Saturday, May 01, 2010

Pyramids in the Plains

Although I am primarily a linguist by profession, I have taken more than a mere passive interest in archaeology, especially since archaeological evidence, like linguistic evidence, can reveal much about history we only thought we knew.  Recently I went to the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) conference in St. Louis.  While at the conference, I took part in a group tour of Cahokia

About 1,000 years ago, ca. 1050 CE, Cahokia was the largest city north of Mexico, larger than London at the time, estimated to have had a population of at least 10,000 and more if one includes the extensive surrounding network of farmsteads and villages.  Cahokia was “about the size of an average ancient Mesopotamian city-state” (Pauketat 2009:26).  Not until the early 1800s, when Philadelphia’s population surpassed 20,000, was there a city as large as Cahokia north of Mexico (Pauketat & Bernard 2004:12).

The first Euroamerican accounts of Cahokia came from Henry Marie Brackenridge, a young lawyer who corresponded with former president Thomas Jefferson.  In a letter of 1813, Brackenridge stated that he was “astonished and awestruck at the number and size of the earthen pyramids clustered in a several-square- mile area in and opposite the French-American gateway city of St. Louis” (Pauketat 2009:27).  Brackenridge stood atop one pyramid.  He saw that “pyramids trailed off to the north-northwest along the banks of Cahokia Creek” (ibid.) and, when he decided to follow yet another line of pyramids leading off to the east, the path led him “into the midst of the ruins of an ancient city, with large symmetrical pyramids everywhere” (ibid.).  He wrote: “I was struck with a degree of astonishment, not unlike that which is experienced in contemplating the Egyptian pyramids” (Brackenridge 1962/1814).  This ancient city, with pyramids as awe-inspiring as those of Egypt, was Cahokia.
Stairway up Monks Mound pyramid

One of the primary archaeologists to conduct excavations in the Cahokia region, Timothy Pauketat, led our tour.  Our tour began by crossing the mighty Mississippi River over to East St. Louis where we made our first stop.  Both central St. Louis (the pyramids of which were removed in the nineteenth century) and East St. Louis were part of the Cahokian metropolitan complex.  East St. Louis was once connected by a path, or causeway, to “downtown” Cahokia.  At the East St. Louis site, we observed several archaeologists busy conducting excavations.  We observed the excavated foundation of one of the settlement’s houses and the deep interior of a storage pit that once held grains for the community’s inhabitants.

Our next stop was at Grossman, a village between East St. Louis and Cahokia.  We parked in a shopping center parking lot to quickly observe the remnants of small mounds along a nearby highway.  All traces of the town itself are now obliterated by the modern world. 

Next was a stop on a residential side street in another town to observe the remnants of more small mounds at the site of Pfeffer.  According to Pauketat, the house foundations excavated in this area showed that they were not permanent—they were built and rebuilt over a period of decades and were uniquely aligned toward lunar standstills

Our next stop was the site of Emerald, which lies along a narrow road in rural Illinois.  The site is currently private property with a house lying next to a large hill, which was Emerald’s largest pyramid, now covered over with trees and vegetation.  A couple of smaller mounds were barely distinguishable as small bumps a little farther along the side of the road.

After Emerald we finally went to the Big Daddy of ancient North American cities: Cahokia.  At one time there were more than 200 packed-earth pyramids, habitually referred to as ‘mounds,’ of differing sizes and shapes: ridgetop, conical, and platform (flat-topped) (Pauketat & Bernard 2004:10).  Only about half of these have survived the ravages of time and the careless treatment by builders of modern subdivisions and highways.  The largest of these mounds is Monks Mound whose base is larger around than Egypt’s Gizeh Pyramid.  Monks Mound, named for French Trappist monks who were found inhabiting the area nearby, is a two-tiered platform pyramid whose summit is thought to have contained several buildings, including a large structure, perhaps the home of a ruler or some other elite(s).  We climbed to the top of this pyramid via the stairway leading up to its apex.  From the top we had an amazing view in all directions, including of St. Louis in the distance, now sporting skyscrapers and the famous Arch, but in Cahokia’s heyday sporting more pyramids, visible from Cahokia itself.  We could see several other mounds surrounding Monks Mound here in “downtown” Cahokia.  And immediately below the south side of Monks Mound was the Great Plaza that extended for quite a distance toward other pyramids still visible in the distance.  In this plaza is where the ancient inhabitants would have amassed for politico-religious spectacles, perhaps re-enacting ancient mythologies, by rulers, priests, or other elites.

