Spiteful Mutants?

I recently received an inquiry as to my opinion about the “spiteful mutant hypothesis.” After a bit of reading about genetic deletions in rat colonies I realized that the question was probably referring to bioleninism rather than rodents (though both are valid).

Of Mice and Men: Empirical Support for the Population-Based Social Epistasis Amplification Model, by Serraf and Woodley of Menie, is an interesting article. The authors look at a study by  Kalbassi et al., 2017 about social structures in mouse populations. Experimenters raised two groups of mice. One group had mice with normal mouse genes; mice in this group were sensitive to mouse social-cues and formed normal mouse social hierarchies. The other group had mostly normal mice, but also some mice with genetic mutations that made them less sensitive to social cues. In the second group, the mutant mice were not simply excluded while the rest of the mice went on their merry way, but the entire structure of the group changed:

Among the more striking findings are that the genotypically mixed … litters lacked “a structured social hierarchy” (p. 9) and had lower levels of testosterone (in both Nlgn3y/- and Nlgn3y/+mice); additionally, Nlgn3y/+mice from genotypically homogeneous litters showed more interest in “social” as opposed to “non-social cues” (p. 9) than Nlgn3y/+mice from genotypically mixed litters [the latter did not show a preference for one type of cue over the other, “showing an absence of interest for social cues” (p. 9)].

In other words, in litters where all of the mice are social, they can depend on each other to send and receive social cues, so they do, so they form social hierarchies. Somehow,t his makes the (male) mice have a lot of testosterone. In litters where the mice cannot depend on their companions to consistently send and receive social cues, even the genetically normal mice don’t bother as much, social hierarchies fail to form, and the mice have less testosterone.

A “spiteful mutation” in this context is one that imposes costs not only on the carrier, but on those around them. In this case, by changing the social structure and decreasing the testosterone of the other mice.

It’s a good article (and not long); you should read it before going on.

So what is bioleninism? I’ve seen the term kicked around enough to have a vague sense of it, but let’s be a bit more formal–with thanks to Samir Pandilwar for succinctness:

Developed by Spandrell (alias, Bloody Shovel) it takes the basic Leninist model of building a Party to rule the state out of the dregs of society, and shifts this to the realm of biology, wrong-think biology in particular, building the party out of people who are permanent losers within the social order.

I think the term gets used more generally when people notice that people in positions of power (or striving to make themselves more powerful via leftist politics) are particularly unattractive. In this context, these people are the “spiteful mutants” trying to change the social structure to benefit themselves.

We humans, at least in the west, like to think of ourselves as “individuals” but we aren’t really, not completely. As Aristotle wrote, “Man is a political animal;” we are a social species and most of us can’t survive without society at large–perhaps none of us. Virtually all humans live in a tribe or community of some sort, or in the most isolated cases, have at least occasional trade with others for things they cannot produce themselves.

Our species has been social for its entire existence–even our nearest relatives, the other chimps and gorillas, are social animals, living in troops or families.

We talk a lot about “increasing atomization and individualism” in populations that have transitioned from traditional agricultural (or other lifestyles) to the urban, industrial/post-industrial life of the cities, and this is certainly true in a legal sense, but in a practical sense we are becoming less individual.

A man who lives alone in the mountains must do and provide most things for himself; he produces his own food, is warmed by the efforts of his own ax, and drinks water from his own well. Even his trash is his own responsibility. Meanwhile, people in the city depend on others for so many aspects of their lives: their food is shipped in, their hair is cut by strangers, their houses are cleaned by maids, their water comes from a tap, and even their children may be raised by strangers (often by necessity rather than choice). The man in the mountains is more properly an individual, while the man in the city is inextricably bound together with his fellows.

There isn’t anything objectively wrong with any particular piece of this (fine dining is delicious and hauling water is overrated), but I find the collective effect on people who have come to expect to live this way vaguely unnerving. It’s as though they have shed pieces of themselves and outsourced them to others.

