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  • Precontact Sources in Historical Narratives
  • Alejandra Dubcovsky (bio)

"I have to see this rock," I decided.

After reading Terry F. Norris and Timothy R. Pauketat’s article touting their discovery of a pre-Columbian map of the Mississippi, I was determined to look, touch, and get as close as possible to this Indian-made map. Norris and Pauketat’s 2008 article in Southeastern Archaeology described a large, carefully engraved rock map. The Commerce Map could be found on the banks of the Mississippi River, about 150 miles south of St. Louis, Missouri. There are so few native maps of the South (or, for that matter, of the precolonial world in general), that the possibility of a new one was more than a little exciting.

I have no formal training in anthropology. My PhD work is firmly rooted in history. My dissertation research was on communication networks and information spread in the colonial Southeast; my work had pushed me to consider scholarship outside of the traditional national America narrative, but my quick dabbles into Caribbean and Latin American literatures had hardly challenged my disciplinary background. Like many academics I had enthusiastically praised the virtue of interdisciplinary work, but I had never personally attempted to bridge the gaps between disciplines.

As a scholar of the colonial Southeast, I was familiar with the work of anthropologists and archeologists in the region. The Southeast is one of the few regions in Early America in which the marriage between anthropology and history has flourished. Southeastern historians have eagerly embraced the work of anthropologists. From beads to ceramics, [End Page 108] from burial sites to mounds, from Chunkey stones to artwork, the findings of archeologists have helped add texture to the stories historians knew. But that was the problem. Historians knew, or they thought they knew, the story. Most of these archeological findings inform only the early chapters of historical works. Historians allude to the rich histories that existed before the Spanish entradas of the early sixteenth century and then they move on. Trained to read and analyze documentary evidence, historians quickly leave behind clay pots for written sources. These anthropology-based chapters tend to serve only as an introduction, rather than as the punch line to the story.

A lot was happening before European contact, historians innocuously conclude. But do these precontact stories matter to the rest of the historical narrative? Do the archeological findings change how historians write the history of the colonial Southeast? How can scholars better integrate the two disciplines? Should they? I had no answers when I decided to go visit this pre-Columbian map.

It took anthropologists centuries and some serendipity to find this flat rock. Measuring approximately three meters by three meters, the rock would have been immediately discernible, although not necessarily decipherable, to Indians who traveled the Mississippi River in the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries. The Commerce Map, so dubbed because it is found at the Commerce Quarry site, rests in a particularly narrow, rocky, and difficult to navigate section of the Mississippi called the The-bes Gap. In Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain described the dangers lurking in the Thebes Gap, made of "a chain of sunken rocks admirably arranged to capture and kill steamboats on a bad night."1 Whether traveling in steamboats or canoes, journeying through this portion of the Mississippi required every precaution. Only slow, meticulous maneuvering allowed travelers to survive. As they took special notice of their surroundings, Indian travelers would have spotted—without much difficulty—the large, protruding quartzite slab in their path. The Commerce Map would have been hard to miss.

But if seeing the rock was easy, getting to it proved much harder. The first problem was the Mississippi. In 2011, when I began my efforts to travel to the site, the Mississippi had swelled to historic levels. Anthropologists at the Army Corps of Engineers informed me that even before the latest surge, the rock had been underwater for over two years. If I wanted to see the map I needed to wait for the water levels to recede. [End Page 109] This initial obstacle was the first indication that despite a general preoccupation with the past, anthropologists and...


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