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

Executive Editor

Published August 6, 2009 10:20AM (EDT)

Central Cahokia.
Central Cahokia.

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 Yucatán. 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.

In "Cahokia: Ancient America's Great City on the Mississippi," Pauketat tells the story of what we now know, or can surmise, about the intriguing and bloody civilization that built Cahokia -- which looks comparable to a Mesopotamian or Greek city-state -- and also the tragic story of why it was overlooked and misunderstood for so long. Reading his book, one constantly marvels at the hair-raising archaeological discoveries that fly in the face of conventional understandings of Native American life, and mourns for how much more that could have been discovered is now lost or destroyed.

Only about 80 of the 120 or so burial and/or temple mounds on the Cahokia site still exist, and satellite mound-cities on the sites of present-day St. Louis and East St. Louis -- both of which included large central temple pyramids -- were completely razed by settlers in the 19th and 20th centuries. Many of the archaeological digs at Cahokia have been quick and dirty, with the bulldozers of motel developers or highway builders revving up nearby. In the 1940s, suburban tract housing was built right through the middle of the 22,000-acre Cahokia site, and as recently as the '60s, one homeowner dug an in-ground swimming pool into the ancient city's central ceremonial plaza. (Those houses, and the pool, have since been removed.)

Even a generation ago, many archaeologists and anthropologists would have found the phrase "Native American city" bizarre and self-contradictory. Scholarly conceptions weren't all that far away from pop culture depictions: American Indians lived light on the land, mostly in hunter-gatherer societies augmented by minimal subsistence agriculture. While they may have had "ceremonial centers" along with seasonal villages and hunting and fishing camps, they didn't live in large or permanent settlements.

Such scholarship, Pauketat implies, reflected a sanitized, politically correct version of long-standing prejudice about the human possibilities of Native Americans. Well into the 19th century, many white Americans refused to believe that the "savages" they encountered in their ruthless drive across the continent could have built the impressive mounds or earthen pyramids found at numerous places in the Midwest and Southeast. Cahokia is by far the biggest such site, but by no means the first. There are several mound complexes in the Deep South that predate the time of Christ, and one in Louisiana has been dated to 3,400 B.C., well before the building of the Egyptian or Maya pyramids.

Even though early explorers like Hernando de Soto had personally encountered mound-building tribes in the 16th century, most mound sites were abandoned by the time white settlers arrived (probably because European microbes had preceded actual Europeans). This led to the idea that some ancient, superior "Mound Builder" civilization -- variously proposed to be Viking, Greek, Chinese or Israelite in origin -- had originally settled the continent before being overrun by the wild and warlike American Indians. (Relics of this hypothesis can be found today in fringe black-nationalist groups who claim that Cahokia and similar sites were the work of ancient Africans.)

Then there was the problem that Cahokia was constructed more than nine centuries ago from materials available in the Mississippi Valley -- earth, timber, thatched leaves and grasses -- and had been abandoned to weather, rot and erosion for 400 years by the time Americans began to notice it. There was no way to ignore the monumental stone cities built by the Aztecs or Maya once you stumbled upon them, but Cahokia presented itself to modern eyes as an ambiguous but not especially compelling assortment of overgrown mounds, hillocks and ridges.

In fairness, frontier lawyer Henry Brackenridge, who visited Cahokia in 1811, described it as a "stupendous monument of antiquity" and the former site of "a very populous town," and understood that it was certainly of Indian origin. (Cahokia is a name borrowed from the Illini tribe, who lived nearby in historical times. No one knows what the Cahokians called their city.) Brackenridge's insights were so thoroughly neglected that a century later many scholars who had moved away from outlandish fantasies about ancient Greeks or Hebrews contended instead that Cahokia consisted of anomalous natural formations, and hadn't been built by humans at all. That theory was finally put to rest with archaeologist Warren King Moorehead's 1921 excavations at a site called Rattlesnake Mound, where he trenched up huge piles of human remains.

Moorehead's crude, large-scale digging techniques often did more harm than good, Pauketat observes, but he did spur the first efforts to preserve the site from ruthless development -- and he at least began the lengthy process of asking and answering questions about who was buried in the mounds at Cahokia, and why. Based on the evidence collected by later archaeologists, it's likely that the 140 or so bodies Moorehead found in Rattlesnake Mound were sacrificial victims in one or more of Cahokia's "mortuary rituals," public ceremonies that even Pauketat, abandoning his tone of anthropological neutrality, deems "ghastly" and "bizarre."