Or as Kaczynski put it:

The industrial-technological system may survive or it may break down. If it survives, it MAY eventually achieve a low level of physical and psychological suffering, but only after passing through a long and very painful period of adjustment and only at the cost of permanently reducing human beings and many other living organisms to engineered products and mere cogs in the social machine. Furthermore, if the system survives, the consequences will be inevitable: There is no way of reforming or modifying the system so as to prevent it from depriving people of dignity and autonomy.

(I have not read the whole of his manifesto, but I keep returning to this point, so eventually I should.)

How different are we from the little bees who cannot live on their own, but each have their role in the buzzing hive? (This is where the spiteful mutant hypothesis comes in.) Bees don’t arrange themselves by talking it over and deciding that this bee would be happy visiting flowers and that bee would be happy guarding the hive. It’s all decided beforehand via bee genetics.

How much “free will” do we really have to chose our human social relations, and how much of it is instinctual? Do we chose whom we love and hate, whom we respect and whom we deem idiots? Did we chose who would invent a billion dollar company and who would be homeless?

(We don’t really know how far instincts and biology go, of course.)

Any genes that affect how human societies cohere and the social hierarchies we form would likely produce different results if found in different quantities in different groups, just like the genes in the mouse models. Such genes could predispose us to be more or less social, more or less aggressive, or perhaps to value some other elements in our groups.

One of the most under-discussed changes wrought by the modern era is the massive decrease in infant mortality. Our recent ancestors suffered infant mortality rates between 20 and 40 percent (sometimes higher.) Dead children were once a near-universal misery; today, almost all of them live.

Among the dead, of course, were some quantity of carriers of deleterious mutations, such as those predisposing one to walk off a cliff or to be susceptible to malaria. Today, our mutants survive–sometimes even those suffering extreme malfunctions.

This doesn’t imply that we need high disease levels to weed out bad mutations: the Native Americans had nice, low disease levels prior to contact with European and African peoples, but their societies seem to have been perfectly healthy. This low-disease state was probably the default our ancestors all enjoyed prior to the invention of agriculture and dense, urban living. They probably still had high rates of infant mortality by modern standards (I haven’t been able to find numbers, but our relatives the chimps and bonobos have infant mortality rates around 20-30%.)

That all said, I’m not convinced that all this so-called “autistic” behavior (eg, the mouse models) is bad. Humans who are focused on things instead of social relations have gifted us much of modern technology. Would we give up irascible geniuses like Isaac Newton just to be more hierarchical? The folks implicitly criticized in the “bioleninist” model are far more obsessed with social hierarchies (and their place in them) than I am. I do not want to live like them, constantly analyzing ever social interaction for whether it contains micro-slights or whether someone has properly acknowledged my exact social status (“That’s Doctor X, you sexist cretin.”)

I want to be left in peace.

Book Club: Code Economy: Finale on the Blockchain

From All you need to know about blockchain

Welcome to our final discussion of Auerswald’s The Code Economy. Today we will be finishing the text, chapters 13-15. Please feel free to jump in even if you haven’t read the book.

After a hopefully entertaining digression about Peruvian Poutine and Netflix’s algorithms*, we progress to the discussion of Bitcoin and the Blockchain. Now, I don’t know anything about Bitcoin other than the vague ideas I have picked up by virtue of being a person on the internet, but it was an interesting discussion nonetheless.

Auerswald likens blockchain to an old-fashioned accountant’s ledger; the “blocks” are the rectangles in which a business’s earnings and expenses are recorded. If there is any question about a company’s profits, you can look back at the information recorded in the chain of blocks.

The problem with this system is that there is only one ledger. If the accountant has made a mistake (or worse, a theft,) there is nothing else to compare it to in order to determine the mistake.

In the modern, distributed version, there are many copies of the blockchain. If on most of these copies of the chain, block 22 says -$400, and on one copy it says +$400, we conclude that the one that disagrees is most likely in error. Like the works of Shakespeare, there are so many copies out there that a discrepancy a single copy cannot be claimed to be authoritative; it is the collective body of work that matters.

“Blockchain” is probably going to get used here as a metaphor for “distributed systems of confirming authority” a lot. For example, “Democracy is a blockchain for deciding who gets to rule a country.” Or “science is a blockchain.”

