Can We "Correct" The Historical Record?
Yes, but it's more likely to be distorted
Cahokia, The Evidence, and The Record
Several years ago, I visited the Cahokia Mounds outside St. Louis, on the Illinois side of the Mississippi. While the area is well documented and the Interpretive Center/museum/theater/snack bar/gift shop is well maintained, I viewed the entire presentation with an increasing sense of skepticism that bordered on outright denial of the idyllic picture painted by the conservators of the site.
What struck me as being the least likely was that the whole interpretation was based on not a lot of hard evidence, but a lot of wishful thinking about Mesoamericans.
Cahokia is the largest Native American archaeological and interpretative site north of Mexico, inhabiting a region called the Mississippi Bottoms that were formed when the main course of the river shifted west. Scholars believe there were 10,000 souls living and working at its peak, trading as far north as modern Canada and as far east as Virginia. Historians have dubbed the people “Mississippians.” The place is thought to have thrived about 900-1200 CE, and to have been abandoned by 1400.
Because the Mississippians left no written records, much of what the site offers is guesswork.
They think the settlement was fairly sophisticated by the standards of the time, with set boundaries, hierarchies, social structures not unlike clans, and even some division of labor into farmers, hunters, gatherers and tradesmen. They apparently held land in common, but a high stockade fence enclosed one large area. Agriculture (principally maize) thrived and produced a surplus for trade. Craftsmen were knapping flints, working bone, puddling copper and weaving crude cloth and decorating skins. There were even thought to be organized games.
Historians have found nothing even vaguely like the Mississippians’ idyllic social structure elsewhere in North America.
The Interpretive Center at the site spends a great deal of effort to present an image of a nuclear family of two adults, two or three children and perhaps an elder. They also spend a lot of time explaining that there was a great deal of work to do every day just to stay alive, much of it having to do with food preparation, shelter construction and tool-making.
But the physical evidence departs from the interpretation.
A series of mounds dominates the site. The largest is the largest manmade structure in pre-Columbian North America, known today as the Monk’s Mound after some French missionaries who built a settlement there in the late 18th century. Building this one mound, said to be a chief's residence, required fifteen million baskets of soil carried over the course of over two centuries. Smaller mounds with half and less the volume of the Monk’s Mound dot the area.
Where were the haulers of all that dirt coming from?
Fifteen million baskets of soil dug up, hauled, dumped and shaped in the right way required about 205 baskets of earth every single day for over two centuries, and that was just for the Monk’s Mound. Moving that much earth with no domestic animals (they hunted the New World horse and camel to extinction millennia before) meant that it had to be hauled on someone’s back. If the peak population was ten thousand for maybe three hundred years, and the family was nuclear, one person in five was going to be available for such heavy labor—at most. The labor pool (adult healthy males) at this peak would have been perhaps 4,000, of which at least 3/4ths would have to be involved in the work of food cultivation, hunting, trading and the rest. That leaves a thousand laborers, but certainly not year round. While there were surpluses, someone had to feed the haulers who made no profits or food, and feed their dependents. This project also needs specialists to say where this material is to be dumped, and they need to be fed, too. Who would provide for these laborers?
Which leads to the question of motivation.
The Egyptians built the great pyramids of Egypt within a generation. Egyptians and Mesoamericans often regarded their chieftains as divine, able to command such duty as a matter of religious fealty. In the Mississippian culture at Cahokia, we don’t see that, at least not in the current image. Altruism may be powerful, but all these mounds had to have had a noble purpose for voluntary labor to toil so hard for so long, and that powerful and lasting an altruistic motive is not in evidence at Cahokia or anywhere else.
One probable answer: slaves.
The manpower and motivation questions lead, inevitably, to the conclusion that the mounds were built by slave labor: worked-to-death surplus humans housed in that enormous stockade and driven by a tyrannical society to construct not only the great mound but all the others as well.
This fits the evidence, but is not the picture presented at Cahokia.
If scholars had to admit to slaves being responsible for building the mounds—even partly—there would also be the sticky issue of where the slaves came from, how long they might have lasted, and what happened to them. It would also mean that there was trafficking with, or conquest of (or both), other groups.
The archaeological digs didn’t find any weapons that were specifically meant for fighting, though hunting bows and spears were present. That would make them extremely rare. Weapons include slings (not found at Cahokia but known elsewhere in North America) and shields. But again, these are not shown. Either they have been found and not included—probable—or they were not present—unlikely.
There are other points that can be as troubling.
The Interpretive Center is where we see an image of how some Mesoamericans may have lived before Columbus, complete with National Geographic-approved waist-up nudity in illustrations and sculptures of both sexes except for very young children. Question is: why cover that much? We are told that modesty is an inherently Western trait that implies shame. Why do we have Noble Savages showing such regressive traits?
What’s going on?
For decades, scholars of the Mesoamericans have tried to paint a shiny, bright image of an uncomplicated people free of cares, woes, disease, strife, starvation or greed, like Adam and Eve in the Garden. This Rousseauian view of the Noble Savage is based on a certain desire to show that the inhuman things that the European invaders of this continent, together with their African and Asian allies, did to the pastoral Amerindians destroyed a Heaven on Earth for reasons both nefarious and greedy. In the current state of the historical profession, any more brutal interpretation that includes slaves and slave trading like the rest of the Americas would be to admit that the inhabitants of the New World weren’t much different from those of the Old. And that cannot happen.
Can we “correct” the record?
While I have a great deal of respect for the work of our archaeological cousins in the historical trade, I have trouble with presentations like those at Cahokia that raise more questions than they answer. We have no real good way of knowing which image—the idyll we see at Cahokia or a more savage view that seems more likely—is correct.
Can we “correct” the record?
No, but we can reinterpret it, as I believe they have at Cahokia. The “record” of Cahokia is based on archaeology, not documents. It’s also what the profession, for ideological reasons, wants it to be. Without time machines, we cannot know the “truth” of the Cahokia settlement anymore than we can know the “truth” of any other event or place or civilization.
Portions of this post originally appeared in May 2015 on the old WordPress blog.
Is "Specialist History" Relevant To Everyone?
On 9 July in…
1795: The $2,024,899 United States national debt was paid off. No, this wasn’t the only time we were flush. It happened again just less than a century later, but not since then, regardless of what the Barry Administration claimed.
1941: The wizards at Bletchley Park in England translated the German seven rotor Enigma machine cyphers. This feat was key in the Battle of the Atlantic, enabling the location of the submarines that supplied the other subs, shortening the hunting times.
And today is NATIONAL SUGAR COOKIE DAY. Indulge, enjoy.