Cahokia: The Bodies at Mound 72

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He is lying there on his back, you see his resplendency, at least in your mind’s eye, in the white conch shell beads he lies upon, the shells brought here to just outside modern-day St. Louis from the Gulf of Mexico. The blanket of beads–some twenty thousand of them—were once sewn together into a robe or blanket, bits of string still surviving, and the silhouette the beads make hints at a bird-like shape in the original design.

He is regal, kingly even.

Directly beneath him is a woman, facing down, his body laying atop hers.

Around them are six bodies, skeletons, five of them killed to honor the occasion of the burial of the man, one, a bundle of bones, seems to have been an individual who died earlier. Of the five, four are arranged neatly around our nobleman. The fifth appears to have been thrown dead or dying onto the ground, his legs splayed, his body not aligned with the others.

Graphic by Julie McMahon via news.illinois.edu

The people of Cahokia who buried the noble and the woman and the others, perhaps family members or servants, also prepared additional honors a few feet away. It is something of a treasure pit, perhaps useful in some afterlife. In the pit are fifteen fist-sized, smooth stones for use in a game called Chungke by other Indian tribes. The stones, originally somewhat flat, have been purposely ground concave on both sides for use in the game.

Two or three rolls of copper from Lake Superior are there, once wrapped around wooden shafts, perhaps part of the chungke game. There are more of the conch shell beads, which may have ornamented the shafts in some way.

There are nearly eight hundred pristine arrow points buried there, about have laid out with tips all pointing one way, the other half laid out with all of the tips pointing in the opposite direction.

Oh, I almost forgot. This treasure pit, created in tribute to the nobleman with the beaded robe, contains ten more bodies, all killed in his honor.

What is that, eighteen bodies, sixteen or seventeen of which are ritual killings, human sacrifices? This is just the beginning.

There are over one hundred mounds still identifiable in Cahokia, the St. Louis Arch visible from the tallest of them. Mound 72 was excavated in 1967 after archeologist Melvin Fowler had maps made of the mound area and was puzzling over their arrangement. He saw that the Cahokians (our name for them, not theirs—they are, aside from whatever we can glean from archeology, completely unknown) arranged the mounds in certain directional patterns then marked important points on those patterns with wooden posts. The center line crossed another line at Mound 72—and Fowler thought that there was a high probability that if he dug there he would find the remains of a post marking that spot, the darkened earth revealing the locations prior significance.

He found nothing. He examined his notes and his calculations and realized he had screwed up the math. He dug again ten feet to one side and immediately found the remains of the post hole. And them quite unexpectedly, he found the skeletal remains of the nobleman, with the second body beneath (thought for decades to be another man), and then all the rest.

And when you find eighteen bodies, when you find human sacrifice victims in the middle of the United States, you have to keep digging, at least a little bit.

Not far from the first two burials is another, although the deaths took place at a different time. Twenty-one bodies, a few of which are “bundle burials”—skeletons buried in neat, separate piles. Another thirteen bodies were placed in a jumbled pile, and four more bodies, all laid out carefully, some with fancy chokers or hairpieces. Of these four, one couple, male and female, were buried alongside each other, the female facing up, the male facing down. The two other males were also facing down.

These four seem to be important people and they also had their attendants. In one pit next to theirs were twenty-two bodies, all or almost all young women. Across from that was another pit with nineteen more young women.

If you are keeping track, we are at eighty bodies and we are not even halfway there. We are not even a third of the way there, and only two-thirds of the mound was excavated. There are an estimated two-hundred and seventy skeletons buried in Mound 72, put there over a hundred year period.

The last group buried in Mound 72 was different than the others. The Cahokians had dug a pit and then brought thirty-nine people, alive, to the edge of the pit. Each of them, mostly males aged males between fifteen and forty-five of age, were then clubbed to death, some decapitated, and tossed into the pit. Some were still alive, their fingers clawing at the earth in their final seconds, their final agony still preserved.

