Tag Archives: United States

Cahokia: America’s first city

[Thank you all for returning to my blog after a two month hiatus!  The exceptionally busy time is past, and I can resume writing.  I’ve missed sharing these with you!]

Because I grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, driving back and forth across I-70 has always seemed like a birthright.  When I attended the 2017 ASMS conference in Indianapolis, driving there from my parents’ home in KC seemed an obvious choice.  On my way back to KC, though, I stopped at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site.  A comment from my brother had jogged my memory of Guns, Germs, and Steel, a core text of human anthropology.  The Mississippian cultural tradition, to which Cahokia belongs, could have been one of the original “Cradles of Civilization,” and I wanted to see it first hand.

At first glance, Cahokia is visually marked by the massive Monks Mound (with a base covering 14 acres / 57,000 m²) and many nearby mounds.  What makes this site significant?  Cahokia represents the first urban settlement within the borders of the United States.  Researchers have estimated that its population approached 20,000 citizens at its peak, between 1050 and 1100 A.D.  This development was possible because of plant domestication along the Mississippi River, starting as early as 3000 B.C. with squash, sunflower, and marsh elder.  The rise of Cahokia, however, probably coincides strongly with the arrival of corn, domesticated in central America.  Farming made city development possible, since adequate food supply allows diversification of labor into different functional roles.  I borrowed my title for this post, by the way, from William Iseminger’s book detailing decades of archaeological research at Cahokia.

I have mentioned several World Heritage Sites in my travels, such as the Great Wall of China, the Historic Center of Warsaw in Poland, or even the Cape Floral Region of South Africa.  The United States of America offers a total of 23 sites on the World Heritage list, and Cahokia Mounds was added to this list in 1982, putting it on a parallel with Mesa Verde or the Statue of Liberty!  It seems unfortunate, then, that Cahokia has never been granted National Historic Landmarks protection from the National Parks Service.  Instead, the State Historic Site has scraped together enough funds to acquire around half of the land originally covered by Cahokia; many of the original mounds of the city, in fact, have already been lost as farmers consolidated fields and as St. Louis expanded its reach.  The destruction of Powell Mound, the marker for the western boundary of Cahokia, illustrates the pressures on this site.

Walking around the site


Monks Mound (Mound 38) is the tallest structure remaining at Cahokia.

If I may reverse the order of the walking tour, I would start at Monks Mound itself, “North America’s biggest prehistoric earthen structure.”  In some respects, the mound represents a high platform (~100 feet above ground level) built atop a lower platform (~35 feet above ground level).  The name comes from a group of Trappist monks who farmed atop the lower platform during 1809-1813.  One might naturally ask of the mounds “what’s in there?”  In fact, several of the mounds have flat tops, and that’s because they served as platforms for important buildings; one will not find buried treasure in this type of mound!  It is worth noting that the mound builders lacked some key tools, such as the wheel and axle.  All the clay and mud of this mound was taken from a nearby “borrow pit” by individuals with baskets or pots and then walked to the construction site.  Recent research suggests that Monks Mound was built within a span of 20 years!


The view toward St. Louis from atop Monks Mound

The view from atop the mound is stellar.  The Mississippi River flood plain is vast and flat, so 100 feet of elevation is enough to see quite far.  In the picture above, you should be able to see the St. Louis Arch, at a distance of approximately ten miles.  This high elevation was home to a temple, courtyard, and high pole, with the temple measuring 104 by 48 feet.  The mound sends a clear statement about who ruled Cahokia, much as the massive construction of the Forbidden City sent that message in Beijing.

If Monks Mound represented Cahokia’s Capitol Hill, where was the city?  The large field in which I was standing for the first photo has been named as the Grand Plaza.  The 40 or 50 acres of ground are almost completely flat.  As our tour guide said, “Illinois is flat, but it’s not that flat.”  In fact, archaeologists have produced evidence that the Cahokians leveled the area by adding fill dirt of up to three feet across this large area, then added a sandy surface atop it.  The area likely played a fair number of community roles, not least of which was the field where athletes would try their hands at chunkey, a sport where players would compete to roll small stone discs onto the playing field and then launch a stick to land as close as possible to where the stone would stop its roll.


The Twin Mounds appear to have served as a ceremonial center for funerary rites.

