Not quite Forgotten Treasures: Part 2, Cahokia

Illustration of Cahokia Mounds, Illinois

It took almost 400 years between Columbus’s arrival in the New World and the complete military domination of the USA by the invaders–but it happened.

The Americas before Columbus arrived were a place of amazing contrasts–from the igloo-dwelling, hunter-gathering Eskimo to the literate, city-building, cannibal Aztecs. At the southern tip of of Patagonia lies the Tierra del Fuego–so named because the nearly naked locals opted to cope with their frigid climate by carrying fire everywhere.

The oldest still-occupied towns in the US are the Acoma and Taos Pueblos of New Mexico, built nearly a thousand years ago (though today the vast majority of residents live in newer housing with electricity and running water built nearby the historic pueblos.) But the oldest overall is Cahokia, occupied between 600 and 1400 AD:

Cahokia was the largest and most influential urban settlement of the Mississippian culture that developed advanced societies across much of what is now the central and southeastern United States, beginning more than 1000 years before European contact.[5] Today, Cahokia Mounds is considered the largest and most complex archaeological site north of the great pre-Columbian cities in Mexico. …

Cahokia became the most important center for the peoples known today as Mississippians. Their settlements ranged across what is now the Midwest, Eastern, and Southeastern United States. Cahokia was located in a strategic position near the confluence of the Mississippi, Missouri and Illinois rivers. It maintained trade links with communities as far away as the Great Lakes to the north and the Gulf Coast to the south, trading in such exotic items as copper, Mill Creek chert,[13] and whelk shells.

Mill Creek chert, most notably, was used in the production of hoes, a high demand tool for farmers around Cahokia and other Mississippian centers. Cahokia’s control of the manufacture and distribution of these hand tools was an important economic activity that allowed the city to thrive.[14]Mississippian culture pottery and stone tools in the Cahokian style were found at the Silvernale site near Red Wing, Minnesota, and materials and trade goods from Pennsylvania, the Gulf Coast and Lake Superior have been excavated at Cahokia. Bartering, not money was used in trade.[15]

Although it was home to only about 1,000 people before c. 1050, its population grew rapidly after that date. According to a 2007 study in Quaternary Science Reviews, “Between AD 1050 and 1100, Cahokia’s population increased from between 1400 and 2800 people to between 10,200 and 15,300 people”.[16] an estimate that applies only to a 1.8 km2 high density central occupation area.[17] Archaeologists estimate the city’s population at between 6,000 and 40,000 at its peak,[citation needed] with more people living in outlying farming villages that supplied the main urban center. … If the highest population estimates are correct, Cahokia was larger than any subsequent city in the United States until the 1780s, when Philadelphia’s population grew beyond 40,000.[18]

Monk’s Mound, Cahokia

Like many early cities, Cahokia has distinctive, flat-topped pyramids, (here called “mounds”)–probably not because pyramids are magical or because the Cahokians were in contact with Egyptians or aliens, but because it’s the easiest large shape to build. The Cahokians lacked good stone build with and draft animals to haul materials over long distance, so Cahokia’s 120 mounds were built largely of compacted earth:

To achieve that, thousands of workers over decades moved more than an “estimated 55 million cubic feet [1,600,000 m3] of earth in woven baskets to create this network of mounds and community plazas. Monks Mound, for example, covers 14 acres (5.7 ha), rises 100 ft (30 m), and was topped by a massive 5,000 sq ft (460 m2) building another 50 ft (15 m) high.”[4]

Monks Mound is the largest structure and central focus of the city: a massive platform mound with four terraces, 10 stories tall, and the largest man-made earthen mound north of Mexico. Facing south, it is 100 ft (30 m) high, 951 ft (290 m) long, 836 ft (255 m) wide and covers 13.8 acres (5.6 ha).[24] It also contains about 814,000 cu yd (622,000 m3) of earth.[14] The mound was built higher and wider over the course of several centuries through as many as ten separate construction episodes, as the mound was built taller and the terraces and apron were added.[24]

Since the mounds are made of dirt and it rains in Illinois, erosion is an issue.