Graphic by Julie McMahon via news.illinois.edu

The mound itself, restored after the excavations, looks to be from the outside one of the least interesting in the entire complex. And most of the other mounds at Cahokia have not been excavated, protected now by Federal law that requires permission from the appropriate tribe before the land can be disturbed, even if that tribe is unknown and perhaps vanished. A few yards away, Mound 96 awaits, hinting that it holds similar secrets.

The content of these mounds seems so at odds to our Hollywood-enhanced image of what life was like in pre-Columbus America that we wonder if perhaps, somehow, this was some isolated thing, some weird Aztecan beliefs mysteriously transplanted up the Mississippi River.

Maybe, maybe not. In the early 1700s Antoine-Simon Le Page du Pratz lived in the French Louisiana colony, in what is today New Orleans and in Natchez, Mississippi, here living in close contact with the Indians. When he returned to France after sixteen years he eventually wrote a cultural and natural history of the land he saw and the Indians he knew, sharing them in twelve installments in a French journal of science and commerce, later collected and revised into his History of Louisiana, published in 1758.

This three-volume work contains chapters on his personal travels, the wars between the Indians and the French, details of the local rivers, the area’s geology, cultivation (especially the growing of tobacco), mining, trade with the Spaniards, a catalog of the region’s flora and fauna, the nature and governing of black slaves, and an encyclopedic examination of every aspect of the Natchez.

Le Page was a tall man with bright orange hair, and his writings reveal an active, curious mind. He was sensitive to the beauty around him, describing, for example, a spectacular and unusual sunset in his book as a “phenomenon,” admitting that words could not properly convey what he had observed.

The book is fascinating, one of those works you can open to almost any page and find something worth noting. In one passage he tells of his curiosity about the origins of the Natchez and learns of an Indian man in a nearby village who had the same question. The man, when he was young, had embarked on a quest which took him from modern-day Mississippi up to Niagara Falls and then west to the Pacific Ocean. You can imagine the interest this account had for Lewis and Clark who, in their small library, took along Le Page’s book.

The History of Louisiana also contains an account, witnessed by Le Page, of a funeral of a Natchez tribal leader. Though seven hundred years after the burials at Mound 72 this account provides further insight into the nature of the indigenous cultures as they were in the early years of contact with people from Europe and hints at what might have been part of the culture centuries before.

While he was there, one of the Suns of the tribe, Stung Serpent (in some translations called Tattooed Serpent), became ill and died. He was the brother of the Great Sun and they were in the top tier of what seems to have been a strictly defined hierarchical social structure. When one of the Suns died, especially someone like the brother of the Great Sun, many people were concerned about their own lives.

Le Page tells the story:

Among the Natchez the death of any of their Suns, as I have before observed, is a most fatal event; for it is sure to be attended with the destruction of a great number of people of both sexes. Early in the spring 1725, the Stung Serpent, who was the brother of the Great Sun, and my intimate friend, was seized with a mortal distemper, which filled the whole nation of the Natchez with the greatest consternation and terror; for the two brothers had mutually engaged to follow each other to the land of spirits; and if the Great Sun should kill himself for the sake of his brother, very many people would likewise be put to death.

The brother, the Great Sun, is suicidal and Le Page eventually convinces the Great Sun not to kill himself (and thus cause a doubling of additional sacrifices) although it seems to have been a close thing.

The Natchez society, as I have said, is described as strictly hierarchal but I’m not clear how ranks were assigned, although one could move up ranks by certain deeds. During the period of Stung Serpent’s death you can sense the negotiations going on in the background amongst the Indians, feeling for a way to minimize the necessary sacrifices while at the same time satisfying their obligations. Word goes out that the sacrifices will be mercifully limited only to Stung Serpent’s immediate household, sparing many others, but it is too late for one set of parents who took matters into their own hands, but not too late for other families to do their duty and save themselves.

