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The Sacrifices They Made

Cahokia Mounds just got a lot more interesting.

By 8.24.09

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Cahokia: Ancient America's Great City on the Mississippi
Timothy R. Pauketat
(Viking Adult, 208 pages, $22.95)

I do not know how many times we visited Cahokia Mounds when I was a kid, but it had to be in the dozens. If our grade school missed an annual field trip to the nearby state historic site, then our Cub Scout troop made up for it. For the most part, we looked at dull dioramas of half naked Indians shucking corn and mending blankets. It was not until I reached middle age and picked up Timothy Pauketat's new book about Cahokia that I came across the good stuff.

Approaching the park from Route 157 we would see burial mounds everywhere. There were mounds in people's front yards and back yards. One guy even built a swimming pool into a mound. Not too long ago mounds were bulldozed to make way for a motel, a highway, a trailer park. Neighboring St. Louis used to be called Mound City, till the mounds were used for construction fill. (Having lived among St. Louisans my whole life, I did not find this information surprising.) Besides that, most of what we were told was just plain wrong. The mound builders were not the Cahokians, nor were they enlightened tree-huggers. We do not know who mound builders were. The Cahokia tribe did not come to the area until 1600. What's more, the Cahokia site is located in Collinsville. The present-day village of Cahokia lies some 30 miles to the south.

Still as a boy it was fun to climb up the 100-foot Monks Mound (named after the 18th-century French monks who first documented the find) and its satellite mounds, which we were told contained the bones of ancient Indians, and were sort of like the pyramids in Egypt, only not as cool from an engineering standpoint. In later years representatives of American Indian groups curtailed our youthful exuberance, forcing visitors to stick to certain paths and stairways so as not to desecrate holy ground.

That sacred ground, we now know, was the site of the bloody mass murder of countless young women, bludgeoned or decapitated en masse as they stood on the edge of burial pits, sometimes as many 53 at a time, and not all of them dead when the pits were filled in. The 53 young women found in Mound 72 were killed so that two recently deceased twin brothers -- royalty, no doubt -- would not have to go to the afterlife unescorted. Fifty-three girls must not have been enough, because a year later another 39 men and women were sacrificed and buried on the spot. In one mound, archeologists uncovered 250 corpses. Now, before you blame the Europeans, Columbus was not born for another three centuries, and Leif Erickson never got farther south than Newfoundland.

AUTHOR TIMOTHY R. PAUKETAT has poured over the archeological evidence at Cahokia and his findings have overturned much of what we thought we knew about pre-Columbian societies. No peace-loving hunter-gatherers here, Pauketat writes. This civilization was "characterized by inequality, power struggles and social complexity." Here was a caste system made up of an elite ruling class and a working class. If the mortuary rituals were the biggest headline-grabber, we also learn that the 12th-century Cahokians were city dwellers. Cahokia, with its population of 20,000 traders, farmers, priests and astronomers, was the largest city north of the Rio Grande until 18th-century Philadelphia.

Then, around the year 1200, something happened. Like the future lost colony of Roanoke, the tribe simply vanished. Pauketat can only speculate as to what happened. (Even local Illini Indians could only shrug when European explorers asked who built the mounds.) The Cahokians were corn farmers as well as unenlightened lumberjacks, so when deforestation ruined the soil they may have determined to pack up and move west to hunt buffalo, making that rare transition from nomads to city dwellers and back to nomads. Or, it is possible the neighboring tribes downriver who provided so many of the sacrificial virgin slaves, got fed up and banded together put the Cahokians to the sword. (Archeologists have found the remnants of a high two-mile stockade with guard towers built around the city.) Or there may have been a lower-caste rebellion -- archeologists have found 50 skeletons unceremoniously dumped in one pit, some with arrowheads in the back, some beheaded. Or maybe they simply did not have satisfactory toilet facilities for 20,000 people.

Personally, I prefer the last theory. Kind of gives Montezuma's revenge a whole new meaning. Whatever the case, the next time I take my son and his friends to Cahokia Mounds the trip is going to be a whole lot more interesting. I guarantee it.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.