Excavation on the top of Monks Mound has revealed evidence of a large building, likely a temple or the residence of the paramount chief, which would have been seen throughout the city. This building was about 105 ft (32 m) long and 48 feet (15 m) wide, and could have been as much as 50 ft (15 m) high. It was about 5,000 sq ft (460 m2).

A large flat plaza located adjacent to Monks Mound was a place where games and public rituals took place.

Reconstructed piece from Etowah Indian Mounds, Georgia

The Cahokians (and Mississippians in general) had mastered the art of copper working, producing fine ritual art like the dancing warrior to the left. Copper can be worked and shaped while still cold; the Mississippians had not learned how to make bronze nor smelt iron.

The Cahokians also built a Stonehenge-style “Woodhenge”:

a ceremonial area with a 412 feet (126 m) in diameter circle of 48 upright wooden posts.[1] Archaeologists date the placement of at least one of the posts to approximately 950 CE.[2] Archaeological research has shown that four of the posts were at the cardinal locations of north, south, east and west, the eastern and western posts marking the position of the equinox sunrise and sunsets. Four other posts in the circle were shown to be at the summer solstice sunrise and sunset and the winter solstice sunrise and sunset positions.

Woodhenge, Cahokia

If you make your sundial big enough, it can double as a clock–a useful trick for a society with a priestly class that wants to do special ceremonies on specific dates.

Woodhenge was eventually dismantled (and moved elsewhere), and the site converted to a cemetery. Some of the burials were of wealthy individuals–perhaps rulers–but most appear to be victims of mass human sacrifice:

A large rectangular pit was dug into the southeast corner of the mound and a mass burial of 24 women was made in it….

A small platform was constructed near the southeastern ramp and four young males with their arms interlocked and missing their hands and skulls were laid out on the platform.[6] Some researchers have concluded that the four men may represent the four cardinal directions.[11]

In a pit excavated next to these four men were placed the bodies of a large group of young women. This mass grave contained the remains of 53 females ranging in age between 15–30 years of age, arranged in two layers separated by matting.[4][6][8] The young women show evidence of having been strangled before being arranged in neat rows in the pit.[11] Analysis of bones and dental traits of these women have led archaeologists to believe these individuals were not from the same social class and ethnic group as other individuals interred in the mound. …

Next to this mound to the southwest another mass burial was made.[4] This burial is the most grisly found at the site, containing 39 men and women who appear to have been violently killed. … The victims were then killed and thrown over the edge of the pit. These people showed signs of meeting a violent end, including several being incompletely decapitated, some with fractured skulls and others with fractured jawbones.[6] The evidence shows that some of these individuals were buried alive: “From the vertical position of some of the fingers, which appear to have been digging in the sand, it is apparent that not all of the victims were dead when they were interred – that some had been trying to pull themselves out of the mass of bodies.”[4] The presence of arrowheads in the back of some of these victims, coupled with the beheadings and other evidence of violent death, has led some researchers to conclude that these victims show evidence of warfare or were even the losers of a rebellion against the rulers of Cahokia … On top of them were the remains of 15 elite individuals laid out upon litters made from cedar poles and cane matting .[6] Radiocarbon dating of the cedar poles used for the litters in the top layer burials in this pit determined that this burial was made approximately 100 years after the woodhenge circle had been constructed, or in approximately 1030 CE.[4]

Lovely people.

Since the Mississippian culture had not entirely disappeared by the time European chronicles arrived in the area, we actually have an account of a royal Mississippian burial accompanied by ritual sacrifice. According to Wikipedia:

Upon the death of “Tattooed Serpent” [of the Natchez,] in 1725, the war chief and younger brother of the “Great Sun” or Chief of the Natchez; two of his wives, one of his sisters… his first warrior, his doctor, his head servant and the servant’s wife, his nurse, and a craftsman of war clubs all chose to die and be interred with him, as well as several old women and an infant who was strangled by his parents.[14] Great honor was associated with such a sacrifice, and their kin was held in high esteem.[15] After a funeral procession with the chiefs body carried on a litter made of cane matting and cedar poles ended at the temple (which was located on top of a low platform mound); the retainers with their faces painted red and accompanied by their relatives dressed up in their finest garments, were drugged with large doses of nicotine and ritually strangled. Tattooed Serpent was then buried in a trench inside the temple floor and the retainers were buried in other locations atop the mound surrounding the temple. …[14]