Soon after the natives began the dance of death, and prepared for the funeral of the Stung Serpent. Orders were given to put none to death on that occasion, but those who were in the hut of the deceased. A child however had been strangled already by its father and mother, which ransomed their lives upon the death of the Great Sun and raised them from the rank of Stinkards to that of Nobles. Those who were appointed to die were conducted twice a day and placed in two rows before the temple, where they acted over the scene of their death, each accompanied by eight of their own relations who were to be their executioners, and by that office exempted themselves from dying upon the death of any of the Suns, and likewise raised themselves to the dignity of men of rank.

Stung Serpent is placed on a litter and paraded around the funeral hut.

Soon after the master of the ceremonies appeared in a red-feathered crown, which half encircled his head, having a red staff in his hand in the form of a cross, at the end of which hung a garland of black feathers. All the upper part of his body was painted red, excepting his arms, and from his girdle to his knees hung a fringe of feathers, the rows of which were alternately white and red. When he came before the hut of the deceased, he saluted him with a great hoo, and then began the cry of death, in which he was followed by the whole people. Immediately after the Stung Serpent was brought out on his bed of state, and was placed on a litter, which six of the guardians of the temple bore on their shoulders. The procession then began, the master of the ceremonies walking first, and after him the oldest warrior, holding in one hand the pole with the rings of canes, and in the other the pipe of war, a mark of the dignity of the deceased. Next followed the corpse, after which came those who were to die at the interment. The whole procession went three times round the hut of the deceased, and then those who carried the corpse proceeded in a circular kind of march, every turn intersecting the former, until they came to the temple. At every turn the dead child was thrown by its parents before the bearers of the corpse, that they might walk over it; and when the corpse was placed in the temple the victims were immediately strangled. The Stung Serpent and his two wives were buried in the same grave within the temple; the other victims were interred in different parts, and after the ceremony they burnt, according to custom, the hut of the deceased.

Le page’s drawing of the funeral of Stung Serpent with people of his household about to be garroted by members of their own family

The Natchez were not mound-builders and many of the details of the burial recounted by Le Page are different from those at Cahokia, but the similarities—including the descriptions of the human sacrifices that accompany the death of important personages—echo the grave-mounds at Cahokia, though on a smaller scale. But Natchez lived in a series of villages, the Cahokia in what was by almost any definition, a city, where perhaps everything was on a larger scale.

By happenstance, while I was working on this post I was reading a book on Viking history—Children of Ash and Elm by Neil Price. I know little of Viking history and was surprised to learn that some Vikings were mound builders, for their dead. Probably no connection, other than something universal amongst humans, but the echo was striking to me. In addition, the timing of the fall of Cahokia and its abandonment gave me pause, coming only a few years after Vikings seemed to have reached the mainland of North America.

Leif Erikson is known to every school kid as the first European to reach the mainland, the accounts of his voyage not long after the year 1000 known to us from written sagas two hundred years later. The idea of Indian contact with Europeans offers the possibility of the transfer of smallpox which would match up well with the timing of the final chapter of Cahokia over the next few hundred years. Pure, evidenceless conjecture but intriguing. Also intriguing—the very saga that is given as evidence for Erikson’s discovery tells that he was not the first—on that voyage he rescued two shipwrecked people of his own kind. Later voyages came across a ship’s keel. No doubt Viking vessels had been blown off course into mainland North America for as long as ships had sailed near Greenland, and even earlier.

Most famous from Price’s history of the Vikings is the journal of Ahmad ibn Fadlān, a diplomat sent to the far north from Bagdad in the early 10th century, about a hundred years before Erikson’s discovery of mainland North America. Ibn Fadlān’s record of his trip is another one of those fascinating first-hand accounts from ages past, like Le Page’s History of Louisiana, which can prove to so rewarding. The relevant part of the journals to our story here is his first-hand description of a funeral of an important Viking, a member of a trading party deep inland, which took place on the Volga River. It is the only eyewitness account of a Viking funeral known and, although they did not build a mound, there are similarities to the remains found at Cahokia. Again, conjecture, but stimulating conjecture.

