Anyone who traveled up the Mississippi in 1100 A.D. would have seen it looming in the distance: a four-level earthen mound bigger than the Great Pyramid of Giza. Around it like echoes were as many as 120 smaller mounds, some topped by tall wooden palisades, which were in turn ringed by a network of irrigation and transportation canals; carefully located fields of maize; and hundreds of red-and-white-plastered wood homes with high-peaked, deeply thatched roofs like those on traditional Japanese farms. Located near the confluence of the Missouri, Illinois, and Mississippi Rivers, the Indian city of Cahokia was a busy port. Canoes flitted like hummingbirds across its waterfront: traders bringing copper and mother-of-pearl from faraway places; hunting parties bringing such rare treats as buffalo and elk; emissaries and soldiers in long vessels bristling with weaponry; workers ferrying wood from upstream for the ever hungry cookfires; the ubiquitous fishers with their nets and clubs. Covering five square miles and housing at least fifteen thousand people, Cahokia was the biggest concentration of people north of the Río Grande until the eighteenth century.

Away from the riverside, Cahokia was hardly less busy and imposing. Its focal point was the great mound—Monks Mound, it is now called, named after a group of Trappists who lived nearby in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Around its sides rushed a flow of men, their body paint and tattoos obscured by dust from the hardened, brick-like mud that lay underneath the entire city. Some built new mounds or maintained the old; others hauled wood for fuel and houses or carried water in leather pouches or weeded the maize fields with stone hoes. Women carried stacks of woven mats, baskets of fish and produce, yowling children. Cooksmoke chimneyed to the sky. Standards made of painted animal skins flapped everywhere. Anyone who has visited Siena or Venice knows how surprisingly noisy a city without engines can be. At peak times, given the right wind conditions, Cahokia must have been audible for miles.

Monks Mound opens onto a plaza a thousand feet long. In its southwest corner is a pair of mounds, one conical, one square. One day I climbed up their grassy sides at sunset. Hardly any other visitors were there. The humped outline of the vast heap of earth emerged from the empty green like a powerful prairie ship. The sun was low and the great mound was casting a shadow that looked long enough to reach the Allegheny Mountains. For a moment I saw no sign of contemporary life; St. Louis, just across the river, had not yet switched on its lights. Around me was the mound city and nothing but the mound city. To we moderns the sensation of being in a constructed environment is so ubiquitous as to be invisible—in the cocoon of our strip malls and automobiles, we are like the fish that cannot feel the water through which they swim. In Cahokia’s day it was different. A thousand years ago it was the only place for a thousand miles in which one could be completely enveloped in an artificial landscape.

To visitors today it seems obvious that Cahokia and the many other mound sites in the Midwest and Southeast are the remains of Indian settlements. It did not seem so clear in the past. Nineteenth-century writers attributed the mound complexes to, among others, the Chinese, the Welsh, the Phoenicians, the lost nation of Atlantis, and various biblical personages. A widely touted theory assigned authorship to Scandinavian émigrés, who later picked up stakes, moved to Mexico, and became the Toltecs. The science-fiction writer and archaeology buff Robert Silverberg devoted an entire entertaining book to the back-and-forth over the origin of the mounds, which intermittently preoccupied American intellectuals for a century. Thomas Jefferson removed a slice from a mound on his estate, examined the stratigraphic layers, and announced that Indians had made it. George Bancroft, one of the founders of American history, disagreed: the mounds, he wrote in 1840, were purely natural formations.

Charitably, one could say that Bancroft was correct: Cahokia was a product of its geography, which in turn was a product of the Ice Age. When the glaciers melted, water gushed south, creating the Mississippi River and the Illinois and Missouri Rivers that funnel into it. They met in a roil of water eighty miles wide. When the rivers receded, they exposed a wide strip of bottomland. Into this land a group of Indians coalesced sometime before 800 A.D.