Artsist’s conception of Watson Brake

Cahokia is only one of the Mississippian people’s many settlements–at least 85 similar sites have been discovered, and that’s just the Mississippians. Other cultures also built mounds, such as the Watson Brake site in Louisiana, built around 3500 BC. (Perhaps these were really all the same culture, but archaeologists classify them as different ones.) The Mississippian sites are generally distinguished by:

  1. Earthen pyramids or mounds
  2. The development of large-scale, corn-based agriculture
  3. Shell-tempered pottery
  4. Large trade network extending from the Rockies to the Atlantic, Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico
  5. Social hierarchy and centralization of political power, with cities like Cahokia dominant over smaller towns
  6. A particular style of art and artifacts, reflecting Mississippian religious beliefs and lifestyles

Though Cahokia itself was abandoned around 1300 AD, Early European explorers such as Hernando de Soto encountered other Mississippian peoples and made records of them:

De Soto observed people living in fortified towns with lofty mounds and plazas, and surmised that many of the mounds served as foundations for priestly temples. Near present-day Augusta, Georgia, de Soto encountered a mound-building group ruled by a queen, Cofitachequi. She told him that the mounds within her territory served as the burial places for nobles.

But like Etzanoa, by the time the Europeans returned, the settlements had been abandoned, most likely due to diseases caught from the French and Spanish.

Who Built Stonehenge? Bell Beakers and Neolithic Burials

Seventeenth century depiction of Stonehenge from the Atlas van Loon

Stonehenge remains one of the world’s enduring mysteries. Who carved these enormous stones, moved them hundreds of miles, and erected them upon Salisbury plain–and why?

Archaeologists estimate that the first major construction began at Stonehenge around 3,100 BC, when workers dug a large, circular ditch around the site and piled up the resulting dirt in a round bank. But the interesting part of this phase of construction is the third circle inside the first two, consisting of 56 graves, atop which bluestones may have once stood. The bones of deer and oxen were also placed in the surrounding ditch.

Were these sacrifices, or was Stonehenge originally just a cemetery, perhaps for the community’s most important members?

The second stage in Stonehenge’s development, from about 3,000 BC to 2,600 BC, involved the building of wooden structures and further burials. Interestingly, Neolithic grooved ware pottery is associated with this stage.

Grooved ware pottery appears to have been developed way off in the remote, cold, wind-swept Orkney Islands at the tip of Scotland. I’ve written about the Orkneys before, because they also have significant Neolithic sites, including–most relevant to our conversation–the Ring of Brodgar:

The Ring of Brodgar… is a Neolithic henge and stone circle in Orkney, Scotland. Most henges do not contain stone circles; Brodgar is a striking exception, ranking with Avebury (and to a lesser extent Stonehenge) among the greatest of such sites.[1] … These are the northernmost examples of circle henges in Britain.[2] Unlike similar structures such as Avebury, there are no obvious stones inside the circle,[3] but since the interior of the circle has never been excavated by archaeologists, the possibility remains that wooden structures, for example, may have been present. The site has resisted attempts at scientific dating and the monument’s age remains uncertain. It is generally thought to have been erected between 2500 BC and 2000 BC, and was, therefore, the last of the great Neolithic monuments built on the Ness.[4]

The idea that anyone built anything major way off in the Orkneys, which definitely did not support the kind of comfortable, sedentary population that the Nile, Tigris, Euphrates, and Indus, is remarkable enough. That they built something comparable to Stonehenge and Avebury is incredible, and that a pottery style which appears to have begun in Orkney spread to Britain and Ireland almost defies belief. Surely Orkney lacked the population to man the kind of migrations necessary to impose their pots on others, but perhaps Orkney was some kind of Neolithic cultural leader, perhaps a sacred place people journeyed to from across the seas–or perhaps the people of Orkney traded their pots for products not found locally, their style became popular, and folks in different areas began making their own versions.

