Archaeologist creates stir with new book on Cahokia Mounds

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Archaeologist creates stir with new book on Cahokia Mounds

Post Number:#1  Postby Whyte Eagle » Sat Aug 29, 2009 9:25 pm

Human sacrifice! Archaeologist creates stir with new book on Cahokia Mounds

COLLINSVILLE -- Human sacrifice! Victims buried alive! Read all about it in "Cahokia -- Ancient America's Great City on the Mississippi."

According to this new book by University of Illinois archaeologist and professor of anthropology Tim Pauketat, the mound builders were not always the idyllic, corn-growing, pottery-making, fishing-hunting gentle villagers depicted in various dioramas at the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in Collinsville.

Pauketat said these long-vanished people practiced human sacrifice of women and men on a mass scale and weren't always careful to bury only the dead.

Based on years of study of artifacts including many from the extensive excavation of the site's Mound 72 during 1967-71, Pauketat's book is getting national attention. The Washington Post described it as "undeniably hot." A national online review service used the headline, "Sacrificial virgins of the Mississippi."

But the "virgins" angle may be a bit of an overstatement, said Pauketat, but not by much.

"In the book I do not use the word virgin. I used female sacrifices," he said, noting that close study of the pelvic area of some of 53 female skeletons found in a huge pit below the mound showed clear signs of childbirth.

"They were selecting women of a certain age, but it's not like they're selecting virgins," he said. Most of the sacrificial victims were in their early 20s, he said.

The existence of 260 skeletal remains including of women all retrieved from within and under Mound 72 was not previously unknown in the metro-east. But because of the book, it's sensational news in other parts of the country, especially in big Eastern cities where residents are unfamiliar with the Midwest's often savage early history.

Pauketat said that the vast collection of data from the mound excavation included reports from the original archaeologist who found finger bones extended deep into the sand below some of the skeletons, evidence that victims were alive when buried.

"That's the interpretation of the original excavator. He's quite sure of that. I talked to him in person," Pauketat said.

"Basically, the book came together after we reached a critical threshold, all of the little pieces started falling into place. A lot of pieces from the Mound 72 dig are important because they help make sense of all the other pieces that have been found."

Ancient Cahokia, which reached its peak about 1150 A.D. with a population of 20,000, was a religious center of farmers and hunters that probably influenced much of what archaeologists call the Southeast Ceremonial Complex, a string of similar but smaller sites found from Illinois to northern Florida. It was abandoned about 100 to 200 years later and its descendants are believed to be the various tribes from historic times. At the time of its zenith, Cahokia rivaled London in population and was America's most-populous city until Philadelphia eclipsed it in the 18th century.

About 80 of the original 120 mounds survive, including Monks Mound, the largest prehistoric earthen structure north of Mexico.

In this society, often referred to as the Mississippian Culture, women played much more of a role than convenient sacrificial victims, Pauketat said. And even in this death ritual, women were respected, unlike some of the men whose remains were found with heads lopped off.

"The women never show injury. There is no trauma. So that means either they drank poison or they were strangled. But, that's speculation. They were very carefully placed into these pits," he said.

Ancient Cahokia's big draw, according to the book, was religion. And in the practice of various religious rites, evidence has been found that women were the rivals of this society's male religious leaders.

Pauketat said the evidence is in the form of curious female figurines carved from a type of clay found just south of St. Louis known as flint clay. The reddish substance dries rock hard.

Just last month, a small, 4-inch high female figure was found at a state-run archaeological dig in East St. Louis. Pauketat said only 23 other such figurines are known, including the largest, about 16 inches high.

The elevated status of women in religion in Cahokian society is illustrated, Pauketat said, by the decorations on the figurines that include a highly prized serpent figure, and of depictions of staple foods like corn and squash. On some figurines, baskets that have been interpreted as holding the bones of ancestors also have been carved into the statues.

"Clearly, a lot of the artwork of female gods and female figureheads show that women were probably highly elevated at Cahokia."

Pauketat said that at Cahokia, religion drew people from small farming villages all over the metro-east and from where present day St. Louis stands.

"People recognized in that place (Cahokia) a supernatural power on a scale and of a kind that was probably unknown in North America north of Mexico," he said

As for the female sacrifices, Pauketat said important women may have been chosen because of their status.

"These female sacrifices might not have been of unimportant people. This may have been a very honored role to fill. It may have been people who were impersonating some kind of corn goddess," he said, "And their duty was to die."
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More on Cahokia: Ancient America's Great City on the Mississ

Post Number:#2  Postby WorkJay » Fri Sep 04, 2009 12:20 pm ... 76934.html

The Mother of Native North America

In the early hours before sunrise, for part of each year, the planet Venus shines as a "morning star." Slowly it disappears as the rising sun turns darkness to sky blue. To the ancient Maya and others, this Morning Star was a god, the "Sun- Carrier," created to transport the sun into the world of people. In ancient North America, it was viewed as a masculine deity who— at a key moment in history— assumed human form. When seen later in the year as the Evening Star, Venus was considered a feminine god. She appeared then with the setting sun, a harbinger of the night and the netherworld beyond the horizon. Sometimes seen as a creator goddess, she also took human form and, in the flesh, made history.

