When we go back to find the greatness in our past, how do we know when we’ve got there, where and when to stop? With the arrival of Columbus on the shores of the new world, with the Founding Fathers, with the freeing of the slaves? You see what I mean. Greatness is to be found whenever and wherever men have lived (and even before men in the Age of the Great Apes, and before that in the Age of the Dinosaurs). But Donald Trump and his MEGA cap wearing followers at the rallies seem to be completely ignorant of both America and the meaning of Great, or Greatness.
If you read my blogs you’ll know I like the website Quora, that I like Quora a lot. And probably like most of the Quora subscribers, in particular like those who answer the Quora questions, as Jonathan Hall below, I like to read about things, learn about things, fill in a few of the myriad holes in my own meager knowledge of the past. Quora helps, more than school ever did.
Here is then is the question, taken from a Quora Digest that showed up my Inbox, today, March 9, 2019:
And here below is another America, one that Trump has probably never heard of:
And here is Jonathan Hall’s response:
Exsqueeze me? It really is a pity that even today, despite all the literature, museums and outreach, even the average citizen of the eastern United States is still blissfully unaware of the complex societies whose remnants they often walk or drive right over. Story time!
The Eastern Woodlands of the United States has been a nexus for stratified civilization since 3500 B.C. The Mississippi River area was even home to its own independent cradle of agriculture known as the Eastern Agricultural Complex, from which we still have popular vegetables like squash and sunflower. The peoples that farmed these crops have been traditionally termed the “Mound Builders”, so named for their apparent proclivity towards earthworks. The term is a bit dated now, and archaeologists today are able to differentiate specific cultures, but “mound-building peoples” is often still used to describe the cultures in general.
There have been many mound-building societies over the course of North American history. We’ll probably never know the exact political relationships, but we can identify consistencies in material culture and living patterns. The first one that really seems to take off across the board is the Hopewell:
Starting around 100 BC, sites all around the Mississippi start adopting a similar set of traits such as pottery styles, arrowhead techniques and artistic motifs, along with a much more pronounced sense of social stratification. The Hopewell appear to have begun with the Ohio Hopewell, which built upon the stratified Adena culture that existed since 1000 BC on the Ohio River valley, which connects to the Mississippi. The Hopewell greatly proliferate the number of mounds constructed in the Eastern Woodlands and diversify their uses.
One of the most iconic examples of the Hopewell are the Newark Earthworks: a series of interconnected circles, walls and moats that appear to serve as a massive lunar observatory. The Moon’s orbit ‘wobbles’ in relation to the Earth: at one extreme the orbit is rotated one way, and rotated the other way at the other extreme. The point in this cycle where the Moon’s orbital plane reaches its northernmost or southernmost extent before going back to the other is termed the lunar standstill, which produces an effect not unlike the Sun’s solstices. This happens every 18 years, 7 months and almost 10 days. The Newark Earthworks are able to track the Moon’s declination until the next standstill with remarkable precision.
Newark today. A country club still owns parts of the earthworks.
It’s possible that the Ohio Hopewell had such influence over the Eastern Woodlands that they may have started a new religious movement, or perhaps their influence was economical and assimilating their culture was better for business, or people may have simply admired parts of their culture enough to replicate it. A mix of the three may have happened, but we might never know specifically why people wanted to copy them.
What we do know was that their influence was phenomenal. The Hopewell had access to a trade network that extended all the way to the Great Lakes, the Gulf of Mexico and the Rockies, with artifacts from these regions showing up in Ohio:
In the year 500, the bow and arrow trickled southward after being introduced by the Inuit from northern Canada. This makes hunting (and fighting) much more accessible, freeing people up from their dependencies on crops and some hierarchical control.
From there the magic begins to die for the Hopewell and the societies within its sphere fall into the geographically broader-ranging Woodland period. The 500 years of the Late Woodland period saw a great intensity in fortification, a significant reduction in mound-building (though some are still built) and more numerous, smaller walled villages instead of the larger towns of the Middle Woodland’s Hopewell. This lifestyle, in some form, actually lasted in the periphery of the Eastern Woodlands until the arrival of Europeans.
By the year 1000, however, something new appears in the heart of the Mississippi. People are once again gathering in large towns and forming wealthy elites under the control of powerful rulers who began using earthworks to proclaim their legitimacy. Corn (maize) was introduced to the Eastern Woodlands in 200 BC, but had a hard time dealing with the colder climates. However, new cold-hardy cultivars had finally been developed and were taking the Eastern Woodlands by storm into a new agricultural revolution. Things were about to get corny.