But Avebury, Stonehenge, and Brogdar weren’t the only Stone Circles:

The stone circles in the British Isles and Brittany were constructed as a part of a megalithic tradition that lasted from 3300 to 900 BCE, during the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Ages.[2] It has been estimated that around 4,000 of these monuments were originally constructed in this part of north-western Europe during this period,[2] although only around 1,300 of them are recorded, the others having been destroyed.[3]

Around 2,600 BC, Stonehenge entered its 3rd building phase, involving the erection of some 80 large stones in two concentric circles (“Q” and “R”) near the center of the enclosure. These 2-ton stones were transported 150 miles from a quarry in the Preseli Hills, (modern-day Pembrokeshire in Wales.) According to Wikipedia:

This phase tentatively began as early as 2600 BC, although recent radiocarbon dates from samples retrieved from one of the sockets in 2008 during excavations by Darvill and Wainwright suggest a date of around 2400 to 2300 BC. The final report is yet to be published, but some interesting results follow from the partial excavation of Q Hole 13 where ‘associations with Beaker pottery’ were noted.[1]

The Q and R Holes not only represent the foundation cuts for the first central stone construction, but they also were to include several additional stone settings on the northeast. This modified group face the midsummer sunrise with a possible reciprocal stone aligned on the midwinter sunset. This is the first evidence for any unambiguous alignment at Stonehenge (the solstice axis). … the dates suggested from the 2008 excavation (above) implies the Q & R arrays were perhaps no earlier than 2,400 BC, presenting a challenge to the recently accepted Late Neolithic date for the construction of the iconic sarsen monument. …

Now this is really interesting. The original proliferation of these circles is associated with the neolithic Groved Ware Pottery people. They tended to build chambered tombs and to dig large circular ditches and banks accompanied by human burials. They may have marked these graves with large stones.

Reconstruction of a Beaker burial, (National Archaeological Museum of Spain, Madrid)

Then a new kind of pottery shows up, the Beakers. The Bell Beaker pottery arrived in Britain around 2,500 BC, and around that time a new, significant phase in the construction of these sites begins. Large numbers of extremely heavy stones were brought in and the original north-eastern entrance was widened so that it matched the direction of the midsummer sunrise and midwinter sunset. Additionally, a road appears to have been built Stonehenge and the River Avon between 2600 and 1700 BCE, perhaps a delivery route for supplies that had been floated down the river. The road is partially aligned with the summer solstice, and ends at another stone circle.

So where the Grooved Ware People perhaps had some kind of cult of the dead, or at least put a lot of effort into constructing fancy burial monuments for their dead, the Bell Beaker people appear to have been really interested in solar alignments.

According to BellBeakerBlogger, even Bell Beaker burials reflect this solar interest:

All burials exhibit similarities that are central to Beaker culture or Beaker-ized people. They are usually flexed, individual burials within a plot, cemetery or larger complex. Men and women face the rising Sun, which along with other information, indicates a religious belief with emphasis on a solar deity.

The sequence of events that occurred at Stonehenge also appears to have happened at Avebury:

The chronology of Avebury’s construction is unclear. It was not designed as a single monument, but is the result of various projects that were undertaken at different times during late prehistory.[19]Aubrey Burl suggests dates of 3000 BC for the central cove, 2900 BC for the inner stone circle, 2600 BC for the outer circle and henge, and around 2400 BC for the avenues.[1]

Avebury was one of a group of monumental sites that were established in this region during the Neolithic. Its monuments comprise the henge and associated long barrows, stone circles, avenues, and a causewayed enclosure. These monument types are not exclusive to the Avebury area. For example, Stonehenge features the same kinds of monuments, and in Dorset there is a henge on the edge of Dorchester and a causewayed enclosure at nearby Maiden Castle.[20]

Archaeologist Mike Parker Pearson noted that the addition of the stones to the henge occurred at a similar date to the construction of Silbury Hill and the major building projects at Stonehenge and Durrington Walls. For this reason, he speculated that there may have been a “religious revival” at the time, which led to huge amounts of resources being expended on the construction of ceremonial monuments.[21]

Religious revival, or triumphant victory celebration?

Work continued at Stonehenge over the next two hundred years, from about 2,600 BC through 2,400 BC, during which the monument’s enormous, central stones were erected. These rocks weigh between 25 and 50 tons each. This was an enormous undertaking that must have required hundreds of people just to move each stone and lift it into place.

