be as old as humans themselves. One of the running theories about the decline of Cahokia is that egalitarian prairie life simply became more attractive to people, and they left; if so, it shows that people always will vote with their feet, and any culture will only last as long as it can maintain its attractive appearance. The question remains: what things about people's existence in these cultures are subject to what we know as progress? After all, we now look at human sacrifice as abhorrent, primitive, and barbaric. Yet the state of Virginia just executed a woman, and we still fight wars in which we bomb villages and whole encampments of Taliban, or whoever. I'm not claiming that our wars are the same as the sacrifice of young women in Mound 72; I'm not even sure we know what that was all about. But, another thousand years, somebody might look at Tamms (small-town home of Illinois' "Super-Max") and its highway sign (A Nice Place to Live), along with other archaeological finds from the local cemetery, and wonder, what kind of civilization was this, anyway?


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