In my book, Computational Photography, one of the essays tells the story of ibn Fadlān’s journey, recounted in a voice I imagined not dissimilar to that of a CNN anchor, announcing the story in real-time as it breaks. The Vikings are known in this story as the Rūs and this is the funeral:

An important man dies while ibn Fadlān is staying near the market, and the Rūs, knowing of his great curiosity, invite him to witness the funeral rites.

First they bury the man, building a hut over the grave and leave the body there for ten days while the preparations go on. The slave girls and young slave boys are assembled at this time and the Rūs ask for volunteers from among them. A slave girl volunteers herself. Two young slave girls are assigned to watch over her. She is treated like a princess, the other two even wash her feet. She drinks heavily. Everyone drinks heavily.

They anchor a boat to the shore, building a wooden construction to hold it. They place in the boat a bed and expensive cushions brocaded in Byzantine silk. An old woman, a witch, spreads the bedclothes. The dead man is dug up from the earth, black-skinned but otherwise unchanged. There is no stink of death. They place containers of alcoholic beverages in the boat with the dead man, dress him all manner of clothes, some with gold buttons. They sit him upright and bring him fruit, bread, meat, onions, and basil for his enjoyment.

His dog is brought in, then cut in two, placed in the boat. Then his weapons are brought aboard. His horses are run to exhaustion, then chopped in pieces, then two cows, then two chickens, all chopped up and thrown into the boat.

The slave girl, while all of this is being tended to, goes from house to house and has sex with each of the important men. They do this for the dead man. They tell the slave girl, “Tell your master that I only did this for your love of him.”

On the last day the slave girl is led to a frame that has been built off the ground and she is hoisted up to it three times. It appears as though she is looking through a pretend door or window and she reports back each time that she sees different views of the land of the dead. The girl gives the witch her bracelets, gives her anklets to the two other slave girls who have been attending to her. She drinks still more, bidding her friends good-bye and the witch encourages her to continue drinking and she does so, drinking and singing for a long time.

Men come down in front of the boat and begin a racket, banging on their shields to drown out all noise inside the boat. So the other slave girls cannot hear. The witch escorts the slave girl onto the boat. Six men enter the boat and take the girl and each in turn has sex with her. When they are finished they lay her beside the dead man.

Two of the men grab her feet, two her hands. The witch takes a thin cord and wraps it around the girl’s neck, giving each end to the remaining two men.

I should mention that this next section contains graphic elements that may be unsuitable for some readers. I probably should have said something a few paragraphs ago. Please use discretion.

The four men holding her ankles and arms hold her fast. The two men holding the ends of the cord grasp it tightly and pull with all their might, the cord digging deep into the flesh, a ring of blood circling of the girl’s neck. The witch—the translator of ibn Fadlān’s words calls her the Angel of Death—draws a broad-bladed dagger and repeatedly stabs the girl in the chest, the blade sliding in expertly between her ribs.

The ceremony upon the boat complete, the closest male relative of the dead man, walks backward toward the vessel, naked, casting a flaming stick to the dry wood piled below it. Others follow, adding their flames to the fire. A wind picks up. Soon the boat is engulfed.

A Rūs teases ibn Fadlān. Asks if he and his people are fools. “Why put your dead into the earth for the worms to feast upon when they could be set to flames and arrive in Paradise within an hour?”

Remember Price’s thoughts about interpreting archeological finds that I mentioned in part one of my Cahokia posts, that all that we see is the equivalent of the end of the final scene of Hamlet, the bodies arrayed on the stage. What was the story that caused these deaths? What sort of society did they live in? Accounts such as those by Le Page and ibn Fadān offer such valuable insights on both the way things were and, when we have to guess, the ways things may have been.


This is part two of a two-part article. Part one is here.

This post is from a series of articles chronicling a 2020 cross-country trip with my wife and two daughters and a boyfriend, from California to Ohio (to visit family) and Pennsylvania (to drop off my oldest daughter at grad school), and then back. We spent over five weeks on the road during the pandemic.

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