In Rhodes’s “The Making of the Atomic Bomb,” he recounts the process by which something becomes accepted as “true” (or reasonably likely to be true,) in the scientific community. Let’s suppose scientist M is the foremost authority in his field–perhaps organic LEDs. Scientists L and N are doing work that overlaps M’s, and can therefore basically evaluate M’s work and vouch for whether they think it is sound or not. Scientists J, K, O, and P do work that overlaps a lot with L and N and a little with M; they can evaluate M’s work a little and vouch for whether they think L and N are trustworthy. The chain continues down to little cats scientists A and Z, who can’t really evaluate scientist M, but can tell you whether or not they think B and Y’s results are trustworthy.

This community of science has both good and bad. In general, the structure of science has been extremely successful at inventing things like computers, atomic bombs, and penicillin; at times it creates resistance to new ideas just because they are so far outside of the mainstream of what other scientists are doing. For example, Ignaz Semmelweis, a physician, discovered that he could reduce maternal deaths at his hospital from around 10-18% to 2% simply by insisting that obstetricians wash their hands between dissecting cadavers and delivering babies. Unfortunately, the rest of the medical establishment had not yet accepted the Germ Theory of disease and believed that disease was caused by imbalanced humors. Semmelweis’s idea that invisible corpse particles were somehow transferring corpse-ness from dead people to live people seemed absurd, and further, blamed the doctors themselves for the deaths of their patients. Semmelweis’s tragic tail ends with him being stomped to death in an insane asylum. (His mental ill-health was probably induced by a combination of the stress of being rejected by his profession; and syphilis, contracted via charity work delivering babies for destitute prostitutes.)

Luckily for mothers everywhere, medical science eventually caught up with Semmelweis and puerperal fever is no longer a major concern for laboring women. Science, it seems, can correct itself. (We may want to be cautious about being too eager to reject new ideas–especially in cases where there is clearly a lot of room for improvement, like an 18% death rate.)

But back to the blockchain. In India:

Niti Aayog is working with Apollo Hospitals and information technology major Oracle on applying blockchain (decentralised) technology in pharmaceutical supply chain management to detect spurious drugs, Chief Executive Officer of NITI Aayog Amitabh Kant said here today.

Addressing a gathering through video-conferencing at the inaugural session of International Blockchain Congress 2018 for which Niti Aayog was a co-host, Kant said the organisation was working on applying the blockchain technology to pressing problems of the country in areas such as land registry, health records and fertiliser subsidy distribution m among others.


Blockchain technology can enable India to find solutions to huge logjams in courts …

With two-thirds of all civil cases pertaining to registration of property or land, the country’s policy think-tank is working with judiciary to find disruptive ways to expedite registrations, mutations and enable a system of smart transactions that is free of corruption and middlemen.

… There are three crore cases currently pending in Indian courts, including 42.5 lakh cases in high courts and 2.6 crore* cases in lower courts. Even if 100 cases are disposed off every hour without sleeping and eating, it would take more than 35 years to catch up, he said. …

On transforming the land registry system using blockchain, Niti Aayog is in advanced stage of implementing proof of concept pilot in Chandigarh to assess its potential to solve the problem of India’s land-based registry system. …

“It’s powerful because it allows multiple parties to collaborate and come to consensus without any need of third party,” he said.

*A crore is an Indian unit equivalent to 10 million.

I probably do not need to review Auerswald’s summary of Bitcoin’s history, as you are probably already well aware of it, but the question of “is Bitcoin real money?” is interesting. In 1875, Jevons, “cofounder of the neoclassical school in economics,” wrote that a material used as money should have the following traits:

“1 Utility and value

2 Portability

3 Indestructibility

4 Homogeneity

5 Divisibility

6 Stability of value

7 Cognizability.”

I am not sure about all of the items on this list; cigarettes and ramen noodles, for example, are used as currency in prisons, even though they are very easy to destroy. It seems like using a currency that you are going to eat would be problematic, yet the pattern recurs over and over in prisons (where perhaps people cannot get their hands on non-consumable goods, or perhaps people simply have no desire for non-consumable ornaments like gold.)

