Blogs > HNN > Jim Cullen, Review of Timothy R. Pauketat's "Cahokia: Ancient America's Great City on the Mississippi," (Penguin, 2010)

Jul 19, 2010 8:05 am

Jim Cullen, Review of Timothy R. Pauketat's "Cahokia: Ancient America's Great City on the Mississippi," (Penguin, 2010)

Jim Cullen, who teaches at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York, is a book review editor at HNN. He is the author of ten books, among them The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea that Shaped a Nation (Oxford, 2003) and Essaying the Past: How to Read, Write, and Think about History (Blackwell-Wiley, 2009). He blogs at American History Now.]

Look in any recent U.S. history textbook and you're likely to find a passing reference to Cahokia, a thousand year-old Native American civilization best known for its scores of huge earthen mounds, near the site of modern-day St. Louis. It's likely to be a passing mention, in part because textbooks handle just about everything in drive-by fashion. But it's also because compared with the much-better known Aztec, Mayan, and Inca civilizations, Cahokia remains a bit mysterious to the archeologists and anthropologists who have been studying it. In Cahokia: Ancient America's Great City on the Mississippi, anthropologist Timothy Pauketat of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign provides an overview of a half-century's worth of study about Cahokian society as well as indicates some recent directions of research and interpretation. The book, published last year by Viking and just out in paperback, is part of the Penguin Library of American Indian History.

Pauketat describes the flowering of Cahokian civilization as part of a"big bang" that occurred circa 1050 CE, and appears to have been a response to a supernova whose effects were visible in the sky around the globe. This event appears to have had some kind of religious significance, and prompted the effective replacement of one settlement ('Old Cahokia") with a much larger and more ambitious one. The still-evident feature of a city-sized settlement bigger than the London of its time -- one whose traces were evident to French and Spanish explorers, as well as Lewis and Clark and countless other visitors near what is now East St. Louis -- included gigantic sculpted piles of earth, whose massive construction was carefully sited and executed.

Recent digs near these sites have made a number of other discoveries. Besides discovering evidence of a widely and durably popular Native American game called" chunkey," a forerunner of lacrosse, researchers have also found evidence of widely dispersed Cahokian pottery, cuisine, and language. It's a great mystery that a civilization that appears to have sprawled from Wisconsin to the Mexican border has left behind so few traces. But the most striking recent discoveries at ground zero of Cahokia is the realization that the mounds there have been elaborately organized repositories for bodies that were buried in layers. This layering suggests a strongly hierarchical society, in which violent ritual human sacrifice was common, as indicated by dismembered remains at the bottom, as well as careful interments of what appear to be authority figures near the top.

One of the more intriguing aspects of Cahokia is Pauketat's generational approach to describing interpretations of this civilization, and the way changes in American intellectual life shape the priorities and emphasis in archeological research. New attitudes about gender, for example, appear to have sensitized researchers to the role of women in Cahokian society and mythology. Pauketat notes that recent scholars have embraced a more avowedly speculative approach to understanding Native American cultures, a tendency he embraces in a vivid chapter in which he"walks" his way into the heart of the settlement. Researchers have been confounded in their efforts to establish an unambiguous link between Cahokia and the much more densely documented Mesoamerican Indian societies, but Pauketat aligns himself with those who have extrapolated their way to concluding that such ties were strong.

In short, Cahokia is as much an introduction to the study of defunct civilizations as it is a survey of this one in particular. It's a brief, evocative little book that makes a nice addition for anyone trying to integrate an element of diversity into the study of American history.

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Andrew D. Todd - 11/15/2010

If you look at a map of American Inland/Intracoastal waterways, and bear in mind that the Army Engineers built dams and dug canals where the Indians had had portages, Cahokia sits at the head of a broad water highway leading straight to Mexico. It must have been a trade city, or, as the ancient Mexicans would have thought of it, "an outpost of progress," similar in principle to Kiev and Novgorod in early Russia. The lower Mississippi, below St. Louis, is wide, and deep, and slow-flowing. Huck Finn's river. It is comparatively difficult to interdict. Above St. Louis, the rivers cut down through steeper terrain, being narrower, and faster, with more rapids. Particularly rapids. Boatmen are most vulnerable to attack when they have to get out of their boats and portage. That is when they find they have to pay "protection money," and "riverine portage states" arise, just as they did in Russia. In a manner of speaking, Cahokia formed the natural boundary between the aboriginal United States and Mexico.

Cahokia is associated with Mississippian culture, which survived in the South-East long enough for De Soto to encounter and report on it in the sixteenth century, and more particularly with the Creek, Choctaw, and Chickasaw peoples, the sedentary river-plain-dwelling Indians of the South-East, three of the "Five Civilized Tribes." The heirs of Cahokia found European civilization less incomprehensible than other Native Americans did, and assimilated rapidly. They had accumulated a certain experience in dealing with civilization. The collapse of Cahokia is usually attributed to the Iroquois expansion in the first half of the second millennium, and the consequent displacement outwards of the neighboring Algonquins. Both the Lakota (who were originally in Minnesota, before the coming of the horse) and the Cherokee fall into the greater Iroquoian language family, giving some idea of the scale of the Iroquois Volkswanderung.

John Connally - 11/7/2010

Cahokia is a marvelous site that I encourage anyone and everyone to visit. It's been almost a decade since my last visit. I thoroughly enjoyed studying the subject of pre-Columbian cultures in my undergraduate anthro classes.

If I recall correctly, my professors (along with required reading material) explained that a written language was among several characteristics that a people must possess in order to meet the status of "civilization." Even though the culture that built Cahokia clearly created an organized religion, labor diversification, monumental architecture, social stratification, trade networks, and other forms of cultural and material development, they lacked a written language.

Mr. Cullen, as always, I enjoyed your book review. I added this particular title to my Christmas list.