Down by the Riverside

Sunday, August 9, 2009


Ancient America's Great City on the Mississippi

By Timothy R. Pauketat

Viking. 194 pp. $22.95

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

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company