To reach the site of this week’s Visions of a Sustainable Mississippi River Conference, you pass a graphic reminder of the enduring power the River has had throughout not just the history of America, but the world. A new book by Timothy Pauketat, “Cahokia: Ancient America’s Great City on the Mississippi” has just been published to remind us that the history of the River goes back well beyond its introduction to Western civilization by European explorers. In a most understated way, the interstate slides by what was the 12th century’s economic, cultural and religious center of the continent. It’s thought to have been home to 20,000 people and was larger than London at that time. Its central plaza covered 50 acres and housed the third largest pyramid in the New World. An article in the St. Louis Post Dispatch bemoaned the effects of the state budget crisis in relation to the significance of the state park commemorating Cahokia:
Last year, an article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch explained that Illinois’s budgetary problems were leading to neglect at Cahokia Mounds, a state park. But as Timothy R. Pauketat’s new book makes clear, Cahokia Mounds is not just of state importance (it is also a U.S. World Heritage Site). The great mounds built across the Mississippi River from St. Louis were quite influential, believes Pauketat, an anthropology professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign: “The people of this North American city seem to have created their own culture, then proceeded to spread it across the Midwest and into the South and Plains with a religious fervor.” In other words, Cahokia was the mother of North American mound mania, whose beginnings go back a thousand years.
Mound-building flourished in a culture that made much of the planet Venus, exacted human sacrifice and ate a diet heavy on maize. Some archaeologists believe that there are links between Cahokia and the great civilizations of pre-Columbian Mexico, to which Cahokian residents may well have traveled and from which they may have brought back stories and images that figure in Cahokian mythology, such as “the cult of a Corn Mother or of twin Thunderers.” Pauketat’s book, which summarizes these and other theories as to what the Cahokia site means, is part of the Penguin Library of American Indian History. — Dennis Drabelle
As we consider visions of a sustainable Mississippi River, it would be good to remind ourselves that this River is one of the great marine wonders of this world and has been for centuries. Its significance goes beyond our time and our ability to address its current issues. But an appreciation for its history can help us understand the importance of efforts to ensure its future.