A thousand years ago, the Morning and Evening stars were central players in an American Indian drama, characters at once mythic— sky gods with supernatural powers— and human, driven by violence, politics, and religion. And this drama was at the heart of a place we now call Cahokia, ancient America's one true city north of Mexico—as large in its day as London— and the political capital of a most unusual Indian nation.

At that time all the stars and planets in the Northern Hemisphere's night sky were visible above Cahokia, situated in a broad expanse of Mississippi River bottomland just east of what is now St. Louis, Missouri. Cahokia's people looked to the Morning and Evening stars for guidance and— inspired by ideas from Mesoamerica, possibly brought back from Cahokian rulers' travels or priests' vision quests— incorporated them into a religion that would displace traditions across the American Midwest, South, and Plains.

Nowadays, one can barely see the stars at night from St. Louis. Tall buildings crowd the sky, and streetlights blot out the stars even as the growth of modern civilization erases the archaeological remains of the ancient North Americans. Still, Cahokia sits silently, awaiting the almost three hundred thousand visitors who come to the site each year. Taking in its grass- covered mounds, vast open spaces, and large watery borrow pits, they ponder the lives of the original inhabitants of North America's largest pyramidal- mound complex, centered by what is, in fact, the third- largest pyramid in the entire New World.

At one time, there were more than two hundred packed- earth pyramids, or "mounds," at Cahokia and its suburbs. More than half of these were built in a five- square- mile zone that was designed with reference to the four sacred directions and the upper and lower worlds. The pyramids were arranged around vast open plazas and were surrounded, in turn, by thousands of pole- and- thatch houses, temples, and public buildings. At its height, Cahokia had a population in excess of ten thousand, with at least twenty or thirty thousand more in the outlying towns and farming settlements that ranged for fifty miles in every direction.

From the beginnings of the Euroamerican city of St. Louis, some of the biggest and most important ancient American monuments were leveled to make way for new developments. Twenty-five mounds were destroyed in St. Louis before the Civil War. Forty- five more were taken down across the river in East St. Louis shortly thereafter. Scores were lost in Cahokia proper, including the second largest, removed by steam shovel in 1930.

In the 1800s, most people knew that the ancient earthen mounds being destroyed were the works of human hands, but surprisingly few suspected that they had been built by American Indians. Some believed that a lost race of civilized non- Indian Mound Builders had constructed these impressive tumuli, like those all along the American frontier west of the Alleghany Mountains, down the Ohio valley, and dotting the Mississippi trench. These mysterious Mound Builders, they thought, must have been wiped out by the later, warlike American Indians, or perhaps they migrated to Mexico to found the great civilizations of the Aztec and Maya.

What remains of Cahokia's 3,200 acres of great pyramids, spacious plazas, thatched- roof temples, houses, astronomical observatories, and planned neighborhoods suffers from deterioration. The core of the site is preserved within a state park. The rest is wedged between modern highways or buried beneath factories and houses in the greater St. Louis metropolitan area. Much has been lost. Perhaps this is why few people— even few archaeologists— have a full sense of this American Indian city and its place in world history.

Although a complete picture of ancient Cahokia may never be possible, archaeologists continue to study, make discoveries, and reinterpret what is known about the city and its influence on surrounding areas and future generations. Their findings call into question some long- held beliefs— for instance, that ecologically sensitive, peaceful, mystical, and egalitarian peoples freely roamed the North American continent, never overpopulating or overexploiting their environments; or that these peoples were not subject to such base human emotions as avarice, greed, and covetousness and thus could not have built cities or allowed power to be concentrated in the hands of elites.

What is exciting about the archaeological discoveries at Cahokia is that they point to an alternative interpretation: that a "big bang" occurred there in which an abrupt burst of large- scale construction created an unprecedented American Indian city. What does this "big bang" mean? It means that political and social change happened here quickly, effected by visionaries who shaped events and influenced a group of people in a profound way, and that this influence spread to other areas at that time and to later cultures.

Underlying this interpretation is the idea that all people everywhere actively make history. The lives of all the people of the past and all those living shape the larger world. Even choosing inaction has historical implications. Civilizations can rise and fall, to adapt Margaret Mead's famous quotation, as a result of the actions of a small group of people combined with the inaction of many others. Making sense of these actions and inactions can be a difficult task for archaeologists, who must distinguish between how people lived and how they wanted to be perceived as living. Cahokia's big bang is a case study in how people can combine to create great historical change.
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