Cahokia and the Impulse For Good Intentions

This past week I went to, among other places, the Cahokia Mounds outside St. Louis, on the Illinois side of the Mississippi.  While the area is well documented and the Interpretive Center/museum/theater/snack bar/gift shop is well maintained, I found myself viewing the entire presentation with an increasing sense of skepticism that bordered on outright denial of the idyllic picture painted by the conservators of the site.  What struck me as being the least likely was, well, the whole interpretation being based on not a lot of hard evidence but a lot of what I believe is wishful thinking about Mesoamericans.

For those of you who have never been, Cahokia is the largest Native American archaeological and interpretative site north of Mexico, inhabiting a region called the Mississippi Bottoms that were formed when the main course of the river shifted west.  At one time it is thought to have had some 10,000 souls living and working there, trading as far north as modern Canada and as far east as Virginia.  The people have been dubbed “Mississippians.”  The place is thought to have thrived about 900-1200 CE, and to have been abandoned by 1400.

Because the Mississippians left no written records, much of what the site offers is, at best, guesswork.The settlement is thought to have been fairly sophisticated by the standards of the time, with set boundaries, hierarchies, social structures not unlike clans, and even some division of labor into farmers, hunters, gatherers and tradesmen.  Land may have been held in common even though one large central area was enclosed by a high stockade fence.  Agriculture (principally maize) thrived and produced enough surplus for trade, and craftsmen were knapping flints, working bone and puddling copper as well as weaving crude cloth and decorating skins.  There were even thought to be organized games.

The place is dominated by a series of mounds.  The largest is the largest manmade structure in pre-Columbian North America, known today as the Monk’s Mound after some French missionaries who built a settlement there in the late 18th century.  It is thought that building this one mound, said to be a chief’s residence, required fifteen million baskets of soil carried over the course of over two centuries.  Smaller mounds with half and less the volume of the Monk’s Mound dot the area.

The Interpretive Center at the site spends a great deal of effort to present an image of a nuclear family of two adults, two or three children and perhaps an elder.  They also spend a lot of time explaining that there was a great deal of work to do every day just to stay alive, much of it having to do with food preparation, shelter construction and tool-making.

And here’s the two main issues I have with the version shown: manpower for construction of the mounds and the motivation for it that spanned generations.  If the peak population was ten thousand and the family was nuclear, at most one person in five was going to be available for such heavy labor.  The available manpower pool (adult healthy males) at this peak is perhaps 4,000, of which at least 3/4ths would have to be involved in the work of food cultivation, hunting, trading and the rest.

Where are the haulers of dirt coming from?   Moving that much earth without any domestic animals (the New World horse and camel were hunted to extinction millennia before) meant that it had to be hauled on someone’s back.  At its population peak, there were perhaps a thousand surplus heavy laborers available at Cahokia, and those certainly would not be available year round.  While there were resource surpluses, someone had to feed the haulers who made no profits nor food, and feed their dependents.  Who would do that? Fifteen million baskets of soil dug up, hauled, dumped and shaped in the right way requires a considerable volume of labor–about 205 baskets of earth every single day–even spread over two centuries.  It also needs specialists to say where this stuff is to be dumped, and they need to be fed, too.

Which leads to the question of motivation.  Even the great pyramids of Egypt were built within a generation.  Egyptian and Mesoamerican chieftains were often regarded as divine, able to command such duty as a matter of religious fealty.  In the Mississippian culture, we don’t see that, at least not in the current image.  Altruism may be powerful, but all these mounds had to have had a great purpose for voluntary labor to toil so hard for so long, and that powerful and lasting an altruistic motive is not in evidence too much of anywhere.  Nothing even vaguely like the Mississippians apparently idyllic social structure has been found in North America.

The manpower and motivation questions lead, inevitably, to the thought that the mounds were built by slave labor: worked-to-death surplus humans that were driven by a tyrannical society (complete with an enormous stockade) to construct not only the great mound but all the others as well.  This latter picture fits the evidence, but not the picture presented at Cahokia.  The archaeological digs didn’t find any weapons that were exclusively for fighting, though hunting bows and spears were present.  Bows and spears can be used for combat, but so can axes.  Weapons might include slings (not found but known elsewhere in North America) and shields, but again these are not shown.  Either they have not been found and preserved, or they were not used.  Either way, the bows and spears could be used for the collection of slaves.

For decades scholars of the Mesoamericans have tried to paint a shiny, bright image of an uncomplicated people free of cares, woes, disease, strife, starvation or greed, like Adam and Eve in the Garden.  This Rousseauian view of the Noble Savage is based on a certain desire to show that the inhuman things that the European invaders of this continent, together with their African and Asian allies, did to the pastoral Amerindians destroyed a Heaven on Earth for reasons both nefarious and greedy.  The Cahokia site, if left on its own, would still have been abandoned by the time Columbus came, but the inhabitants simply, in this scholarly view, moved on.  If sympathetic scholars had to admit to slavery being responsible for building the mounds–even partly–there would also be the sticky issue of where the slaves came from, how long they might have lasted, and what happened to them.  It would also mean that there was either trafficking with, or conquest of (or both), other groups.

And there’s other points that can be as troubling.  The Interpretive Center is a place where we can see an image of how some Mesoamericans may have lived before Columbus, complete with National Geographic-approved waist-up nudity in illustrations and sculptures of both sexes at all ages…except notably the very old.  Question is: why cover that much?  We are told that modesty is an inherently Western trait that implies shame.  Why do we have Noble Savages showing such regressive traits?  It is an opportunity to show of the colorful finery…that could not have survived being buried for centuries?

While I have a great deal of respect for the work of our archaeological cousins in the historical trade, I have trouble with presentations like those at Cahokia that raise more questions than they answer.  We have no real good way of knowing which image–the idyll that is presented at Cahokia or the more savage and brutal one proposed here–is correct.  Probably, like most of history, some of both.

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