Nobody knows what these people called themselves or which language they spoke. They were not “Cahokians”—that name, itself a linguistic garble, comes from an unrelated group that migrated to the area almost a thousand years later. Archaeologists are unlikely to find a better name, though. According to William Woods, the geographer and archaeologist at the University of Kansas, Monks Mound completely covers whatever habitation these people had before they built Cahokia. To see the remaining traces of this early settlement, scientists would have to jack up the whole enormous pile and dig underneath. Almost all that can be known with certainty about this initial group is that it belonged to a diverse, four-thousand-year-old tradition characterized by the construction of large earthen mounds.

Based around the Mississippi and its associated rivers, these societies scattered tens of thousands of mounds from southern Canada and the Great Plains to the Atlantic coast and the Gulf of Mexico. They were especially concentrated in the Ohio Valley, but nearly as many are found in the Southeast. Highways, farms, and housing developments have destroyed most of them, and scientists have investigated only a small fraction of the survivors. Most of the earthworks were shaped like big cones and stepped pyramids, but some were sculpted into enormous birds, lizards, bears, long-tailed “alligators,” and, in Peebles, Ohio, a 1,330-foot-long serpent.

The earliest known examples appeared in northeastern Lousiana about 5,400 years ago, well before the advent of agriculture. For reasons unknown, Indians heaved up a ring of eleven irregularly sized mounds, most of them connected by a ridge, on a hill overlooking the course of the Ouachita River. The biggest was as tall as a two-story house. About a dozen similar sites are known, of which the Ouachita ring is the oldest and biggest. None of the mounds in any of these places cover burials or contain artifacts or show signs of use. Indeed, they seem to have so little purpose that archaeologist Joe Saunders of Northeast Louisiana University, whose team excavated the Ouachita mounds in 1997, half-jokingly speculated to Science that the motive for building them could have been the act of construction itself. “I know it sounds awfully Zen-like,” he conceded.


The Ouachita mounds as they may have appeared at their creation, 5,400 years ago.

Because modern-day hunter-gatherers in Africa live in egalitarian bands that constantly move from place to place, archaeologists assumed that Native American hunter-gatherers must also have done so. Discovering the Louisiana mounds upset this view: they suggest that at least some early Indians were stay-at-homes. More important, they testify to levels of public authority and civic organization rarely associated with nomads. Building a ring of mounds with baskets or deerskins full of dirt is a long-term enterprise. During construction the workers must eat, which in turn means that other people must provide their food. Such levels of planning are ordinarily thought to kick in with the transition to agriculture. When people till and sow the land, anthropologists say, they set up systems to protect their investment. Eventually somebody ends up in charge of allocating goods and services. But the mound builders in Louisiana built these massive constructions at a time when agriculture was barely under way—it was like the whiff in the air from a faraway ocean. In the central river valleys of North America, people had a way of life without known analogue.

After these first mounds the record is sparse. After the Ouachita mounds, there is a gap in the record of more than a millennium. The curtain parts again in about 1500 B.C., when an archipelago of villages, the largest known as Poverty Point, grew up in the northeast corner of Louisiana. Located fifty-five miles from the Ouachita site, Poverty Point had as a focus a structure resembling an amphitheater: six concentric, C-shaped ridges, each five feet tall, on a bluff facing the river. The jaws of the widest C are 3,950 feet apart, an expanse so big that scientists did not recognize the ridges as constructions until they took aerial photographs of the site in the 1950s.

Now another gap: seven hundred years. The next major sequence occurs mainly in the Ohio Valley, hundreds of miles north. Here was a group known as the Adena—the name is that of a well-known site. Because Adena mounds served as tombs, researchers know more about their deaths than their lives. Accompanying the noble few in the tombs to the world of the deceased were copper beads and bracelets, stone tablets and collars, textiles and awls, and, sometimes, stone pipes in the shape of surreal animals. The head of the creature faced the user, who sucked in tobacco smoke from its mouth. It is widely believed that Adena tobacco was much stronger than today’s tobacco—it was psychoactive.

