If you think Hannibal is dead, wow, you should see Cahokia. I hate to say it, but somehow I had never heard of Cahokia. More accurately, I didn’t remember I had been told about it. Then my friend Frank Pool mentioned it in a Facebook response to our announcing we had landed in Saint Louis. I looked Cahokia up on the interwebs and on our maps and decided that Frank meant to direct me to the state historical site and not to the suburban town with the French influenced architecture, but that might have been fun also. So on our way to Southern Illinois, where I was planning to research my father’s side of the family, we stopped by the Cahokia Mounds in Collinsville, Illinois.
For those of you as behind the times as I am, Cahokia Mounds is the site of the largest Native American city in North America. (It is also a UN designated World Heritage Site.) The brochure says “prehistoric Indian site,” but “prehistoric” here confuses me. To me, “prehistoric” means something like ten thousand years ago. Also, it does sound odd to write “city” in this context, but that is what this place is, the ruins of a city. At one point, probably over 120 mounds covered an area up to 4000 acres. There were farms and logging operations and trade and sporting events and religious monuments—it was a city. It fact, it was probably the largest city on the North American continent until American East Coast cities grew larger in the early 1800s. Tribes began forming what we have come to call Cahokia around 700 C.E., but things really got hopping around 1050, and most likely achieved a population of 20,000 people or more. Then things began to decline, and by the late 1300’s, zilch, kaput. The party was over.
Waller Grant had gotten a typical mid-morning start from the Casino, so the caravan pulled into the parking lot of the interpretive center around noon or so. Colleen had planned ahead and called to make sure that the parking lot allowed ample room for our moving house (which it did) and had made sandwiches for lunch for us to enjoy when we arrived (which we did). So we had a little picnic before the Tourist Hustle. The “tourist hustle” is what I am beginning to think is the required method for hustling tourists along: Welcome us, pour us into a little theater, show us a little movie, pour us out to whatever exhibits there might be, gently guide us to the gift shop, and kindly say goodbye. Some efficiency expert somewhere is really proud. My goal in these blog posts really isn’t to produce a set of reviews, but I can say that everyone at this interpretive center is lovely and helpful and the exhibits are excellent. And I really learned something! I have a hunch that this center, its exhibits, and the overall grounds are so informative and well maintained because at the helm of the preservation of Cahokia are academics, about sixty years of dedicated “dirt archeologists,” as Timothy R. Pauketat calls them in his excellent book, Cahokia: Ancient America’s Great City on the Mississippi. You should have seen Colleen’s face when she saw me at the gift shop cashier’s table with another book in my hands! I highly recommend his chapter, “Ghost of Archeologists.” It is a cheerful chapter for those of us who sometimes want to slow the bulldozers of progress to study the final exposed foundations of who we are and how we got here. It also demonstrates how knowledge is built from the dedicated work of many people. Academics as heroes: what’s not to love?
One of the things that impressed me the most is that basically this place told the truth as best as they can figure it out, so far. And that means that there is something here to trouble everyone. If you are a good Christian Conservative, you can get angry that we have a group of natives perfectly happy not to know Jesus. In addition, the exhibits feature wax native women going about their daily chores without clothing on their upper parts. I looked but I did not see one sign that said, “Warning. You might see boobies.” See, I work in an institution that serves a general public—we’re always putting up signs that warn the Puritans to stay out of plays or art exhibitions or poetry readings cause we don’t want to have to listen to them complain about morals and corruption and taxpayer money spent on said corruption. (My college begins classes in a few days; maybe I already missing my job.)
On the other hand, if you are a Pinko Commie Liberal, who loves espousing how sweet and lovely and kind and environmental all the native peoples are (and delivered as evidence about how awful we contemporary Americans are), you suffer yet one more blow at the hands of human nature. First of all, these Native Americans built a city! They altered the landscape by constructing these massive mounds; they erected houses, eek, suburbs; they cut trees for a fortress wall, thousands of trees. They planted fields of corn and squash and other seed plants. They probably studied the seeds, refined them. I’m guessing, of course, but they might have sold out to Monsanto if they had had the chance. Second, the social structure was hierarchical; they elevated powerful rulers and supported wealthy families; important people lived inside the fortress walls and lesser people lived vulnerable to attack by the enemy, whoever that was. Third, they practiced human sacrifice, including the sacrifice of women.