You may well wonder how Pauketat or anybody else can possibly know the details of the religious practices of a preliterate people who vanished 600 years ago, leaving no known descendants and relatively few enduring artifacts. Of course the answer is that archaeologists don't know things like that to a scientific degree of certainty, and some of Pauketat's ideas -- connecting prominent Cahokia burials to a widespread Native American legend about supernatural twin brothers, for instance, or positing a connection between Cahokian civilization and those of Mesoamerica -- are both speculative and controversial.

But beginning in the late 1950s, a series of gruesome archaeological discoveries have left little doubt that during Cahokia's heyday -- which began with an unexplained "big bang" around the year 1050, when a smaller village was abruptly razed and a much larger city built on top of it, and continued for roughly 150 years -- its ruling caste practiced a tradition of "ritualized killing and ceremonious burial." As Pauketat details, few excavations in the archaeological record can match the drama and surprise of Melvin Fowler, Al Meyer and Jerome Rose's 1967-70 dig at an unprepossessing little ridge-top construction known as Mound 72.

This mound contained a high-status burial of two nearly identical male bodies, one of them wrapped in a beaded cape or cloak in the shape of a thunderbird, an ancient and mystical Native American symbol. Surrounding this "beaded burial" the diggers gradually uncovered more and more accompanying corpses, an apparent mixture of honorific burials and human sacrifices evidently related to the two important men. It appeared that 53 lower-status women were sacrificed specifically to be buried with the men -- perhaps a harem or a group of slaves from a nearby subject village, Pauketat thinks -- and that a group of 39 men and women had been executed on the spot, possibly a few years later. In all, more than 250 people were interred in and around Mound 72.

As Pauketat puts it, even at the time the diggers understood they had found something momentous. "There, in the middle of North America, more than five centuries before European armies and diseases would arrive to take their own murderous toll, was evidence of large-scale acts of premeditated violence." In retrospect, Pauketat sees an even more important conclusion emerging from Mound 72 and other Cahokia excavations: evidence of a metropolitan Native American society "characterized by inequality, power struggles and social complexity." These people were neither half-feral savages nor eco-Edenic villagers; they had lived and died in a violent and sophisticated society with its own well-defined view of the universe.

As mentioned earlier, some of Pauketat's tentative conclusions about the origins and legacy of Cahokian civilization are no more than educated guesses. He believes that the possible twin-brother kingly burial in Mound 72 may provide a historical basis for the widespread Midwestern and Plains Indian stories about a hero, sometimes called Red Horn or He-who-wears-human-heads-as-earrings, and his two sons. He further believes that Cahokian-Mississippian culture must be related to the temple-building, human-sacrifice civilizations of Mexico and Central America, although the archaeological record suggests no clear connection.

He seems on firmer intuitive ground in suggesting that outlying agrarian villages, whose populations were ethnically and culturally distinctive, much poorer than Cahokians and predominantly female, may have provided the Cahokia elite with sacrificial victims. But Pauketat's masterstroke may be his reanalysis of an obscure dig conducted in the '60s by Charles Bareis, who found an enormous 900-year-old Cahokian garbage pit, so deeply buried that its contents still stank atrociously.

Analyzing the strata of rotting gunk found therein, Pauketat concludes that there was probably an upside to Cahokia's appalling "mortuary rituals," which he suspects were officious public ceremonies  to honor the ruling family or to install a new king. The garbage dump reveals the remains of enormous Cahokian festivals, involving as many as 3,900 slaughtered deer, 7,900 earthenware pots, and vast amounts of pumpkins, corn, porridge, nuts and berries. There was enough food to feed all of Cahokia at once, and enough potent native tobacco -- a million charred seeds at a time -- to give the whole city a  near-hallucinogenic nicotine buzz.

There's no way to know for sure whether these multiple-day, citywide shindigs were simultaneous with the human-sacrifice rituals, but it's highly plausible, and they were certainly part of the same social system. (Pauketat also finds in the trash heap evidence of "spectacular pomp and pageantry.") At any rate, if you weren't personally being decapitated and thrown into a pit to honor some departed leader, life in Cahokia evidently came with some benefits that, like almost everything else about the city, were unprecedented in the Native American world.

It's possible that the ritual brutality of Cahokia's leaders ultimately led to their downfall, and Pauketat clearly hopes to be among the archaeologists who resolve that mystery. But for a century and a half this fascinating and troubling state seemed to function pretty well, and the reasons for that, he suggests, are not mystical but material, and not mysterious but recognizably human. Cahokia forged a new sense of community out of these rituals, one that merged church and state, and Cahokians "tolerated the excesses of their leaders," as most of us do, as long as the party kept going. 

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

MORE FROM Andrew O'Hehir

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

American History Books Native Americans Nonfiction