Robert V. Sharp, Ed. Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand: American Indian Art of the Ancient Midwest and South. The Art Institute of Chicago, 2004.
When scholars first explored the mound cities the dotted the American landscape, they wondered who built them. Some believed they were the work of ancient Native Americans, but others thought that some completely different civilization must have been responsible – Phoenicians, Egyptians, the Lost Tribes of Israel. These days it is commonplace to mock those theorists for their ignorant racism, but really it was a hard problem. The Indians of the 1700s and 1800s not only didn’t build mound cities, they had no memory of their ancestors building them nor even any stories about them. Many Indian men were openly contemptuous of the kind of work needed to build massive earthworks. When looters dug into the burial mounds at those cities, they found artifacts of a type and quality unlike anything made by post-contact Indians. So far as I can tell, no white man ever met an Indian who moaned about the olden days when his people lived in cities and drank from jade cups. On the contrary, those Indians prone to ideology liked to brag about the great freedom of their lives in the woods, and they regularly claimed that while the regimented life of a city might be fine for white men, it was totally unsuitable for forest-dwelling Indians. It was often the scholars who knew the most about Indians who refused to believe that their ancestors had built the enormous mounds.
The greatest of the mound cities were built by a civilization we call Mississippian, which we can date from AD 1050 to the arrival of Spanish conquistadors in the mid 1500s. Actually one Mississippian people, the Natchez, kept up their old ways into the early 1700s, long enough for French explorers to leave descriptions of their society. Those descriptions are a key source for figuring out what Mississippian civilization was like. But all the other mound cities seem to have been abandoned by 1600, and none of them lasted for more than 200 years.
The first and greatest of the Mississippian cities was Cahokia, on the floodplain of the Mississippi River just across from modern St. Louis. Timothy Pauketat’s excellent little book is a good introduction to the site, its history, and the history of archaeological efforts to explore and understand it. Pauketat is one of the top scholars of Cahokia, and in this book he does a fine job of presenting his knowledge in a brief, accessible format. My only complaint is that the book lacks illustrations, but I suppose including pictures of even a tiny sample of the most important and spectacular finds from Cahokia would have kept the book from being the inexpensive volume the editors of the Penguin Library of American Indian History obviously wanted.
The most striking thing about Cahokia is that it appeared almost instantaneously, arising from the preceding villager cultures in less time than the margin of error in our most sophisticated dating techniques. Some time within a few years of 1050 AD, a large village on the Cahokia site was razed and the people relocated. In its place arose a vast complex of mounds, surrounding a 50-acre plaza that had been carefully leveled and given a consistent slope so slight you can’t notice it, but sufficient that water drains off easily. The largest of the more than 100 mounds, the Monk’s Mound, was the largest pyramid north of Mexico and the third largest in the New World. The mounds were built of carefully layered earth, in alternating colors, each layer compacted by pounding with wooden poles. Surrounding the mound complex were residential neighborhoods that held 10,000 to 20,000 people. Nor was this all. Three smaller mound cities were built nearby, one in modern St. Louis, one at East Louis, and one along the Mississippi a few miles to the south. These also contained great complexes of mounds, and so far as we can tell they were built at the same time as the mounds at Cahokia, by the same people. The inhabitants of some outlying villages seem to have been serfs, or slaves; their artifacts include many spindle whorls but few weapons, and their skeletons show that they lived on a mostly corn diet, with inadequate protein. Taken together, the Cahokia metropolis spread out across 200 square miles and had a population of more than 50,000. For about 150 years, Cahokia lorded it over the middle Mississippi Valley, growing ever grander and more populous. Then, around 1200 AD, it entered into a rapid decline. A defensive palisade was built that surrounded less than half of the original city center. By 1300 Cahokia had been almost completely abandoned.
Pauketat terms the founding of Cahokia a “big bang.” By this he means that it was an event, happening in one place in a brief interval of time, that had repercussions across much of North America for centuries to come. But what was the event, and why did it happen? Archaeology has trouble answering this sort of question, but Pauketat makes a valiant effort. One intriguing possibility is that the event was related to the supernova that was visible across the world in 1054 AD. Like many ancient cultures, the Mississippians were much concerned with celestial events, and they built huge, circular “wood henge” observatories laid out with lines of site that led toward significant celestial events, like the midwinter sunrise. The supernova of 1054 is depicted in several surviving pieces of Native American art, including rock paintings and decorated pottery, so we know Indians were much impressed by it.