Archaeologists have given these corn-crazy, mound-building chiefdoms the aptly-named title of the Mississippians:
This is where things really start getting big. The power and influence of chiefs have increased drastically into large, multi-town paramount chiefdoms, though if we’re being completely honest some of these really resemble early kingdoms and the difference is largely semantic. The massive trade networks have fired back up and are bringing in more goods than ever before. They especially love Great Lakes copper. Art, culture and religious expression have also greatly expanded and this cultural movement reaches nearly every corner of the Mississippi River watershed:
The “Sponemann Figurine” from Cahokia. The headwrap seen on her head has been documented in historical Native American tribes.
Copper plate of a falcon-eyed man from Spiro Mounds, Oklahoma.
“Crouching Man” effigy pipe from Shiloh Indian Mounds, Tennessee
But one of the most profound examples of Mississippian culture, and what everybody wants to see when they visit the sites, are of course the mounds.
These are no mere piles of dirt either, but alternating layers of various clays and particulates that each have their own physical properties and ostensibly spiritual meanings to ensure the greatest structural stability and proper religious status. Most of these clays were sourced from many miles out, even when a more convenient source was nearby. Most of these mounds were built to house a temple or chief, and the larger mounds served as residential-religious complexes for the elites. When the person living on the mound died, his house was burnt with any of his belongings and a new mound was constructed atop.
The most impressive of these Mississippian mounds, still standing today (in somewhat eroded form) is Monks Mound in the archaeological site of Cahokia:
This terraced platform mound is 100 feet high, 775 feet wide, and 955 feet long; slightly larger at the base than the largest Egyptian pyramid.
The mound held multiple large buildings, including that of the paramount chief who overlooked a city we call Cahokia, the largest in pre-Columbian North America north of the Rio Grande, existing from A.D 1050 to 1350.
And there’s a highway right through it…
(A little outdated: there is evidence of clay caps on many Mississippian mounds, which means these mounds would have been a bright yellow or red instead of turf green)
The safe estimate for Cahokia’s population is around 20,000 people, but it has sometimes been given twice that. Either way, it’s reasonably impressive for the area and historical context. Our modern life has made us used to megacities spanning hundreds of thousands or millions of people, but to put 20,000 souls into perspective: This is close to the same size as London in 1200. Berlin was a quaint village of barely over a thousand at this time. Paris had very recently become a medieval metropolis at a hundred thousand people, but had floated at around 35,000 for about a millennium. The modern city of Ithaca, New York is around 30,000.
This city was America’s first melting pot, bringing in peoples from very distant regions who came for trade, religion and safety. The city was organized into districts according to class and sometimes function, including ‘industrial zones’ for production of things like beads, tools, pottery and copper art.
Outside the walled ceremonial district was a “Woodhenge”; a circular arrangement of poles that track the position of the sun like a giant solar calendar. Nearly all of the buildings are aligned to the four cardinal directions; the four directions to this day are important to many Native American tribes. Some pits within the city were dug as a source of clay and, if we can glean from historical accounts of native towns, were likely flooded and stocked with fish.
Cahokia faced many typical issues of a large early city: social order, sanitation, dietary deficiencies, and especially resource exhaustion (good timber had to be brought in from upriver). In finding a reason for Cahokia’s fall, it seems to have dealt with these okay enough. But some time after 1200 AD came an unusually wet era for the Mississippians, and all that extra rainfall drained into and rushed down the Mississippi, which would have drenched all of Cahokia but the tops of its mounds.
Interestingly, the Osage tribe, a Dhegihan-Siouan people that have one of the closest cultural similarities with the archaeological findings of Cahokia, have an origin story that draws many parallels (from Willard H. Rollings’ The Osage: An Ethnohistorical Study of Hegemony on the Prairie-Plains):
. . . in the beginning all of the Osage lived in a single village located along a river. One day the river flooded, and the Osage fled the rising waters. One group made it to the top of a hill, while others fled a nearby timbered ridge. A third group escaped to higher ground and sought shelter in a dense thicket, while a fourth group found refuge at the base of [a] hill just above the floodwaters. Some of the Osage, unable to escape, remained in the flooded village. After the floodwaters receded, the Non-hon-zhin-ga [council] insisted that the people remain in the groups they had formed during the flood. They claimed that Wa-kon-da [the Great Spirit/Mystery] wanted the people to live apart and to establish five villages . . .
After the flooding, Cahokia was still inhabited, but was a shadow of its former self. The people that lived there in the roughly 200 years until its final abandonment seem to have lived without a major elite class and used parts of Monks Mound as a garbage midden. Cahokia, once at the forefront of the Mississippian trade network, seems to have taken the long distance trade with it.