Gold–the “gold standard” of currencies–is a big odd to me, because it has very few practical uses. You can’t eat it. You can’t plant with it, cure parasites with it, or build with it. Lots of people talk about how you’d want a hard currency like gold in the case of societal collapse in which people stop accepting fiat currency, but if zombies were invading, the gas stations had run out of gasoline, and the grocery stores were out of food, I can’t imagine that I’d trade what few precious commodities I had left for a pile of rocks.

People argue that fiat currency is “just paper,” but gold is “just rocks,” and unless you’re a jeweler, the value of either is dependent entirely on your expectation that other people will accept them as currency.

Auerswald writes:

For the past 40 years the world’s currencies have been untethered from gold or any other metal. National “fiat” currencies are nothing more or less than tradeable trust, whose function as currency is based entirely on government-enforced scarcity an verifiability not tethered to its intrinsic usefulness.

I think Auerswald overlooks the role of force in backing fiat currencies. We don’t use Federal Reserve Notes because we trust the government like it’s our best friend from the army who pulled us out of a burning foxhole that one time. We use Federal Reserve Notes because the US government has a lot of guns and bombs to back up its claim that this is real money.

Which means the power of a dollar is dependent on the US government’s ability to enforce that value.

As for Bitcoin:

Bitcoin… satisfies all the criteria for being “money” that William Stanley Jevon set forth… with on exception intrinsic utility and value. That does not mean that Bitcoin will grow in significance as a means of exchange, much less achieve any position of dominance. But with digital transactions via mobile phones–Apple Pay and the like–becoming ever more command the concept of a digital currency not backed by any government gaining rapid acceptance, the prospect of one or another digital currency competing successfully with fiat currencies is not nearly as far-fetched today as it was even three years ago.

The biggest problems I see for digital currencies:

  1. Keeping value–if people decide they won’t accept DogeCoin, then what do you do with all of your DogeCoins?
  2. Ease of entry into the market makes it difficult for any one Coin to retain value
  3. Most people are happy using currencies not associated with illegal activity

You mean you can just make more of these things? Mugabe is brilliant!

The upside to digital currencies is they may be a real blessing for people caught in countries where local fiat currencies are being manipulated all to hell.

Anyway, Auerswald envisions a world in which blockchains (with coins or not) enable a world of peer-to-peer authentication and transactions:

By their very structure, Peer-to-peer platforms start out being distributed. The challenge is how to organize all of the energy contained in such networks so that people are rewarded fairly for their contributions. …Blockchain-based systems for governing peer0to0eer networks hold the promise–so far unrealized–of incorporating the best features of markets when it comes to rewarding contribution and of organizations when it comes to keeping track of reputations.

In other words, in areas where economies are held back because the local governments do a bad job of enforcing contracts and securing property rights, “blockchain”-like algorithms may be able to step into the gap and provided an accepted, distributed, alternative system of enforcement and authentication.

(This is the point where I start ranting to anyone within earshot about communists not recognizing the necessity of secure property rights so that people can turn their property into capital in order to start businesses. Without that seed money to start a business, you can’t get started. Even something simple, like driving for Uber, requires a car to start with, and cars cost money. If you can’t depend on having money tomorrow because all of your property just got confiscated, or you can’t depend on having a car tomorrow because private property is for bourgeois scum, then you can’t get a job driving for Uber. If no one can convert property to capital and thus to businesses, then you don’t get business and you have no economy and people suffer.

Communists see that some people have property that they can convert to capital and other people don’t have said capital, and their solution is to just take everybody’s stuff away and declare the problem fixed, when what they really want is for everyone to have enough basic property and capital to be able to start their own business.]

But back to Auerswald:

Earlier… I alluded to the significant advance in democracy, science, and financial systems that occurred simultaneously during …the Age of Enlightenment. That systems of governance, inquiry, and economics should have advanced all at the same time… is no coincidence at all. Each of these foundational developments in human social evolution is, at its core, an algorithm for authentication and verification. …

It is only because of the disciplinary fragmentation of inquiry that has occurred in the past century that we do not immediately perceive in the evolved historical record the patterns connecting systems of authentication and verification in politics, science, and economics as they have jointly evolved. … Illuminating those patterns has been the point of this book.

