Link of the Day: Native American City Excavated

Primary version of this post at Barry Stocker’s Weblog, with visual content!


Cahokia: Ancient America’s Great City on the Mississippi, by Andrew O’Hehir reviewed at Salon.com.

The review has the highly unfortunate title ‘Sacrificial Virgins of the Mississippi’, referring to the real likelihood of human sacrifice at the city, but it is more than a sensationalist account of the most dubious aspects of a pre-modern society. As O’Hehir points out, this was a city of 20 000 at its Medieval peak and shows that Native Americans in what is now the USA had an urban culture. For a long time, the urban aspects of pre-Columbian Americans in North America, as they have been seen as purely nomadic. One reason for this misunderstanding may be that European diseases first brought to the Americas in the 15th Century may have devastated urban culture north of Mexico before much European settlement took place. The microbes may have travelled north more quickly than the settlers could arrive.

Excavations have shown piles of bones of young women strongly indicative of sacrifice. As in other cases where early urban cultures practised human sacrifice, this can be understood as a way in which the central state-religious authorities staged cruel dramas of power to keep the ruled obedient. It’s well known that the Aztecs had similar practices. It should be remembered that the Ancient Phoenicians practised ritual child sacrifice, that is the same Phoenicians who had an early alphabet which is the model for the Hebrew and Greek alphabets, who spread literacy to the Greeks, who traded across the Mediterranean, and constructed Carthage. Carthage is known through Roman history as the enemy of the Romans, and the creator of one of the legendary generals of history, Hannibal. Aristotle refers to Carthage as a political state (the best form of state for Aristotle) based on political relations between free citizens.

I would like to add something that partly strikes me, because of a visit to the Manx Museum, in Douglas, the Isle of Man (a self governing Crown Dependency of the UK in the Irish Sea). I learned there of the Viking sacrifices of young slave girls. That would be the same Vikings who founded the House of Keys, the lower house of Tynwald, the Manx Parliament. This could be the worlds longest continuously existing representative assembly.

If I mention the human sacrifices at Caholia Mounds, I certainly don’t do so to reinforce any idea of an essentially degenerate pre-Columbian culture, no more than I would want to claim that it was an Edenic existence without sin. The history of representative government, the history of democracy itself, is also the history of human sacrifice as a means to maintain social bonds and loyalty to the state.

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