|15 August 2009
Archaeologist creates stir with new book on Cahokia Mounds
According to a new book by University of Illinois archaeologist and professor of anthropology Tim Pauketat, the mound builders were not always the idyllic, corn-growing, pottery-making, fishing-hunting gentle villagers depicted in various dioramas at the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in Collinsville (illinois, USA). Pauketat said these long-vanished people practiced human sacrifice of women and men on a mass scale and weren't always careful to bury only the dead.
Based on years of study of artifacts including many from the extensive excavation of the site's Mound 72 during 1967-71, Pauketat's book is getting national attention. A national online review service used the headline, 'Sacrificial virgins of the Mississippi.' "In the book I do not use the word virgin. I used female sacrifices," Pauketat said, noting that close study of the pelvic area of some of 53 female skeletons found in a huge pit below the mound showed clear signs of childbirth. Most of the sacrificial victims were in their early 20s, he said. Pauketat said that the vast collection of data from the mound excavation included reports from the original archaeologist who found finger bones extended deep into the sand below some of the skeletons, evidence that victims were alive when buried.
Ancient Cahokia, which reached its peak about 1150 CE. with a population of 20,000, was a religious center of farmers and hunters that probably influenced much of what archaeologists call the Southeast Ceremonial Complex, a string of similar but smaller sites found from Illinois to northern Florida. About 80 of the original 120 mounds survive, including Monks Mound, the largest prehistoric earthen structure north of Mexico.
In this society, often referred to as the Mississippian Culture, women played much more of a role than convenient sacrificial victims, Pauketat said. And even in this death ritual, women were respected, unlike some of the men whose remains were found with heads lopped off. Ancient Cahokia's big draw, according to the book, was religion. And in the practice of various religious rites, evidence has been found that women were the rivals of this society's male religious leaders.
Pauketat said the evidence is in the form of curious female figurines carved from a type of clay found just south of St. Louis known as flint clay. The reddish substance dries rock hard. Just last month, a small, 4-inch high female figure was found at a state-run archaeological dig in East St. Louis. Pauketat said only 23 other such figurines are known, including the largest, about 16 inches high. The elevated status of women in religion in Cahokian society is illustrated, Pauketat said, by the decorations on the figurines that include a highly prized serpent figure, and of depictions of staple foods like corn and squash. "Clearly, a lot of the artwork of female gods and female figureheads show that women were probably highly elevated at Cahokia."
Sources: News-Democrat, BND.com (9 August 2009)
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