Chapter 14 begins with a history of Burning Man, which the author defends thus:

Still, it makes for an interesting case study in the building of cities (and why laws get enacted): Like everything about Black Rock City, the layout is the product of both planning and evolution. Cities are what physicists refer to as dissipative structures: highly complex organisms worse existence depend on a constant throughput of energy. If you were to close down all bridges and tunnels into New your City … grocery stores would have only a three-day supply of food. The same is generally true of a city’s other energy requirements. All cities are temporary, and they survive only because we feed them. …

The evolution of Black Rock is for urbanists what a real-life Jurassic Park would be for a Paleontologist. We really have no idea what the experience of living in humanity’s first cities might have been–whether Uruk in Mesopotamia or Catalhoyuk in Anatolia. And yet all cities also have elements of planning. Where Black Rock City has its Larry Harvey, London had its Robert Hooke and Washington, D.C., had its Pierre L’Enfant.  Each had a notion of how to bound a space, build symmetry and flow, and in so doing provide a platform where the human experience can unfold.

I have a somewhat dim view of “Burning Man” as a communist utopia that’s only open to rich people, filled with environmentalist hippies leaving an enormous carbon footprint in order to get high with a close-knit community of 70,000 other people, but maybe my sight is obscured from the outside.

The question remains, though: will code be a blessing, or a curse? What happens to employment as “traditional” jobs disappear? Will blockchain and other new platforms and technologies make us freer, or simply find new ways to control us?

The advance of code reduces individual power and autonomy while it increases individual capabilities and freedom.

So far, Auerswald points out, there has been good reason to be optimistic:

In 1990, a staggeringly high 43 percent of people in the “developing world,” approximately 1.9 billion people, lived in extreme poverty. By 2010, that number had fallen to 21 percent. …

For the past two centuries, the vehicle for that progress has been the continual capacity of economies to generate more and better jobs. … “Gallup has discovered that having a good job is now the great global dream … ‘A good job’ is now more important than having a family, more compelling than democracy and freedom, religion, peace and so on… Stimulating job growth is the new currency of all leaders because if you don’t deliver on it you will experience instability, brain drain, sometimes revolution…

There is something concerning about this, though. “Jobs creation” is now widely agreed to be in the hands of national leaders, not individuals. Ordinary people are no longer seen as drivers of innovation. People can start businesses, of course, but whether those businesses survive or fail depends on the government; for the average person, jobs are no longer created by human ingenuity but awarded by an opaque power structure.

Thus the liberal claim that “structural racism” (rather than “individual racism”) is the real cause of continued black impoverishment and high unemployment rates. In a world where employment is granted or withheld by the powerful based on whether or not they like you, not based on your own innate ability to make your own economic contribution to the world, then it is imperative to make sure that the powerful see it as important to employ people like you.

It is, in sum, an admission of the powerlessness of the individual.

Still, Auerswald is hopeful that with the rise of the Peer-to-Peer economy and end of traditional factory work, not only will work be more interesting (as boring, repetitive jobs are most easily automated,) but also that people will no longer be dependent on the whims of a small set of powerful people for access to jobs.

I think he underestimates how useful it is to have steady, long-term employment and how difficult it is for individuals to compete against established corporations that have much larger economies of scale and access to far more relevant data than they do. Take, for example, YouTube vs. Netflix. Netflix can use its troves of data to determine which kinds of shows customers would like to watch more of, then hire people to make those shows. This is pretty nice work if you can get it. YouTube, of course, just lets pretty much anyone put up any video they want, and most of the videos are probably pretty dull, but a few YouTubers put up quality material and an even smaller few actually make a decent amount of money. YouTuber PewDiePie, for example, holds the record at 61+ million subscribers, which has earned him $124 million. But most people who try to become YouTube stars do not become PewDiePie; most earn very little. And why should they, when most of them are amateurs low-budget amateurs with no data on what audiences are interested in going up against other TV options like Orange is the New Black, Breaking Bad, and yes, PewDs himself?