Reconstruction of Great Plaza (Monks Mound at far end)
All of us were struck by the sheer size of Monks Mound, as well as the sheer size of Cahokia itself, which, along with many surrounding ‘suburban’ villages like Grossman, Pfeffer, and Emerald, extended for miles in all directions, villages up to a two-day walk on the outskirts of Cahokia.  There is evidence of mass immigration to Cahokia by peoples of perhaps various nations.  One village, Halliday, about ten miles southeast of Cahokia (which we did not visit), appears to have been settled primarily by women, immigrants or children of immigrants from southeastern Missouri or northeastern Arkansas who weaved, farmed, and made pottery but had a diet and cultural habits unlike most Cahokians (Pauketat 2009:121-122).

What Cahokia may really mean for North American history

Could Cahokia really have been the center of a political alliance involving several Native American nations speaking different languages?  Peoples later identified as Siouan, Caddoan, and Algonquian may have all been associated with this large ancient city (Pauketat 2009:125).  Linguistically, evidence of a pidgin or creole language, which often arises from such international1 alliances, is unfortunately lost to us due to lack of written data, but we know that such languages arose among Native Americans coming into contact, perhaps the best known of such being the Mobilian Trade Language (MTL) of the Southeast and the Chinook “jargon” of the Northwest.  While these trade languages have traditionally, and rather ethnocentrically, been regarded as post-European phenomena, there is ample evidence that MTL at least was pre-contact, its OsV (object-subject-verb) word order like that of Proto-Muskogean, quite different from English, Spanish, or French SVO (subject-verb-object) and even different from the modern Muskogean languages’ SOV (subject-object-verb)  word order, which, to me, in itself is a good indication of its having an ancient pre-European origin. 

I believe, given the archaeological, genetic, and linguistic evidence so far amassed, that ancient Native Americans may have spent a lot of time cooperating and creating peaceful alliances. While skirmishes and some warfare are inevitable, I think what we are learning about Cahokia and what it means to ancient American history fits well with what writers such as Charles Mann in his book 1491 have been telling us: pre-contact North America was quite heavily populated before the arrival of European diseases.  There is ample and still growing evidence that ancient North Americans traded with each other over vast distances, from one end of the continent to the other, coming in contact with each other and learning about each other’s customs and beliefs, and learning each other’s languages.  Lisa Mills, in her analysis of DNA from an Ohio Hopewell site, demonstrated that the Algonquian Ojibwas had close association with the site.  While this is not surprising, given the close geographical proximity of Ojibwas to the region, what is surprising is that genetic links are also apparent between the Ohio Hopewell site and groups as geographically diverse and widespread as the Apache, Iowa, Micmac, Pawnee, Pima, Seri, Sioux, and Yakima.  This seems to indicate that indigenous nations from across North America were in contact at Hopewell, ca. 200 BCE - 500 CE, visiting with each other, probably establishing peaceful trading alliances and creating multiple trade, or pidgin, languages to enable successful communication with each other.  Unfortunately, MTL may be the only example of an ancient trade language that survived by the time of European contact and was able to be recorded.  It may have been only one of many of such languages that arose across the continent in ancient times, however.  (There was also Plains Sign Language, used as a means of international communication on the Plains.)

What does this mean?  It means, of course, that North America before the arrival of Europeans was no vast untouched wilderness populated only by nomadic hunters and gatherers as has so often been taught in school textbooks and popular media.  Instead, it means that ancient North America had cities of monumental architecture2 and established long-range trading networks and political alliances across the continent.  It means that we must rethink the Eurocentric attitudes that have plagued the true history of our continent since colonial times, originally written by biased and racist European and Euroamerican historians who thought that Native Americans were inferior and incapable of building cities and altering their landscapes and environments.  The history of North America does not begin with the United States--there were cities and civilizations in North America thousands of years before the Declaration of Independence was signed.

1  Note that I use 'international' in this sense to refer to what has been habitually called 'intertribal.'  However, the word 'tribe' has biased and negative connotations (perhaps meaning 'not quite civilized' people), and the words nation or people are more appropriate.  Thus, I use 'international' in its true sense to refer to people coming from different indigenous nations.
2  There were other, although smaller, cities or towns of pyramids scattered throughout the Mississippi Valley and Southeast, including Moundville, Bottle Creek, Angel, Ocmulgee, Etowah, and Aztalan.  There were thousands of earthen pyramids throughout the central and southeastern region of what is now the United States, most of which were destroyed by Euroamerican colonizers, their soils used for railroad ballast, among other things.
Brackenridge, Henry M.  1814 (1962).  Views of Louisiana.  Chicago: Quadrangle Books.
Mann, Charles.  2006.  1491: new revelations of the Americas before Columbus.  New York: Vintage.
Pauketat, Timothy.  2009.  Cahokia: ancient America's great city on the Mississippi.  New York: Penguin.
Pauketat, Timothy & Nancy Stone Bernard.  2004.  Cahokia mounds.  New York: Oxford University Press.