Pauketat writes about the dig in what is called Mound 72, “This was on one of the most complex digs ever undertaken in North America, and the sheer numbers of bodies in pits had not been anticipated. After the fifty-three women and various other people surrounding the beaded-cape burial were discovered, the excavation would uncover some two hundred more skeletons. Several pits contained between nineteen and twenty-four women each, all apparently sacrificial victims. For several such pits, archaeologists were able to determine the victims’ final moments in sometimes remarkable detail. The lives of most of those sacrificed, presumably, were extinguished nearby, and their lifeless bodies were then carried into the pit, some on stretchers, But the spectacle of human sacrifice had also happened right there, next to at least one open trench” (74). There’s more: we bleeding hearts can read it and weep.
As always, Waller Grant didn’t get to spend the length of time we wanted at Cahokia. We have to keep moving, and there are four of us, all with different interests. But Colleen, Theo, and I did make time to bike over to the largest mound, Monk’s Mound (so named because French monks set up shop nearby in the early 1800s). Colleen is beginning to think that much of our year will be spent climbing stairs—she and Theo climbed the many sets of stairs to get to the lighthouse in Hannibal. And here we were again climbing three long expanses of stairs to the top.
The brochure tells me “Monks Mound is the largest prehistoric earthen construction in the Americas, containing an estimated 22 million cubic feet of earth.” The mound itself covers 14 acres, and is 100 feet tall. Back in the day, the big kahuna lived his fabulous life in his massive house and ran the show from there. At that height, we could see more mounds, the ceremonial yards, examples of the fortress fences, a giant Stonehenge like calendar made of logs, and in one little corner a small tent, where we figured a couple of hard working dirt archaeologists were doing their slow business of digging the truth. And that reminds me, now, to tell you when I first heard of Cahokia. My son William worked here, maybe six or seven years ago, as part of a school project when he attended DePaul University as an anthropology major. Once I pieced things together, I remembered conversations about trips to the St. Louis area and such. After seeing Cahokia, I am thinking that his education was money well spent—or well, I’m glad we took the loans we continue to pay off.
So what happened to Cahokia? This is a mystery, a wonder, if you will. I like to think that the citizens just said, “Screw you. I don’t want to be sacrificed.” Or presaging Lincoln: “As I would not be sacrificed, so I will not sacrifice,” and, like Huck, took off for the wilderness. Cahokia was, I guess, the closest thing the Native American tribes had to a successful civilization, at least as we define “civilization” nowadays: rich people, lots of food, entertainment, products from far away places, pomp and circumstance. Which means it also developed, no doubt, a bunch of rules and regulations, accepted practices, unexamined reasons for doing things the way we always have even though it all seems kind of stupid and dangerous. The Roman Empire died, Cahokia died, so can the United States. The problem is there ain’t no more wilderness to light out to.
One last feature of Monks Mound and its stairs falls into the positive unintended consequences department. As Colleen, Theo, and I climbed the stairs to the top, we noticed a man, whom I am guessing is in his middle thirties, with a very red face and sweat falling into his eyes. He was definitely in better shape that I am, but his man boobs did show through his shiny black sportswear and his love handles were a little more giggly than most. My theory is that he once weighed fifty or sixty pounds more than his current weight. After we finished our survey on the top of the mound and prepared to descend, the man met us again on the stairs, this time coming up. We nodded in that way that strangers do; then he headed back down ahead of us. Then on the way down, as we approached the final set of stairs, the man was ascending once more. This time we spoke, offering our support, and asking how many rounds he had completed.
“Wonderful. How many do you plan to do?”
“Ten.” He passed us going up.
“Good luck. Do you have water?”
“In the car.” He yelled back toward us.
When we arrived at the bottom of the last set of stairs and began unlocking our bikes, we noticed a couple of other men. One, my age, with close-cut goatee just took off up the stairs. He wore a bandanna over his short grey hair. A second man, younger, maybe in his mid-twenties, was stretching, taking his time. Colleen talked with him and learned that he comes out to the mound regularly for exercise. He is a boxer and has made the stairs part of his training routine. I don’t know, something about this situation makes me happy. We Americans are a pretty crazy lot. We save a thousand year old mound of dirt that some dude built his mansion on so he could survey “his people” and perhaps kill a few when it pleased him. One set of us, for no good reason at all, studies the heck out of it, writing books and delivering talks, and another set, again for no good reason, except to stay healthy because our daily lives don’t support that, runs up and down it to the point to exhaustion. It’s all pretty nuts, really. But this day, I was enlightened and encouraged by both. Now that I have read Pauketat’s book, it’s time to get on the bicycle.
Soundtrack. Sergio Mendez: "The Fool on the Hill."
Soundtrack. Sergio Mendez: "The Fool on the Hill."