Myths of American History

 Posted by on 18 September 2009 at 4:00 am  Culture, History
Sep 182009

Just remember this article, next time an eco-freak tells you about the peaceful natives that used to happily roam across America: Sacrificial virgins of the Mississippi — “Archaeologists are slowly unearthing the ghastly secrets of Cahokia, an ancient city under the American heartland” — by Andrew O’Hehir

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.

In a number of critical ways, Cahokia seems to resemble other ancient cities discovered all over the world, from Mesopotamia to the Yucat√°n. It appears to have been arranged according to geometrical and astronomical principles (around various “Woodhenges,” large, precisely positioned circles of wooden poles), and was probably governed by an elite class who commanded both political allegiance and spiritual authority. Cahokia was evidently an imperial center that abruptly exploded, flourished for more then a century and then collapsed, very likely for one or more of the usual reasons: environmental destruction, epidemics of disease, the ill will of subjugated peoples and/or outside enemies.

Some archaeologists might pussyfoot around this question more than Pauketat does, but it also seems clear that political and religious power in Cahokia revolved around another ancient tradition. Cahokians performed human sacrifice, as part of some kind of theatrical, community-wide ceremony, on a startlingly large scale unknown in North America above the valley of Mexico. Simultaneous burials of as many as 53 young women (quite possibly selected for their beauty) have been uncovered beneath Cahokia’s mounds, and in some cases victims were evidently clubbed to death on the edge of a burial pit, and then fell into it. A few of them weren’t dead yet when they went into the pit — skeletons have been found with their phalanges, or finger bones, digging into the layer of sand beneath them.

Go read the whole thing.

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