Another possibility concerns the connections between Mississippian civilization and the Toltec civilization of Mexico. Some of the motifs used by Mississippian artists seem to be copied from Mexican objects, some North American myths seem to reflect Mayan influence, and more broadly the whole tone of life in the Mississippian mound cities seems too much like that of Mayan and Toltec cities for coincidence. On the other hand, next to no actual Mexican objects have been found at North American Indian sites (only one that everyone accepts), so direct contact cannot have been common. Could the connection have been in the form of one person, who traveled to Mexico, saw the Toltec cities, and then came home to Cahokia, where the new star helped him persuade his people to embark on a new way of life? Pauketat seems to believe that there was such a person, a charismatic war leader who built up the Cahokian state from a collection of allied villages into a mighty nation and made a city rise from the marshes.
The best evidence for the existence of such a founding hero is certain myths preserved by later Indians, especially the Osage and the Winnebago, which have been used to interpret Mississippian cult art. Many of the most elaborate objects depict one semi-divine hero, known variously as Red Horn, He-who-wears-human-heads-as-earrings, or Slapped-with-deer-lungs. Red Horn was connected to the Morning Star; in some traditions he was the Morning Star, in others he was its son. The cult art of Cahokia seems to imply that the ruler was the avatar, or even the actual reincarnation, of Red Horn. (When George Armstrong Custer took the Indian name “Son of the Morning Star,” he was associating himself with this same myth.) Among the Natchez, that late surviving Mississippian kingdom, each ruler was considered to be the reincarnation of the previous one, stretching back to an original who was the Son of the Sun. His coronation took the form of an elaborately staged resurrection, the new ruler at some point slipping into the regalia of the old, so that he appeared to be the old ruler’s corpse brought back to life.
The Natchez king was an absolute ruler with the power of life and death over all his subjects. Or so his ambassadors told the French, and certainly the king’s power was very great. From what we can tell of other Mississippian peoples, power among all of them seems to have been focused in the hands of one man, the scion of a divine lineage. It seems simplest to imagine that this tradition began with an actual great founding king, a man who appropriated for himself the identity of Red Horn and was able to exert great power through his military and religious charisma.
Consider, first, the question of why no Mississippian center remained powerful and populous for more than about 150 years. This may have had political causes we can only guess at, but it also had ecological causes we understand very well. Mississippian Indians were farmers, but of a rather primitive sort. Outside a few favored river bottom locales they practiced swidden or "slash and burn" agriculture. That is, they cleared an area by girding the trees to kill them and burning off the brush, grew crops on it for three or four years, and then abandoned the land to grow up naturally for about 20 years until its fertility was restored. Many historic Indians moved their villages about every ten to twenty years, when the local soils were exhausted. A mound city like Cahokia would draw food from a much larger area than a village, but even so the soils within easy reach would become depleted over time. Also, Mississippian agriculture seems to have focused very heavily on corn (maize). Corn is a great crop in terms of calories per acre, but it is not a very good base for human nutrition. Historic Indians reduced this problem by planting beans together with the corn (this also helps keep the soil fertile), but there is not much evidence of beans on Mississippian sites and the corn-beans-squash triad seems to have developed rather late in prehistory. North American Indians had no domestic animals other than dogs, and they always relied on hunting to provide them with animal protein. Trash pits at Cahokia that may be the remains of great public feasts contain the remains of thousands of deer and turkeys. Such consumption would inevitably, over time, deplete the game near the mound city, leaving its inhabitants dependent on an inadequate corn-based diet. These economic facts help to explain why the mound cities were always rather ephemeral, and this lack of continuity at particular sites may help explain why the Mississippians did not develop an enduring historical tradition.
But why didn't the Indians remember what they had lost? Perhaps, as I said, because many of them always hated the mound cities and their despotic kings. Perhaps, though, it was simply because they had very little interest in history of that kind. It is a characteristic of most traditional Indians that their sense of time has two poles, the here-and-now and the eternal. They are interested in their living memories, stretching back two or three generations, and in the doings of the gods in the beginning times. This pattern is characteristic of hunter-gatherer and other simple societies worldwide, and it is sometimes used (for example by Vine Deloria) to explain why Indians have little interest in the work of archaeologists. Comparison of Mississippian cult art with later Indian myths shows that the Mississippian cosmology endured, along with many of their stories about gods and heroes. In fact, comparison of American Indian cosmology and shamanistic practice with those of central Siberia shows that some of these ideas are more then 13,000 years old. So the oral culture of the Indians was fully capable of passing down ideas that were important to them. The past of a few hundred years ago, it seems, was not important enough to be remembered.
September 1, 2009; Revised August 9, 2022