Friday, June 10, 2011

Cahokia, Native American Urban Center on the Mississippi

 The Mississippian center of Cahokia, in Illinois across the Mississippi from St. Louis, is one of the great cities of the ancient world. I have a special reason for discussing Cahokia now: there is a challenge taking place to raise funds to help preserve the site. This is the "This Place Matters Community Challenge,"  a contest presented by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  The top three sites will receive a cash prize to help preserve their site.  The challenge hopes to "highlight the important role that historic buildings and properties play in preserving our national heritage as well as in preserving our environment." While I don't want to belittle the other historical structures and districts that are participating, in my mind none of them is anywhere close to Cahokia in its world importance. Please go to the website and cast your vote for Cahokia. And here are some reasons why you should do that.

Monk's mound, home of the chief

  • Of all the known traditions of ancient urbanism around the world, the Mississippian cities are among the most poorly known. Their builders used earth instead of stone for their monuments, many of which have not survived well. There is a long-standing bias against recognizing the achievements of Native Americans and their ancestors, part of which is a common attitude that they built only ceremonial centers, not true cities. Yet Cahokia and many other Mississippian centers can easily be classified as "urban."
  • Arrow points from elite burials
  • If one takes the demographic approach to defining urbanism, the 20,000 to 30,000 inhabitants of Cahokia and their economic and political complexity classify it as a city. And if one takes the functional definition of urbanism, the political, religious, and economic activities at the city served larger hinterlands, thus putting Cahokia into the category of a city. (See my earlier discussion of definitions of urbanism here).

  • The chiefs or kings of Cahokia were powerful rulers. The size of their main palace, Monk's Mound is evidence of this, and rich burials point to an elite class as well (see the photo of hundreds of  
    Excavation of the palisade 
    arrow points from elite burial offerings). Warfare was common during Mississippian times, and a large palisade was built around the center of the city (photo).
  • Stone drills and shell ornaments
    This was a complex economy. Imports from all over eastern North America have been excavated at Cahokia, and goods and styles from the city were found hundreds of miles away. Craft production was both an economic force and an aesthetic activity. The photo shows hundreds of chipped stone drills, used to manufacture beads and other ornaments from stone.
  • The Birger figurine
  • The people of Cahokia had a rich religious life, with many family-level and city-level ceremonies. One important find was this stone figure of a woman cultivating crops, with a squash vine running up her back. It is known as the "Birger figurine" after the owner of the property where it wasexcavated. It is from the "BBB Motors site" just east of Cahokia proper, a village associated with Cahokia. This is a special site to me, since this is where I had my archaeological fieldschool with Chuck Bareis back in the 1970s. We didn't find the figurine, though. We excavated a bunch of test pits, and later the plow zone was stripped off with heavy machinery (and they found the figurine).
  • The "woodhenge"
  • Another type of ceremony focused on astronomical observations. Cahokia's priest-scientists built the "woodhenge", a circular arrangement of poles used for sighting sunrise and sunset on important annual dates. Like so many intellectual activities in ancient cultures, this was part science, part ritual, and part politics.

    From the perspective of the Wide Urban World, Cahokia presents an important addition to the roster of urban forms around the world. It was a city by any definition, but a distinctive city from a tradition of urbanism that is not widely known or appreciated. The site needs better preservation today, and you can help by following the links to the contest.


    Finally, here is what the Cahokia Mounds people have to say about why you should vote for Cahokia:
    This place matters to our community because it is a place that preserves the cultural and historical remains of this 1000 year-old economic, residential, and religious center of Mississippian culture. Cahokia was the center of a large metropolitan complex that included four other major mound centers, a number of single-mound local centers, and numerous small villages, hamlets and farmsteads.  Evidence of Cahokia's influence has been found as far away as Minnesota, Florida, Oklahoma, and Georgia.  The state property preserves the central portion of the site, but about 1/3 of the original city lies outside of this boundary and is threatened by contemporary activities.  Funds are needed to acquire and preserve these threatened areas.   Our community stands to lose much information about America's first city if 1/3 of the site is destroyed.  Not only does this site preserve and interpret Mississippian culture for our community, the nation, and the world, but it also fosters a sense of preservation and prehistoric appreciation, educates on the science of archaeology, and the achievements of ancient Native Americans. This place matters to all Americans, and is a pivotal point in American History that deserves to be shared.
    Again, click here for the link to the contest

    To read more about Cahokia, try some of these works:

    Emerson, Thomas E.
    1997    Cahokia and the Archaeology of Power. University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa.

    Fowler, Melvin L.
    1989    The Cahokia Atlas: A Historical Atlas of Cahokia Archaeology. Studies in Illinois Archaeology. Illinois Historical Preservation Agency, Springfield.

    Iseminger, William R.
    1996    Mighty Cahokia. Archaeology 49(3):30-37.

    Milner, George R.
    1998    The Cahokia Chiefdom. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC.

    Pauketat, Timothy R.
    2009    Cahokia: Ancient America's Great City on the Mississippi. Viking, New York.

