segunda-feira, 28 de março de 2011

Cahokia Site's Significance Long Ignored (Parte 02)

Of course, that scenario presumes we know that Cahokia had such a single leader, which we don't. We don't even know what this place was called—the name Cahokia is borrowed from a tribe that lived nearby in the 1600s—or what the people who lived here called themselves. With no written language, they left behind the same scattering of meager clues that makes understanding prehistoric societies everywhere so challenging. (Pottery's fine and everything, but how much would a foreign culture really learn about us by looking at our dishes?) If deciphering the story of history is contentious, try coming to agreement on the story of prehistory. "You know what they say," says Bill Iseminger, an archaeologist who has worked at Cahokia for 40 years. "Put three archaeologists in a room and you get five opinions."

He's not exaggerating much. Even when Cahokia scholars agree, they tend to frame their positions so it seems like they're disagreeing—but there are points of general consensus. Everyone agrees that Cahokia developed quickly a couple centuries after corn became an important part of the local diet, that it drew together people from the American Bottom, and that it dwarfed other Mississippian communities in size and scope. The battle lines tend to form along the questions of how populous it was, how centralized its political authority and economic organization were, and the nature and extent of its reach and influence.

At one extreme you have descriptions of Cahokia as a "theater of power," a hegemonic empire sustained by force that reached deep into the Mississippian world and perhaps connected to Mesoamerican civilizations such as the Maya or Toltec. At the other extreme you have characterizations of Cahokia as little more than an especially large Mississippian town whose residents had a talent for making big piles of dirt. But as usual, most of the action happens in the middle area between those poles. Right now the discussion is being spearheaded by Tim Pauketat at the University of Illinois, who with his colleague Tom Emerson argues that Cahokia’s big bang was the product of a visionary moment: A leader, prophet, or group cast a vision for a new way of living that attracted people from far and near, creating a rapidly expanding cultural movement.

When I meet Pauketat at Cahokia to see the site through his eyes, he's more interested in showing me what he's found in the uplands several miles to the east: signs that Cahokians held sway over outlying laborer communities that supplied food to the city and its elites—evidence, Pauketat argues, that Cahokia's political economy was centralized and broad reaching. This is a controversial theory, because the research supporting it hasn't been published yet, and because it goes to the heart of the argument about just what kind of society Cahokia was.

Gayle Fritz at Washington University in St. Louis says that if Cahokia was a city, it wasn't the kind we usually think of, but one full of farmers growing their own food in nearby fields. Otherwise there would be more signs of storage facilities.

It's this sort of practical limit on the size of a subsistence-based agricultural community that leads minimalists like Penn State's George Milner to argue that population estimates for Cahokia—currently ranging between 10,000 and 15,000 for the city proper and another 20,000 to 30,000 in the surrounding areas—are inflated by a factor of two or more and that characterizations of Cahokia as something like a protostate are way off base. But with less than one percent of Cahokia excavated, speculation by every camp remains in higher supply than evidence. Washington University's John Kelly, a longtime stalwart of Cahokian archaeology, sums up the present understanding of Cahokia nicely: "People aren't really sure what it is." Nor do people know what happened to it. Cahokia was a ghost town by the time Columbus landed in the New World, and the American Bottom and substantial parts of the Mississippi and Ohio River Valleys were so depopulated they are referred to as the Vacant Quarter. Cahokia's demise is perhaps an even greater mystery than its emergence, but there are a few clues. The city grew to prominence during an especially favorable climate phase and began shrinking around the time the climate became cooler, drier, and less predictable. For an agricultural community dependent on regular crop yields, the changing conditions could have been anything from stressful to catastrophic.


The fact that between 1175 and 1275 Cahokia's inhabitants built—and rebuilt, several times—a stockade encircling the main part of the city suggests that conflict or the threat of conflict had become a standard feature of life in the region, perhaps because there were fewer resources. Furthermore, dense populations create environmental problems as a matter of course—deforestation, erosion, pollution, disease—that can be difficult to counter and that have been the downfall of many a society.

That Cahokia lasted for only some 300 years, and was at the peak of its power for half that at most, should not come as a surprise. "If you look broadly at human history, failure is the norm," says Tom Emerson. "What's amazing is when things last."

Emerson is currently heading a huge excavation in East St. Louis of Cahokia's next-door neighbor, a site that had thousands of residents of its own (sort of like Fort Worth to Cahokia's Dallas). And again, road construction is paying the tab: A new bridge across the Mississippi is giving Emerson's team a crack at 36 acres that had been lost to earlier progress, if you can call the twisted path of human history something as simple as "progress." The stockyards that were built on the ruins of this Mississippian settlement have been shuttered for years, casualties of East St. Louis's own decline from a vibrant city to a collection of vacant lots and boarded-up buildings. This is history's march in our own midst: fleet of foot and easy to miss.

When I drive to St. Louis to see if anything still memorializes the big mound (named, with an appropriate lack of imagination, Big Mound) that was destroyed there by 1869, I'm surprised to see that the exact spot where it was located is where the new bridge from East St. Louis will land. I ask around and learn that archaeologists excavated this lot too before construction started. But they didn't find a trace of Big Mound, only remnants of the 19th-century factories that had taken its place. That is now the accessible history of this site. The rest is gone.

After a failed first attempt, I do finally locate a marker for Big Mound. It's a little cobblestone memorial a half block down Broadway from Mound Street, with a missing plaque and grass growing between its rocks. As luck would have it, I find it just as a man arrives to spray it with weed killer. I ask him if he works for the city, and he says no. His name is Gary Zigrang, and he owns a building down the block. He's called the city about the marker's disrepair, and they haven't done anything, so he's taking matters into his own hands. And as he sprays the weeds on the forgotten memorial for the forgotten mound of the forgotten people who once lived here, he says, "What a shame. There's history here, and it needs to be taken care of."

Fonte: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2011/01/cahokia/hodges-text (janeiro/2011)

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