Sunday, February 16, 2014

Book Review: Cahokia: Ancient America's Great City on the Mississippi

Sometimes you come across something which you have never heard of before, and this is one of those times.  Of course I had heard of great Indian mounds, but a city just north of East St. Louis, which rivaled the giant Aztec pyramids of Mexico, that is something new to me.  What is more, this city has been studied by archeologist since the early 1900s and is a State Park.
The story of Cahokia is even more fascinating.  The city began about 1050 AD, or about the same time as a great supernova in the heavens.  There had been others living in the area before, but this structures were torn down, and Cahokia built over the top.  Some of the mounds, for total mass, rival the pyramids of Teotihuacan.  The third largest pyramid of the new world is Monk's Mound.  There is also a grand plaza, on which was laid soil and sand and was likely a place for the playing of Chunky, a game with small rolling stones, and then participants would try to hit the stones with spears.
Many of the structures were burial mounds.  Some of them were built so as to provide theatrical religious shows, and these shows often including human sacrifices especially of women.  Sacrifice may have appeased the gods, but also been used to kill political competitors.
In its heyday the city had a population of 10-15,000 people.  Sometimes they had great city wide feasts, as manifested by junk mounds.  They were also closely ties with neighboring communities, which had poorer economic conditions as manifested by poorer diets.  One of these communities likely supplied young women for sacrifice.
Whether they were influenced by Meso-America or influenced Meso-America is not certain, but they have many similarities, including belief in twin gods (good and evil.) 
The city only lasted a couple hundred years, but its influence lasted much longer.  They perfected warfare by overwhelming attack (there is a site in South Dakota, Crow Creek, where a village of 800-900 was massacred by such an attack in fourteenth century.), there religious beliefs and artifacts are found in many other locations indicating a wide area of trade and interest.  Many Native American groups may be descended from the original Cahokians. 
Another significant find is a rock petroglyph along the Mississippi in Southern Illinois which is an actual map of the Mississippi.
This book is written by Timothy R. Pauketat and published by Penguin Books in 2009.  My only complaint is a few more maps may have been nice, although there are a couple. 

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