Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Human sacrifice, supernovas, competitive sports, slavery, zigzag-nosed gods - Timothy Pauketat's Cahokia

For reasons only distantly related to 19th century literature, I have been reading about Native American history. I'm trying to "learn something" by "reading books." I had not really planned to write about any of this, but I can't help myself, because the book I just finished is so good.

The book is Cahokia: Ancient America's Great City on the Mississippi (2009) by University of Illinois anthropologist Timothy Pauketat. Pauketat tells an almost unbelievable story of human sacrifice, supernovas, competitive sports, slavery, zigzag-nosed gods, and the rise and fall of empires. All of this was, I remind myself, not in central Mexico, but in the Mississippi valley.

I have visited the Cahokia Mounds State Historical Site, long ago, in the late 1970s, I think. So I knew a little bit of this story - that in the 11th and 12th century, Cahokia was a city of dramatic earthen mounds in habited by 20,000 or more people. "Larger than London" is the standard comparison, like 11th century London was so special. Still, before European settlement, it was the largest city in the history of the territory that would become the United States; one of the mounds is the third largest in North America.

As Pauketat tells the story, it is clear that there have been massive changes in the archaeological and anthropological understanding of the Cahokian and Mississippian culture, much of it in the past twenty years. Pauketat uses the history of the archaeology as a plot - the development of the story is his story.

Cahokia is a tiny book (170 little pages) in a series of tiny books - the Penguin Library of American Indian History. I recently read another one of the series, The Cherokee Nation and the Trail of Tears (2007) by Theda Perdue and Michael Green. I can easily recommend the Perdue and Green book to anyone curious about the subject in the title. But it is not particularly exciting or well written. It's a useful book.

So Pauketat's book was a surprise. I'd recommend it to pretty much anyone. Some of it is a bit gruesome, I guess - those human sacrifices. One might think that the Cherokee history would have more grip because it has real characters - the great Chief John Ross, for example. But Pauketat's a better writer, and that makes all the difference. Plus, the archaeologists are good characters, and Pauketat knows how to use them, to b ring them to life and even argue with them. He calls one "paranoid." This book has personality.

Funny thing is that I've already found another fantastic Native American history, The Comanche Empire (2008) by  - just a minute - Pekka Hämäläinen. No idea how to pronounce his Finnish name. This book is  a serious academic history, so it's not so little and not so friendly. It's overturning every other fact I thought I knew about Plains Indian history, and I've barely started it. Maybe I'll write about it more at some point. It'll take me a while to finish - it's real work.


  1. I've been wanting to go see the mounds ever since I moved to Chicago. But it turns out the Midwest is on a much bigger scale than New England so it hasn't quite happened yet.

  2. I think one of those Penguin Library of American Indian History titles slipped through my clutches recently (unfortunately, I was applying a rare one-day ban on book buying that day), so I'll have to pay more attention next time. In the meantime, Cahokia sounds right up my human sacrifice-and-supernovas alley--thanks for the tip and the very pleasant review!

  3. Holy umlauts, Batman! :-) That's quite a name.

    Seriously, though, Cahokia sounds fascinating, and also kind of endearing in its level of personality. Native American history is something I'm trying (sporadically) to educate myself about, as well, so thanks for the recommendation!

  4. I must buy this book! Ideas about Cahokia seem to be changing rapidly with new archaeological research. What an amazing site it is. Philadelphia didn't surpass Cahokia's population till after AD 1800. Yet the whole civilization collapsed and disappeared about four centuries before the Europeans arrived. The links with Mesoamerica are very intriguing. Of course your other book charts a kind of end for Cahokia, as the Cherokee were in part the cultural inheritors of Cahokia - or at least the Natchez who were at least a related culture.

  5. Are you sure he's Icelandic? The name sounds Finnish.

    Just found your excellent blog -- one day I'll read through the entire archive.

  6. Oops, yes, definitely Finnish. Thanks, thanks.

    I'm a little surprised by the interest in the subject, but I shouldn't be ('cuz it's so interesting). I'll try to make a point of writing more about the subject - I'll definitely try to say something about The Comanche Empire.

  7. I must be living under a rock, I've never heard of the Cahokia before. I'm going to have to get ahold of this book sometime.

  8. Stefanie, the book is an eye-opener. I'm pretty sure we never covered Cahokia in any grade school or high school study of Native American history, but the understanding of the importance of Cahokia has grown a lot since we were in school. And Native American history is such a huge subject - so much has to be omitted.