Book Review

Cahokia: Ancient America's Great City on the Mississippi by Timothy R. Pauketat. Viking/Penguin, NY, 2009; 194 pages, ISBN 987-0-670-02090-4, hardback, $22.95.

Around 1050 CE a large city suddenly sprang up near what is now St. Louis, soon holding 20,000 people and dominating many more in surrounding lands. Where a modest village had stood, a large complex with a formal central plaza the size of 50 football fields arose, complete with tall earth-mound pyramids topped with thatched temples and a "woodhenge" or circular wooden observatory. There is evidence of thousands of people coming together from surrounding lands for an annual cycle of religious spectacles and feasts, periodic large-scale human sacrifice, and the development of a wildly popular game (chunkey) played with spears and rolling stones that spread to from Montana to South Carolina.  Within 250 years this dominant new culture was disintegrating and then disappeared so completely that by 1400 the whole region was virtually uninhabited. Its end is not understood, but there is evidence of brutal conflict among surrounding peoples.

This book, part of the Penguin Library of American Indian History, brings together archeological and anthropological evidence to paint a picture of this culture and its effects on Native Americans in the Plains, Eastern Woodlands, and Southeast. Examining the physical evidence, mythology, and folklore, the author pieces together the founding of the city, its religion and way of life, its relations with neighboring peoples, and its disappearance.  Eye-witness accounts of archeological discoveries add color to the narrative. The picture that emerges counters long popular beliefs about pre-Columbian North Americans: "for instance, that ecologically sensitive, peaceful, mystical, and egalitarian peoples freely roamed the North American continent, never overpopulating or overexploiting their environments; or that these peoples were not subject to such base human emotions as avarice, greed, and covetousness and thus could not have built cities or allowed power to be concentrated in the hands of elites." (p. 3)  Many mysteries remain, among them: What caused the sudden rise of the city?  Was the culture influenced by Mesoamerican cultures? Where did the inhabitants disappear to when the city was abandoned? What was this culture's influence on the tribes known to us today? A complete account of this culture may never be known, but researchers continue to uncover new finds and reinterpret older evidence. – Sally Dougherty (November 2009)

Book Reviews