…but that’s not the end!
Mississippian culture was still alive and vibrant in the Lower Mississippi and Southeastern Woodlands (and the Middle Mississippi and Ohio River too, but the other places are more intense). However, times have changed. The lack of the Cahokian trade nexus has wrecked regional economies. Influence vacuums have formed and the world seems just a bit more dangerous. This is where history begins to rhyme a bit: there is an increase in fortification and town splitting, though not quite to the same degree. Towns are typically surrounded by a defensive wall and people move if the population gets too big, but complex hierarchies and earthworks are more active than ever. The political climate of the Southeast leads to the creation of vast open territories, with areas of dense wilderness serving to buffer the territories from large military campaigns (though light travel is still possible on trails). These territories, of course, had to be managed. And it’s during this era that we are finally able to know how the Mississippians governed themselves, at least in some parts, due to the accounts from Hernando de Soto’s entrada. In the Southeast among Muskogean (Creek) towns, the major town leader (potentially the paramount as well) was the mico/micco. Subordinate to the mico are the orata, which governed satellite towns. The iniha/heniha was an administrator served along the mico as a kind of magistrate and the yatika was the official translator. Each of these large territories was an italwa, and this word was also used to describe the largest towns ruled by micos, talofa being the smaller towns. The Caddo Mississippians in Texas and Oklahoma had the same structure, despite being on the other side of the Mississippian sphere.
Hernando de Soto’s route through areas that are known Mississippian polities. There are more archaeological sites than shown here which could possibly represent other polities.
Starting from Florida, Hernando de Soto and his entrada entered Mississippian civilization, starting with the Appalachee (to the south, off-screen of the map) and into the Mississippi River proper. There they found large capitals with their mounds and walls, and many towns had other features such as moats and levies. Some of these moats seem to have doubled as fish traps, according to de Soto’s secretary Rodrigo Ranjel who described Pacaha’s (probably the Nodena site in Arkansas) moat as ”full of excellent fish of divers kinds”.
The Parkin site in eastern Arkansas, one of the places visited by Hernando de Soto
You will often hear that from here, Hernando de Soto’s very existence caused 90% of the natives to keel over from European diseases. However, there is actually no evidence of such mass deaths, even in towns that had Spanish artifacts. To make matters even more interesting, De Soto and some other Spaniards actually fell ill and died on this journey, at a point in the journey longer than the incubation period of known European diseases, with the natives unaffected!
But the entrada still had a devastating effect on the political atmosphere. In his search for gold and the desire to continue such a journey, de Soto raided and burned towns, forcibly occupied capitals and even kidnapped paramount chiefs — people who were supposedly of heavenly descent, reduced to being bound and caged for ransom. He used his influence to alter Mississippian political relationships to his benefit and this wrecked the status quo. The paramountcies of Coosa and Cofitachequi no longer had the same kind of respect, influence and control over their territories as they once had. Political cohesion was now much more tenuous.
The entrada would not be able to walk away from the Eastern Woodlands so easily, however. Shortly before he died, de Soto tried to use his claim as son of the Sun to force the chiefdom of Quigualtam, the largest and most powerful polity of the lower Mississippi, to give them safe passage down the Mississippi…and some tribute for the road, of course. Quigualtam wasn’t buying it. After a failed overland route near Texas, De Soto’s entrada (now led by Luis de Moscoso) built some ships and tried to sail down the Mississippi as quick as humanly possible.
Quigualtam, of course, caught up with them. The small Spanish river fleet was met by Quigualtam’s fleet of nearly a hundred canoes, many of which held up to 70 people. These large canoes had awnings in the back housing the commanders; the awnings, paddles, weapons, and the boats themselves were all one color, with a different color for each boat. They sang and drummed in unison to pace their paddling; most of the songs could be summed up as “You Spaniards sure are in for it now!”. There was, naturally, a very loud scream at the end of each song.
Once the boats got close, teams of divers jumped off the boats and into the water to board the Spanish’s pinnace boats. Other paddlers stood up and began firing volleys. They managed to kill, wound and capture some people, but made the decision not to engulf them entirely — Quigualtam’s plan was not to annihilate the Spaniards, but to harass, exhaust and terrify them enough that they understood who had the real power in the Mississippi, and would tell all of their countrymen back home. Which of course succeeded: every time the Spanish thought they out-sailed Quigualtam, they would hear the shouting again and the terror would start back up.
Quigualtam’s cultural descendants are the Natchez, whose society remained strongly Mississippian well into the historic period, interacting diplomatically with the United States.