I have a friend who is a very talented amateur clothing designer and dressmaker. I have encouraged her to open a shop on Etsy and try sell some of her creations, but can she really compete with Walmart, The Gap, or Nordstrom? Big Clothing has a massive lead in terms of factories mass-producing clothes for sale. (Her only hope would be to extremely upscale–wedding dresses, movie costumes, etc.)

So what does the future hold?

In the next round of digital disruption, tasks that can be automated (the “high-volume, low-price” option resulting from ongoing code-driven bifurcations…) will yield only small dividends for most people. The exception is the relatively small number of people who will maintain the platforms on which such tasks are performed…

The promising pathway for inclusive well-being is humanized work (the “low-volume, high-price” pathway resulting from ongoing code-driven bifurcations…) this pathway includes everything about value creation that is differentiated, personal, and human.

In his Conclusion, Auerswald writes:

To be human is to think critically. To collaborate, to Communicate. To be creative. What we call “the economy’ is one extension of these activities. It is the domain in which we develop and advance code.

From Ray Kurzweil

But the singularity approaches:

We are not at the center of our cognitive universe. Our own creations are eclipsing us.

For each of us, redefining work requires nothing less than redefining identity. This is because production is not something human beings do just to consume. In fact, the opposite is true. We are living beings. We consume in order to produce.

Well, that’s the end of the book. I hope you have enjoyed it as much as I have. What do you think the future holds? Where do you think code is taking the economy? What are the best–and worst–opportunities for growth? And what (if anything) should we read next?



*An Aside On Netflix and the use of algorithms to produce movies/TV:

…consider the fate of two films that premiered the same night at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. … One of these films, What Happened, Miss Simone? was a documentary about singer and civil rights icon Nina Simone. That film was funded by Netflix, whose corporate decision to back the film was based in part on insights algorithmically gleaned from the vast trove of data it has collected on users of its streaming video and movie rental services. The second film was a comedy titled The Bronze, which featured television star Melissa Rauch as a vulgar gymnast. The Bronze was produced by Duplass Brothers production and privately financed by “a few wealthy individual” whose decision to back the film was presumably not based on complex impersonal algorithms but rather, as has been the Hollywood norm, on business intuition.

I’ve often wondered why so many terrible movies get made.

A documentary about a Civil Rights leader might not be everyone’s cup of tea (people like to say they watch intellectual movies more than they actually do,) but plenty of people will at least abstractly like it. By contrast, a “vulgar gymnast” is not an interesting premise for a movie. Vulgarity can be funny when it is contrasted with something typically not vulgar–eg, “A vulgar mobster and a pious nun team up to save an orphanage,” or even “A vulgar nun and pious mobster…” The humor lies in the contrast between purity and vulgarity. But gymnasts aren’t known for being particularly pure or vulgar–they’re neutral–so there’s no contrast in this scenario. A vulgar gymnast doesn’t sound funny, it sounds rude and unpleasant. And this is the one sentences summary chosen to represent the movie? Not a good sign.

As you might have guessed already, What Happened, Miss Simone, did very well, and The Bronze was a bomb. It has terrible reviews on IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes. As folks have put it, it’s just not funny.

Davidowitz notes in Everybody Lies that the industries most ripe for “big data”fication are the ones where the current data is not very good. Industries where people work more on intuition than analysis. For example, the choice of horses in horse racing, until recently, was based on pedigree and intuition–what experienced horse people thought seemed promising in a foal. There was a lot of room in horse racing for quantification and analysis–and the guy who started using mobile x-ray machines to measure horse’s heart and lung sizes was able to make significantly better predictions than people who just looked at the horses’s outsides. By contrast, hedge funds have already put significant effort into quantifying what the prices of different stocks are going to do, and so it is very hard to do better data analysis than they already are.

The selection of movies and TV pilots to fund fall more into the “racing horses picked by intuition” category than the “extremely quantified hedge funds” category, which means there’s lots of room for improvement for anyone who can get good data on the subject.

Incidentally, “In 2015… Netflix accounted for almost 37 percent of all downstream internet traffic in North America during peak evening hours.”

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.