Tobacco was only one of the crops grown at Adena villages. The Mississippi and Ohio Valleys and much of the U.S. Southeast were home to what is known as the Eastern Agricultural Complex. A full-fledged agricultural revolution with a multifarious suite of crops, the complex is an example of a major cultural innovation that has completely disappeared. Its crops were such unfamiliar plants as marshelder, knotweed, maygrass, and little barley. All of these species still exist; one could stock a specialty restaurant with them. (Sample menu: maygrass patties, steamed knotweed beans, and buffalo tongue.) No one seems to be doing that, though. In fact, farmers today treat several of these crops as weeds—they routinely blast little barley with herbicides. Archaeologists have tentative indications of early domestication in spots from Illinois to Alabama by 1000 B.C. But agriculture did not begin to flower, so to speak, until the Adena.

Adena influence in customs and artifacts can be spotted in archaeological sites from Indiana to Kentucky and all the way north to Vermont and even New Brunswick. For a long time researchers believed this indicated that the Adena had conquered other groups throughout this area, but many now believe that the influence was cultural: like European teenagers donning baggy pants and listening to hip-hop, Adena’s neighbors adopted its customs. Archaeologists sometimes call the area in which such cultural flows occur an “interaction sphere.” Both less and more than a nation, an interaction sphere is a region in which one society disseminates its symbols, values, and inventions to others; an example is medieval Europe, much of which fell under the sway of Gothic aesthetics and ideas. The Adena interaction sphere lasted from about 800 B.C. to about 100 B.C.


MOUNDBUILDERS, 3400 B.C.–1400 A.D.

Textbooks sometimes say that the Adena were succeeded by the Hopewell, but the relation is unclear; the Hopewell may simply have been a later stage of the same culture. The Hopewell, too, built mounds, and like the Adena seem to have spoken an Algonquian language. (“Hopewell” refers to the farmer on whose property an early site was discovered.) Based in southern Ohio, the Hopewell interaction sphere lasted until about 400 A.D. and extended across two-thirds of what is now the United States. Into the Midwest came seashells from the Gulf of Mexico, silver from Ontario, fossil shark’s teeth from Chesapeake Bay, and obsidian from Yellowstone. In return the Hopewell exported ideas: the bow and arrow, monumental earthworks, fired pottery (Adena pots were not put into kilns), and, probably most important, the Hopewell religion.

The Hopewell apparently sought spiritual ecstasy by putting themselves into trances, perhaps aided by tobacco. In this enraptured state, the soul journeys to other worlds. As is usually the case, people with special abilities emerged to assist travelers through the portal to the numinous. Over time these shamans became gatekeepers, controlling access to the supernatural realm. They passed on their control and privileges to their children, creating a hereditary priesthood: counselors to kings, if not kings themselves. They acquired healing lore, mastered and invented ceremonies, learned the numerous divinities in the Hopewell pantheon. We know little of these gods today, because few of their images have endured to the present. Presumably shamans recounted their stories to attentive crowds; almost certainly, they explained when and where the gods wanted to build mounds.

In the context of the village, the mound, visible everywhere, was as much a beacon as a medieval cathedral. As with Gothic churches, which had plazas for the outdoor performance of sacred mystery plays, the mounds had greens before them: ritual spaces for public use. Details of the performances are lost, but there is every indication that they were exuberant affairs. “There is a stunning vigor about the Ohio Hopewell…,” Silverberg wrote,

a flamboyance and fondness for excess that manifests itself not only in the intricate geometrical enclosures and the massive mounds, but in these gaudy displays of conspicuous consumption [in the tombs]. To envelop a corpse from head to feet in pearls, to weigh it down in many pounds of copper, to surround it with masterpieces of sculpture and pottery, and then to bury everything under tons of earth—this betokens a kind of cultural energy that numbs and awes those who follow after.

Vibrant and elaborate, perhaps a little vulgar in its passion for display, Hopewell religion spread through most of the eastern United States in the first four centuries A.D. As with the expansion of Christianity, the new converts are unlikely to have understood the religion in the same way as its founders. Nonetheless, its impact was profound. In a mutated form, it may well have given impetus to the rise of Cahokia.

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