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IN THE EARLY HOURS before sunrise, for part of each year, the planet Venus shines as a “morning star.” Slowly it disappears as the rising sun turns darkness to sky blue. To the ancient Maya and others, this Morning Star was a god, the “Sun- Carrier,” created to transport the sun into the world of people. In ancient North America, it was viewed as a masculine deity who— at a key moment in history— assumed human form. When seen later in the year as the Evening Star, Venus was considered a feminine god. She appeared then with the setting sun, a harbinger of the night and the netherworld beyond the horizon. Sometimes seen as a creator goddess, she also took human form and, in the flesh, made history.
A thousand years ago, the Morning and Evening stars were central players in an American Indian drama, characters at once mythic— sky gods with supernatural powers— and human, driven by violence, politics, and religion. And this drama was at the heart of a place we now call Cahokia, ancient America’s one true city north of Mexico—as large in its day as London— and the political capital of a most unusual Indian nation.
At that time all the stars and planets in the Northern Hemisphere’s night sky were visible above Cahokia, situated in a broad expanse of Mississippi River bottomland just east of what is now St. Louis, Missouri. Cahokia’s people looked to the Morning and Evening stars for guidance and— inspired by ideas from Mesoamerica, possibly brought back from Cahokian rulers’ travels or priests’ vision quests— incorporated them into a religion that would displace traditions across the American Midwest, South, and Plains.
Nowadays, one can barely see the stars at night from St. Louis. Tall buildings crowd the sky, and streetlights blot out the stars even as the growth of modern civilization erases the archaeological remains of the ancient North Americans. Still, Cahokia sits silently, awaiting the almost three hundred thousand visitors who come to the site each year. Taking in its grass- covered mounds, vast open spaces, and large watery borrow pits, they ponder the lives of the original inhabitants of North America’s largest pyramidal- mound complex, centered by what is, in fact, the third- largest pyramid in the entire New World.
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 in excess 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.
From the beginnings of the Euroamerican city of St. Louis, some of the biggest and most important ancient American monuments were leveled to make way for new developments. Twenty-five mounds were destroyed in St. Louis before the Civil War. Forty- five more were taken down across the river in East St. Louis shortly thereafter. Scores were lost in Cahokia proper, including the second largest, removed by steam shovel in 1930. In the 1800s, most people knew that the ancient earthen mounds being destroyed were the works of human hands, but surprisingly few suspected that they had been built by American Indians. Some believed that a lost race of civilized non- Indian Mound Builders had constructed these impressive tumuli, like those all along the American frontier west of the Alleghany Mountains, down the Ohio valley, and dotting the Mississippi trench. These mysterious Mound Builders, they thought, must have been wiped out by the later, warlike American Indians, or perhaps they migrated to Mexico to found the great civilizations of the Aztec and Maya.
What remains of Cahokia’s 3,200 acres of great pyramids, spacious plazas, thatched- roof temples, houses, astronomical observatories, and planned neighborhoods suffers from deterioration. The core of the site is preserved within a state park. The rest is wedged between modern highways or buried beneath factories and houses in the greater St. Louis metropolitan area. Much has been lost. Perhaps this is why few people— even few archaeologists— have a full sense of this American Indian city and its place in world history.
Although a complete picture of ancient Cahokia may never be possible, archaeologists continue to study, make discoveries, and reinterpret what is known about the city and its influence on surrounding areas and future generations. Their findings call into question some long- held beliefs— for instance, that ecologically sensitive, peaceful, mystical, and egalitarian peoples freely roamed the North American continent, never overpopulating or overexploiting their environments; or that these peoples were not subject to such base human emotions as avarice, greed, and covetousness and thus could not have built cities or allowed power to be concentrated in the hands of elites.
What is exciting about the archaeological discoveries at Cahokia is that they point to an alternative interpretation: that a “big bang” occurred there in which an abrupt burst of large- scale construction created an unpre ce dented American Indian city. What does this “big bang” mean? It means that po liti cal and social change happened here quickly, effected by visionaries who shaped events and influenced a group of people in a profound way, and that this influence spread to other areas at that time and to later cultures.
Underlying this interpretation is the idea that all people everywhere actively make history. The lives of all the people of the past and all those living shape the larger world. Even choosing inaction has historical implications. Civilizations can rise and fall, to adapt Margaret Mead’s famous quotation, as a result of the actions of a small group of people combined with the inaction of many others. Making sense of these actions and inactions can be a difficult task for archaeologists, who must distinguish between how people lived and how they wanted to be perceived as living. Cahokia’s big bang is a case study in how people can combine to create great historical change.
Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from "Cahokia," by Timothy R. Pauketat. Copyright (c) 2009 by Timothy R. Pauketat.
This program aired on September 3, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.
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