Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Cahokia: Donald Yerxa's Interview with Timothy R. Pauketat and the January issue of Historically Speaking On-line

Randall Stephens

The January issue of Historically Speaking is now up on Project Muse. As a preview, I post below a part of Donald Yerxa's fascinating interview with Timothy R. Pauketat on Cahokia, site of a sophisticated pre-Columbian civilization near the Mississippi river.

The landscape and burials there long perplexed American settlers. In 1826 poet Micah P. Flint wrote these lines on the enigmatic mounds. His romantic soliloquy still resonates all these years later:

Ye mouldering relics of departed years!
Your names have perished; not a trace remains;
Save, where grass-grown mound it's summit rears,
From the green bosom of your native plains
Say! do your spirits wear oblivions chains?
Did Death forever quench your hopes and fears?

Cahokia: An Interview with Timothy R. Pauketat
Conducted by Donald A. Yerxa

Almost 1,000 years ago the city of Cahokia emerged with amazing suddenness on the edge of the Mississippi River where only a few small towns and villages had once existed. Cahokia became the hub of a major pre-Columbian Indian nation, but by 1400 the sprawling city had disappeared. Only the giant earthen mounds remained. Timothy R. Pauketat’s recent book, Cahokia: Ancient America’s Great City on the Mississippi (Viking, 2009), reconstructs this mysterious culture, drawing on the work of a number of archaeologists, including his own. Senior editor Donald A. Yerxa interviewed Pauketat, a professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois, on November 13, 2009.

Donald A. Yerxa: Would you provide our readers with a brief summary of the rise and fall of Cahokia?

Timothy R. Pauketat: Cahokia’s rise has been a particular interest of mine, and it remains a work in progress, since the more we know, the better questions we ask and the more we keep developing our explanation. The fall of Cahokia isn’t as dynamic of a research topic, but we still have a good general idea of what was happening. So here it goes.

Cahokia’s rise can be broken down into the slow growth of what I’ve called “Old Cahokia,” and the abrupt transformation of that big village into what I call “New Cahokia.” It’s New Cahokia that you see today, the city with pyramids and plazas. Old Cahokia was a very large agricultural village, possibly the seat of a loose confederation of villages or perhaps regional communities of people who minimally ranged across most of the northern American Bottom (which is the large patch of Mississippi River floodplain east of modern-day St. Louis), and maximally might have included other agricultural villages farther up and down the Mississippi. Farming was good in the American Bottom, and especially around Old Cahokia, which began to attract immigrants around 800 A.D. By 1000, in fact, Cahokia was probably the largest village in the Midwest, with perhaps 1,000-2,000 residents. That might have been it, end of story.

But—and we’re not really sure why—around 1050 the Cahokians redesigned their village into a city, with numerous large earthen pyramids surrounding one large plaza, and lesser pyramids enclosing smaller plazas to the north, east, and west. Many immigrants poured in, both local farmers from nearby villages and people from as far away as southern Missouri and northeast Arkansas. Something was attracting them, and it had to have truly tugged at their sensibilities, because Cahokia swelled pretty quickly to about 10,000 people. And that population estimate doesn’t include Cahokia’s suburbs, outlying towns, and new satellite villages, many of which were also being founded and populated in the years immediately after 1050. All of this gives one the impression of a great expansive new culture, which is why I’ve dubbed it ancient America’s Big Bang.

We have found and analyzed massive deposits of refuse from giant religious festivals dating to the decades after 1050. At one of these festivals Cahokians butchered 2,000 deer, cooked large fish and vats of pumpkin and sumpweed soups and stews, ate many berries, and smoked large amounts of strong tobacco. Unprecedented sacrificial rituals began shortly after 1050. These seem to have involved the sacrificing of young adult women every decade or so; the exact timing is still speculative. Such activity suggests that Cahokians were building a new religion that attracted followers from surrounding regions.

Yerxa: How has our understanding of Cahokia changed in recent decades?

Pauketat: Cahokia was misunderstood for a long time, even into the 1990s. Many archaeologists didn’t stop to think of the historical impacts that Cahokia and Cahokians might have had on the entire middle of the continent. Now archaeologists think about history differently, and they are beginning to appreciate that Cahokians had tremendous effects on American Indians’ identities and heritage for centuries, even impacting the ways in which Europeans colonized North America and then Anglo- Americans expanded the young U.S. westward. Those Europeans and Anglo-Americans didn’t know it, but they were being alternately enabled or impeded by descendants of Cahokians and a landscape radically changed by Cahokians centuries earlier. >>> read on

Table of Contents, Historically Speaking, January 2010

A Complex Parade: Problems and Prospects for Picturing the Nation
Wilfred M. McClay

On Using History
Mike Rose

Murder by Duel: Welch, West Virginia, 2009
Bertram Wyatt-Brown

The Hidden Dimension: “European” Treaties in Global Perspective, 1500-1800
Peter A. Coclanis

How to Teach the Writing of History: A Roundtable

Riding the Melt
Stephen J. Pyne

Historians on Writing
Michael Kammen

How to Write a Paper for This Class
Jill Lepore

Response to Stephen Pyne
John Demos

Peter’s War: An Interview with Joyce Malcolm
Conducted by Chris Beneke

The American Archipelago
Kenneth Weisbrode

The Midwestern Historical Imagination

Beyond the Frontier: An Interview with David Brown Conducted by Donald A. Yerxa

Midwestern States of Mind: Regionalism in American Historical Writing
Ian Tyrrell

Patriotic Progressives
Paul Gottfried

Cahokia: An Interview with Timothy R. Pauketat
Conducted by Donald A. Yerxa


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