Bell beaker pots

“Pots, not people,” is one of archaeology’s most famous maxims, an exhortion to regard a change in material artifacts–say, new pots–as simply a result of local cultural change, trade, or diffusion, rather than the arrival of an entirely new people. The Pots not People reading of the transition from Neolithic Grooved Ware to Copper Age Bell Beakers is simply that people invented new pots (and the technology to work metals.)

In the case of the Corded Ware people, this turned out to be wrong–the Corded Ware People turned out to be the Yamnaya, AKA the Indo-Europeans, who boiled out of the Ukrainian steppe around 4,000 BC, and by 500 BC had conquered almost all of Europe, Iran, Turkey, India, etc. They contributed significantly to the modern European gene pool, especially in eastern Europe.

Arout 3,000 BC, the Bell Beaker culture, named for its distinctively bell-shaped pots, began appearing in Western Europe. The pots didn’t spread smoothly across the continent, but were concentrated along Atlantic and Mediterranean river valleys:

Radiocarbon dating seems to support that the earliest “Maritime” Bell Beaker design style is encountered in Iberia, specifically in the vibrant copper-using communities of the Tagus estuary in Portugal around 2800-2700 BC and spread from there to many parts of western Europe.[2][12]

The initial moves from the Tagus estuary were maritime. A southern move led to the Mediterranean where ‘enclaves’ were established in south-western Spain and southern France around the Golfe du Lion and into the Po valley in Italy, probably via ancient western Alpine trade routes used to distribute jadeite axes. A northern move incorporated the southern coast of Armorica. The enclave established in southern Brittany was linked closely to the riverine and landward route, via the Loire, and across the Gâtinais valley to the Seine valley, and thence to the lower Rhine. This was a long-established route reflected in early stone axe distributions and it was via this network that Maritime Bell Beakers first reached the Lower Rhine in about 2600 BC.[2][19]

Another pulse had brought Bell Beaker to Csepel Island in Hungary by about 2500 BC. … From the Carpathian Basin Bell Beaker spread down the Rhine and eastwards into what is now Germany and Poland. By this time the Rhine was on the western edge of the vast Corded Ware zone. … A review in 2014 revealed that single burial, communal burial and reuse of Neolithic burial sites are found throughout the Bell Beaker zone.[23]

… The earliest copper production in Ireland, identified at Ross Island in the period 2400-2200 BC, was associated with early Beaker pottery.[2][27] …The same technologies were used in the Tagus region and in the west and south of France.[2][28] The evidence is sufficient to support the suggestion that the initial spread of Maritime Bell Beakers along the Atlantic and into the Mediterranean, using sea routes that had long been in operation, was directly associated with the quest for copper and other rare raw materials.[2]

spread of bell beaker pottery

The Bell Beakers reached Britain around 2,500 BC.

Unfortunately, the Bell Beaker people didn’t leave any written records, so we don’t know what language they spoke. Were they Indo-Europeans? Moroccans? Did they conquer river valleys across Western Europe, or just tried exchange their pots for local goods along long-established trade routs?

And are they responsible for the menhirs found across western Europe?:

A menhir … is a large upright standing stone. Menhirs may be found solely as monoliths, or as part of a group of similar stones. Their size can vary considerably, but their shape is generally uneven and squared, often tapering towards the top. … they are most numerous in Western Europe; in particular in Ireland, Great Britain and Brittany. There are about 50,000 megaliths in these areas,[2] while there are 1,200 menhirs in northwest France alone.[3] Standing stones are usually difficult to date, but pottery, and/or pottery shards found underneath some in Atlantic Europe connects them with the Beaker people. They were constructed during many different periods across pre-history as part of a larger megalithic culture that flourished in Europe and beyond.

Almost nothing is known of the social organization or religious beliefs of the people who erected the menhirs. There is not even any trace of these people’s language; however we do know that they buried their dead and had the skills to grow cereal, farm and make pottery, stone tools and jewelry. Identifying their uses remains speculative. Until recently, menhirs were associated with the Beaker people, who inhabited Europe during the European late Neolithic and early Bronze Age — later third millennium BC, ca. 2800 – 1800 BC. However, recent research into the age of megaliths in Brittany strongly suggests a far older origin, perhaps back to six to seven thousand years ago.[6]

(Sound familiar?)

