Sacrificial virgins of the Mississippi

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Ever since the first Europeans came to North America, only to discover the puzzling fact that other people were already living here, the question of how to understand the Native American past has been both difficult and politically charged. For many years, American Indian life was viewed through a scrim of interconnected bigotry and romance, which simultaneously served to idealize the pre-contact societies of the Americas and to justify their destruction. Pre-Columbian life might be understood as savage and brutal darkness or an eco-conscious Eden where man lived in perfect harmony with nature. But it seemed to exist outside history, as if the native people of this continent were for some reason exempt from greed, cruelty, warfare and other near-universal characteristics of human society.

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. [Full article, with links, is 2200 words.]

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