    Young, Biloine Whiting and Melvin L. Fowler
    2000    Cahokia: The Great Native American Metropolis. University of Illinois Press, Urbana.

    Also, check out the website for Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site.

    I want to thank Elyse Butler, a Graduate Research Assistant at Cahokia Mounds, for bringing the contest to my attention, and for supplying the text quoted above.

    Thursday, June 9, 2011

    Evolutionary biology and cooperation in urban neighborhoods

    Binghamton, NY
    I have just come across some current research by evolutionary biologists and anthropologists on social life and cooperation in urban neighborhoods. I first ran into the Binghamton Neighborhood Project: Science-Based Solutions to Real-World Problems in Our Community  by accident on the internet. This seems at first a strange project: the website mostly talks about community involvement issues: liveable communities, designing parks, relations with city hall and the like. But on their publications page, the articles consist of applications of evolutionary biology to neighborhood organization. David Sloan Wilson, a prominent biologist at Binghamton, is the author of some of the papers. Here are some examples: 

    O'Brien, Daniel Tumminelli
    2009    Sociality in the City: Using Biological Principles to Explore the Relationship Between High Population Density and Social Behavior. In Advances in Sociology Research, edited by Jared A. Jaworski, pp. 1-14, vol. 8. Nova Science Publishers.

    Wilson, David Sloan and Daniel Tumminelli O’Brien
    2009    Evolutionary Theory and Cooperation in Everyday Life. In Games, Groups, and the Global Good, edited by Simon A. Levin, pp. 155-168. Springer, New York.

    Wilson, David Sloan, Daniel Tumminelli O'Brien, and Artura Sesma
    2009    Human Prosociality from an Evolutionary Perspective: Variation and Correlations at a City-Wide Scale. Evolution and Human Behavior 30(3):190-200.

    Low income housing in Newcastle
    Next, I found an ad for a talk at Binghamton in April 2011, by evolutionary anthropologist Daniel Nettle (of Newcastle University, UK), on a similar topic: "The Tyneside Neighbournood Project: Investigating the Behavioural Ecology of a British City." I rooted around a bit to see if Nettle had published his work, but this is a current project that hasn't come out yet in print. But, Nettle's talk was recorded, and is available on the internet here

    This is a fascinating talk. Nettle works in the field of behavioral ecology and evolutionary anthropology, and he applies these perspectives to differences in cooperation and social life in two neighborhoods in Newcastle. He describes the settings (a poor and a wealthy neighborhood) and investigates how three methodological approaches to cooperation and social behavior relate to one another: economic games, social capital surveys, and observation of behavior.

    I have not read the Binghamton papers yet, but Nettle has got me thinking about how research on cooperation (one of the BIG TOPICS in both the social and biological sciences right now) relates to urban neighborhoods. What can neighborhoods tell us about human processes of cooperation? And what can cooperation within neighborhoods tell us about the Wide Urban World?

    Tuesday, June 7, 2011

    The city as a practical machine

    Egyptian workers village
    This phrase, "the city as a practical machine," is taken from Kevin Lynch's important book, A Theory of Good City Form (MIT Press, 1981). Lynch talks about temporary constructions like military camps, cities built for protection, and colonial cities. These are settlements built quickly in order to address particular practical concerns.

    I am working on a new analysis of this kind of settlement. So far I have a provisional classification, and in the fall a group of students will refine this and carry out analyses and comparisons of various types of practical settlements that fit Lynch's overall category. This is part of the research project, "Urban Organization Through the Ages: Neighborhoods, Open Spaces, and Urban Life."

    Here are some of the types:
    Pullman, IL: the original company town

    • Settlements for workers. These include modern company towns, mining camps, and ancient Egyptian workers villages. The idea was to keep workers clustered near their jobs, and isolated from the surrounding society.
    Roman military camp

    • Military settlements, including temporary camps and more permanent forts.

    Japanese-American internment camp

    • Prisons and internment camps. I refer here to large prison complexes, and internment camps such as the European death camps, or internment camps for Japanese-Americans, during World War II.
    Civil War refugee camp

    • Refugee camps, including both planned and unplanned examples.

    • Disaster camps, from Haiti to ancient examples.
    Church revival camp

    • Voluntary assemblies. These include religious revival camps, and perhaps festivals like the Burning Man festival (I discussed these previously under "temporary cities").

    In addition there are some other settlements and architectural types that may fit here:
    • Colonial or imperial cities (e.g., Greek colonies, or Spanish grid towns in Latin America).
    • Urban institutional facilities (e.g., prisons, state storage facilities, inner-city public housing).

     So what do these various settlements have in common? As pointed out by Lynch, they are practical settlements, built for a specific purposes, often in haste and often as a temporary settlement. They tend to have some common spatial attributes, including highly planned layouts and physical separation from other settlements.

    What can they tell us about urbanization in general? Well, this is a major question for our research project next fall. Stay tuned for more information.