- Cahokia: Ancient America’s Great City on the Mississippi by Timothy R. Pauketat
One thousand years ago a city existed on the Mississippi River floodplain directly to the east of the present St. Louis. Called Cahokia after the historic aboriginal group who inhabited the site in the 18th century, this was the most extensive expression of population nucleation to have been produced prehistorically in America to the north of Mexico. The structure of the community was planned with clearly defined administrative/ceremonial zones, elite compounds, discrete residential neighborhoods, and even suburbs. An enormous central plaza and numerous immense [End Page 235] earthworks provide evidence of high organizational skills and great expenditures of labor. With a population peak of perhaps 15,000 or more individuals, Cahokia existed for approximately three centuries.
Book reviews are difficult pieces to write. This is particularly true when you are well acquainted with the author and the subject. Consequently, I accepted this assignment with a sense of foreboding. Unfortunately, my instincts proved to be correct. The book has been described as “Mesmerizing” and indeed it is, but for the wrong reasons. We have all experienced phone calls around dinnertime from a stranger who asks “Do you love puppies?” and a series of other questions that elicit a similar affirmative answer. Once you are firmly in the routine the stranger asks you if you would like to have subscriptions to a number of magazines. By that time “yes” is the ingrained response and your dinner is getting cold, so you end up with a lifetime of paper that you never would have ordered on your own. Cahokia provides a similar scenario. The author of this volume, Timothy Pauketat, a professor at the University of Illinois, will start a story that everyone would agree with and spin it into the most implausible and merely fanciful or patently false conclusions. I found this unbelievable for a scholar who has spent his entire career working in the American Bottom region (this too is a problem) and surely should know better. When going through the specifics of the discussion in this book one has to keep in mind that no one ever saw and wrote about the contemporary Cahokia. It was abandoned hundreds of years before the first Europeans ventured into the Central Mississippi Valley. So, belief systems, methods of rule, and other lifeways that do not leave a tangible footprint are unknown and always will be.
Pauketat clearly understands the problem of dealing with the prehistoric (i.e., societies for which written records do not exist). He states on page 6 “. . . archaeologists must take great care interpreting the clues left behind by ancient societies, or they may end up being fooled by misleading evidence of a great or noble history.” Somehow during the writing of this volume, he forgot his own admonition. Almost immediately the reader is beset with the unprovable and implausible. On page 2 it is suggested that Cahokians worshipped the Morning and Evening stars and that this idea came from Mesoamerica through priests’ vision quest travels to Mexico. This idea was part of the longstanding ravings by the retired Marquette University anthropology professor, Alice Kehoe, and is repeated over and over again. No one of any standing has ever accepted it and there is no evidence to prove any part of this notion. Mesoamerican belief systems are somewhat known due to the preservation of some written documents, fresco texts, engravings, and, of course, accounts by European observers and by the participants themselves. Fine, Mesoamericans had an elaborate cosmography; all cultures do. Mesoamericans also had pyramids, as did the Peruvians, Egyptians, and Chinese. They also had priests; any clear evidence for these specialists at Cahokia? No less an authority that James B. Griffin, the dean of Eastern North American archaeology, stated and provided in print on numerous occasions his view of Mesoamerican contact with the peoples of the Eastern United States. His conclusion was clear; there was absolutely no evidence for direct contact between Mesoamerica and Cahokia. The...