In Cahokia, Timothy R. Pauketat argues that Cahokia was the one true city of ancient America north of Mexico. It was as large as London in its day and was the capital of what Pauketat describes as “a most unusual Indian nation.” Cahokiano one knows what its inhabitants actually called itlay in the Mississippi bottomlands, close to modern St. Louis, Missouri. The Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site now protects the eighty mounds that remain from this ancient city, and they are designated as a World Heritage Site. At least sixty other mounds, and probably more, were destroyed in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, during the building of St. Louis.
Cahokia was originally North America’s largest pyramidal mound site, possibly containing as many as two hundred mounds, including the third-largest pyramid in the New World. Most of these pyramids were packed into an area five miles square, and they were surrounded by thousands of houses and broad plazas. At the height of its importance, Cahokia may have been home to at least ten thousand people, with another twenty to thirty thousand living in the surrounding area.
For a long time, no one was entirely clear who had built the mounds. Although it was clear that they had been built by human hands, it was believed that, rather than being constructed by Native Americans, they had been made by a lost race of mound-builders. This hypothetical race would have traveled along the American frontier west of the Allegheny Mountains, through the Ohio Valley and the Mississippi trench, constructing the mysterious mounds. They then would either have been wiped out by warlike Native Americans or else have migrated into Central America, where they would have become the Aztec and the Maya. However, as Pauketat notes, the work of archaeologists and historians has begun to question long-held beliefs about Native Americans, suggesting that they were not necessarily as ecologically sensitive, peaceful, and mystical as was previously assumed. The emerging picture of Native Americans indicates that they were perfectly capable of building a city and developing an elaborate culture.
Pauketat is particularly interested in the founding of Cahokia, which seems around 1050 to have sprung suddenly into beingwhat he calls the “big bang” theory. Almost overnight, the buildings that formed what is now called Old Cahokia were taken down; the area was leveled; and the elaborate pyramids, streets, and houses of New Cahokia were constructed, creating what Pauketat argues was a new capital city. He notes that for this project to achieve such rapid growth in so comparatively short a period of time would have required a good deal of cooperation, not to mention strong leadership and a large population. Pauketat thus argues that the Cahokia civilization was either built on consensus or based on an ideology that legitimized the rule of the few in the eyes of the many.
Whatever their governmental structure, the Cahokians made rapid and drastic changes to their lives. Pauketat theorizes that a supernova in 1054, documented in the New World but not noted elsewhere, may have been the impetus behind the change. The Mississippian culture developed rapidly and then spread across the American Midwest into the South and onto the Great Plains. Its influence can be traced in buildings and artworks, suggesting that there was an elaborate dissemination of Cahokian culture, which was copied by local artists and builders in turn. The reasons for the culture’s spread remain unclear. Pauketat suggests that in the dissemination of the culture was associated in some way with chunkey, a game widely played among different Native American groups for centuries, which seems to have arisen first in Cahokia.
There is evidence that the Mississippi supported a prosperous society prior to the development of New Cahokia. This earlier society comprised unified family groups based in small villages. The population of the area was not large, and it...
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