Thursday, October 15, 2009

From Caney Fork to Cahokia

Many American Indian peoples actively and creatively constructed a universe that radically redefined their history. Such a realization is a major step forward in understanding the story of ancient North America and in mapping the connection between past and present. There may be multiple ways of understanding those connections, but it seems clear that, at one time, they all converged at Cahokia.
-Timothy Pauketat

Judaculla Rock

The petroglyphs on Judaculla Rock remain as puzzling as when I first examined them thirty years ago.

Whenever I travel past the remaining mounds along the Tuckasegee and the Little Tennessee I imagine scenes from long ago.

And I have a list of places to visit, among them Fort Mountain, Track Rock and the Eagle Rock Effigy in Georgia and the Duck River Stone Fort in Tennessee.

They’re all great mysteries, and often viewed as isolated phenomena. It's a challenge to see them in the context of a larger story and discover what, if any, common bonds they share. For a book that might connect the dots, I turned to Cahokia, Ancient America’s Great City on the Mississippi, by Timothy Pauketat.

While it doesn’t shed much light on the specific sites I just mentioned, it brings to life the great urban center of North America that developed almost a millennium ago. Just downriver from the confluence of the Missouri, Cahokia sprawled across what is now East St. Louis, IL. Pauketat writes:

At one time, there were more than two hundred packed-earth pyramids, or “mounds,” at Cahokia and its suburbs. More than half of these were built in a five-square-mile zone that was designed with reference to the four sacred directions and the upper and lower worlds. The pyramids were arranged around vast open plazas and were surrounded, in turn, by thousands of pole-and-thatch houses, temples, and public buildings. At its height, Cahokia had a population of ten thousand, with at least twenty or thirty thousand more in the outlying towns and farming settlements that ranged for fifty miles in every direction.

Depiction of Cahokia at its peak of development

Pauketat suggests that the giant supernova of July 1054 was of such astronomical significance that it may have been a factor in the creation of Cahokia. As it shone brightly in the sky, people around the world saw the supernova as an omen. At Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, a map of the night sky painted on the sandstone cliffs commemorated its sudden appearance.

The archaeological evidence from Cahokia reveals complex celestial timepieces, evidence of a powerful hierarchical society, and signs of ritual human sacrifice. In some ways rivaling the empires of South America, Cahokia was the cradle of a culture that spread toward the Southeast and the Plains. By the year 1400, though, it was abandoned.

Cahokia Today

What were the connections between Cahokia and the monuments marking the Southeast? I’m not certain Pauketat answers that question directly or in much detail, but he does offer at least one helpful perspective for understanding Judaculla Rock:

Like other preindustrial people around the world, most pre-Columbian North Americans did not conceive or quantify time and space the way historians and cartographers do today. Anthropologists and archaeologists have described this in different ways, often counterposing a daily, experiential time to a kind of genealogical or historical time and, beyond that, a mythical, monumental, or, one might say, ritual time. These were never rigidly distinguished, any more than natural forces were distinguished from supernatural ones.

This being the case, ancient maps may not always take an expected form. Not every old map might fit Western cartographic conventions, with a huge X marking the spot where archaeologists will find answers to their questions. Much rock art was thoroughly embedded within the spatial and temporal fields wherein people, places, and nonhuman forces were thought to coincide, meaning that certain Native American maps may not even be found in one place but spread across the landscape like clues in a treasure hunt.

The quest continues!

Caney Fork Creek, near Judaculla Rock


Anonymous said...

What happened to Cahokia? Did it go the way of Rome?

GULAHIYI said...

It's not clear why Cahokia was abandoned (rather suddenly). One of the criticisms levelled against Pauketat's book is that he is very cautious in speculating beyond what is obvious from the archaeological evidence. Of course, if he had been more bold in interpreting the data, he would have been criticized for that! I'm guessing that that game in the area was decimated after a time and the population dispersed to allow for more success in hunting. OR...we could go with the alien abduction theory!

Anonymous said...

According to Wikipedia, "Cahokia began to decline after 1300. It was abandoned more than a century before Europeans arrived in North America in the early 1500s, and the area around it was largely uninhabited by indigenous tribes. Scholars have proposed environmental factors such as over-hunting and deforestation as explanations. The houses, stockade, and residential and industrial fires would have required thousands of logs. In addition climate change could have aggravated effects of erosion due to deforestation, and adversely affected the cultivation of maize, on which the community had depended.

Another possible cause is invasion by outside peoples, though the only evidence of warfare found so far is the wooden stockade and watchtowers that enclosed Cahokia's main ceremonial precinct. Due to the lack of other evidence for warfare, the palisade appears to have been more for ritual or formal separation than for military purposes. Diseases transmitted among the large, dense urban population are another possible cause of decline. Many recent theories propose conquest-induced political collapse as the primary reason for Cahokia’s abandonment."

GULAHIYI said...

Thanks for passing that along. Pauketat made some interesting choices in what he emphasized in the book, and I'll probably do a follow-up based on one of the obscure topics to which he devoted an entire chapter.