Despite this successful expulsion of the Spaniards, it was only the beginning of the end for the Mississippian way of life as a whole. European ships were conducting slave raids all around the North American coast, as well as propping up some natives to become slave raiders themselves, which only expanded ever inward. This led to an increase in warfare, famine and mass uncertainty that undermined the political structure of the Eastern Woodlands, leading to the breakup of most Mississippian polities. It was only when the stresses from raids and starvation was at its peak that the first epidemics begin to sweep through; these events had lowered the immune system of natives. The Native American slave trade continued well into the age of the British colonies and early U.S., where Savannah, Georgia was an important port for the export of Native slaves.
De Soto’s accounts were buried in the libraries of New Spain, records of English colonial interactions with remaining Mississippian polities fell into obscurity, and the survivors of the Mississippian breakup had long since adopted new, somewhat more egalitarian lifestyles. Many of the old Mississippian towns and cities were revisited again as abandoned mounds. Rather than believe they were built by the ‘savage’ Indians they were killing and enslaving, people came up with numerous myths of other more prestigious people who came to America before them, only to be killed off by the current inhabitants. The Aztecs. Hindus. Babylonians. The Lost 13th Tribe of Israel. The Welsh. Anyone but the indigenous people. Thomas Jefferson was one of the first, after archaeological digs of his own, to suggest that the mounds were in fact built by Native Americans.
But the myth had always persisted. In fact, some pseudoscientific circles to this day still deny the origins of the mounds in favor of their preferred civilization. And the lack of respect Americans have had for the mounds is exhibited by their constant destruction throughout American history. Massive temple platforms were excavated so their clay could be used for road fill or embankments. Some were simply in the way of progress: right across the river from Cahokia was the remains of a smaller city which was nearly completely torn down to make room for St. Louis. Only one deeply eroded Sugarloaf Mound remains. Many Mississippian sites are still on private land, their artifacts routinely dug up by plows while their discoverers don’t think much of it.
This has been simply another front of a campaign as old as the United States itself to destroy and mask the history and culture of Native Americans, so as to put European-American history and culture at the forefront. Today, we are more sensitive to the real history before the United States, and also have the power and resources to protect and educate. But the damage inflicted over the centuries has been done, and we are still reeling from its effects. It will take a while before Americans really truly become aware of their country’s pre-European past and realize it’s something to be celebrated, not quietly ignored. Until then, we should try to educate and raise awareness as much as we can.
Winterville Mounds, Mississippi
As you can see, the Mississippi River did indeed give birth to some quite complex societies. You might also be wondering: why didn’t all this complexity happen earlier? Or reach the political strength of other river valley civilizations?
Well, first off I don’t think you can ever get a detailed answer to that. Many people like to fall on geography as the sole determiner of human society, but humans, as we all know, are complicated and do not like to follow the rules. Nevertheless, while the fertility of the Mississippi watershed can’t be overstated, the region is also perhaps a bit…too fertile. Most other river valley civilizations are in relatively dry areas, with a narrow stretch of fertile floodplain that forces most people to huddle together and submit to a central managing authority. In the Mississippi, you can have great farmland by the river, but you can also go deeper into the many, mazelike tributary rivers into the woods and have almost just as productive a crop. This is harder to keep under control, which narrows the focus of elites for the most part. However, ancient China had much the same layout: a large swath of fertile land under a complex watershed of not one but two giant rivers. Horses, not available to the Mississippians, may have also played a part in such a difference. Or perhaps simply not enough time has passed since the Eastern Woodland’s adoption of agriculture in 1800 BC and the introduction of more efficient crops in 900 AD. If you’re asking me, a historical particularist, I believe that the fate of human societies can ultimately fall on the decisions made by their communities. The ideologies that led to the creation of sprawling, intensely bureaucratic states simply did not come to fruition in the same way they did in China or Mesopotamia. Maybe that was influenced by the factors I mentioned, or the values were simply different.
Yet a civilization it definitely was, with its own sophisticated cultures, politics, and artistic expression. Like many civilizations, it had its own peaks and dips, and with every dip rose a peak that was stronger than ever before. The collapse of the trade networks after 1400 was a dip the Mississippians had just begun to recover from. Considering the interruption of Mississippian history with the arrival of the Spanish, one has to wonder: what kind of peak might we have seen next?
Epidemics and Enslavement: Biological Catastrophe in the Native Southeast, 1492-1715 by Paul Kelton – also discusses the shatter zone, but builds upon it by touching on the biological aspect. Particularly, it addresses the myth of the spread of European disease in the EW: rather than the wildfire-like instantaneous transmission many imagine, the worst of the epidemics only came about when the immune systems of the natives were weakened through stresses.