Of the Beaker Culture of Ireland, Wikipedia states, in classic archaeologist style:

The ‘bronze halberd’ (not to be confused with the medieval halberd) was a weapon in use in Ireland from around 2400-2000 BC[71] They are essentially broad blades that were mounted horizontally on a meter long handle, giving greater reach and impact than any known contemporary weapon (O’Flaherty 2007). They were subsequently widely adopted in other parts of Europe (Schuhmacher 2002), possibly showing a change in the technology of warfare.

Just a change in technology, definitely not evidence of people getting conquered.

On May 9, 2017, The Beaker Phenomenon And The Genomic Transformation Of Northwest Europe was published on BioRxiv, finally providing some of the answers to our many questions:

We present new genome-wide ancient DNA data from 170 Neolithic, Copper Age and Bronze Age Europeans, including 100 Beaker-associated individuals. In contrast to the Corded Ware Complex, which has previously been identified as arriving in central Europe following migration from the east, we observe limited genetic affinity between Iberian and central European Beaker Complex-associated individuals, and thus exclude migration as a significant mechanism of spread between these two regions.

In other words, the initial spread of Bell Beakers from Iberia to central Europe was primarily cultural–the people involved are not closely related.

However, human migration did have an important role in the further dissemination of the Beaker Complex, which we document most clearly in Britain using data from 80 newly reported individuals dating to 3900-1200 BCE. British Neolithic farmers were genetically similar to contemporary populations in continental Europe and in particular to Neolithic Iberians, suggesting that a portion of the farmer ancestry in Britain came from the Mediterranean rather than the Danubian route of farming expansion.

Stone-age Britons were genetically similar to stone-age Iberians.

Beginning with the Beaker period, and continuing through the Bronze Age, all British individuals harboured high proportions of Steppe ancestry and were genetically closely related to Beaker-associated individuals from the Lower Rhine area. We use these observations to show that the spread of the Beaker Complex to Britain was mediated by migration from the continent that replaced >90% of Britain’s Neolithic gene pool within a few hundred years, continuing the process that brought Steppe ancestry into central and northern Europe 400 years earlier.

In other words: Bell Beaker pots s originally diffused culturally to the Rhine, where they were adopted by people with Indo-European steppe ancestry. These steppe people then conquered Britain, killing 90% of the stone-age inhabitants.

The victors appear to have gone on a building spree, repurposing neolithic monuments and dedicating them to their own deities, much as the Christian Hagia Sophia was transformed into a mosque following the Islamic conquest of Constantinople.

On a probably related note:

Durrington Walls is the site of a large Neolithic settlement and later henge enclosure located in the Stonehenge World Heritage Site. It lies 2 miles (3.2 km) north-east of Stonehenge in the parish of Durrington, just north of Amesbury.

Between 2004 and 2006, excavations on the site by a team led by the University of Sheffield revealed seven houses. It has been suggested that the settlement may have originally had up to 1000 houses and perhaps 4,000 people, if the entire enclosed area was used. The period of settlement was probably short, between 15 and 45 years starting sometime between 2525 and 2470 BC.[3]

It may have been the largest village in northern Europe for a brief period.[4][5][6] At 500 metres (1,600 ft) in diameter, the henge is the largest in Britain and recent evidence suggests that it was a complementary monument to Stonehenge.[7]

Grooved ware pottery has been found in abundance at Durrington Walls. Why this sudden concentration of Neolithic pottery around the time of the Beaker invasion and rebuilding of Stonehenge? Were they captives brought to the area to work on the henge? Or a fortified refuge holding out against the invaders?

By the Iron Age, circa 1,600 BC, Stonehenge had largely fallen out of use, or at least new construction had halted. This was long before the arrival of the Celts in Britain, around 500 BC, so whether the Druids ever made use of Stonehenge as a sacred site or not, they certainly didn’t build it.

 

Additional sources:

Nature: Ancient-genome study finds Bronze Age ‘Beaker culture’ invaded Britain

Sarkboros: Bell Beakers and the North African Late Neolithic, on potential Bell Beaker origins in Morocco

Razib Khan: The coming of the Milesians: abstract of “The Bell Beaker Paper”