The Grand Plaza extended south to the Twin Mounds.  Mounds 59 and 60 are approximately half a kilometer away from Monks Mound, and they appear to have functioned as a “charnel house” or site for funerary rites.  Mound 60 was a platform mound, so it is likely to have had a structure constructed atop it.  Mound 59 is not a platform mound but rather a conical structure named “Round Top”– it appears to the right in the photo above.  When these conical mounds have been excavated at other sites, they frequently contain burials; respect for the dead is one of the reasons that Round Top has not been formally excavated.  Since much of this site was unprotected for years, though, Round Top was occasionally pilfered by the curious.  The link for Mound 59 relates a story from 1915 of boys who began digging for treasure in Round Top.  They found a skeleton with a copper serpent on its chest.  One of the boys claimed it as his own, and it has been lost to history.

Formal archaeology has continued at this site for decades, of course, and one of the most interesting stories has come from Mound 72.  To an untrained eye, the mound appears quite small and dull.  Its unusual orientation and location away from others, however, drew attention from researchers beginning in 1967.  In total, the remains of 270 different people have been found in the mound.  Most of them appear to have been young women, killed ritually, but a group of 39 skeletons seem to represent individuals who died in violent chaos.  Their mass burial completely contrasts with the “beaded burial,” an individual lying atop twenty thousand beads made from shells imported from the Gulf of Mexico.  Certainly mound 72 demonstrates that residents of Cahokia were not held to be equal after death.


The palisade wall stretched two miles, a thousand years ago!

Cahokia was protected from possible attack by a two-mile palisade.  This wall ran outside Monks Mound, around the Grand Plaza, and encompassed even the Twin Mounds.  Rather than building the wall of masonry, as practiced by the Chinese in constructing an early segment of the Great Wall, the Cahokians cut down young trees, stripped their branches, burned the ends to prevent decay, and buried the ends in a long trench.  Since the trees rotted with time, the wall needed frequent replacement.  This demand for timber was apparently a big driver in the deforestation of this area next to the Mississippi River.

Early civilizations sought to regularize the cultivation of crops, and the Cahokians constructed “Woodhenge” to show the changing seasons.  A circle of tall poles are found to the west of Monks Mound.  At the equinoxes, the sun rises directly behind Monks Mound from that vantage.  Archaeologists have found evidence for at least five different constructions of Woodhenge on this site, ranging up to 476 feet in diameter.  Today, Woodhenge is somewhat separated from the rest of the Cahokia site as the nearby town continues to develop.  The atmosphere of the calendar is diminished only a bit by the gas station across the street.

Cahokia in context

How did Cahokia rate in the world of 1000 A.D.?  As I mentioned above, Cahokia was missing some key resources.  The Americas lacked the invention of the wheel (as well as domesticated animals for pulling wagons), and Cahokia is prehistoric by definition since the population had not developed a written language.  Cahokia had very little ability to work with metals; most of its copper came from up north, and they lacked techniques to smelt it, for example, to produce bronze.  Once corn arrived at Cahokia, its cultivation swiftly exhausted the soil since beans were not available for crop rotation.  These are some pretty big barriers to the longevity of this city!


Porcelain figurines from the Song Dynasty (National Museum of China)

By comparison, we might look at four cities that were the greatest successes of 1000 A.D: Córdoba, Baghdad, Constantinople, and Kaifeng.  Córdoba and Baghdad were enjoying the “Golden Age of Islam.”  Córdoba was the capital of its Caliphate under the Umayyad dynasty, and its population may have reached a half million inhabitants (about twenty-five Cahokias).  Baghdad, on the other hand, had already crested a million in population by this time under the Abbasids, who made it a renowned center of learning.  Byzantium had endured for almost a thousand years when it became Constantinople in 330 A.D., serving as the new capital for the Roman empire; by 1000 the city was experiencing the Macedonian Renaissance, with a population somewhere between that of Córdoba and Baghdad.  Kaifeng had been selected as a capital by the Song Dynasty of China when they came to power in 960.  The population of 400,000 struggled with typhus, but the armies this city controlled were sophisticated enough to use gunpowder in siege warfare!

Compare these major cities with Cahokia in the same era.  Its less diverse agriculture, limited availability of soft metal, and oral tradition without a written language forecast an unhappy fate when its descendants met those of the East.  In fact, one of the great mysteries for Cahokia is discerning which native American tribes are most related to the great Mississippian city!  By the time De Soto reached the Mississippi River in 1541, Cahokia had long since been abandoned.  A 2004 exhibit by the National Endowment for the Humanities attempted to show the richness of the culture that existed before contact with Europeans.  Tragically, that first contact led to plagues that ravaged the indigenous inhabitants of North America well before colonists began moving their boundaries westward.  To visit Cahokia, though, is to witness a high point of the culture of native America.

Bang for the buck: U.S. aid to South Africa

Out of $4 trillion dollars in the U.S. federal budget, how much is spent on foreign aid?  While most people in a recent poll thought it was around a quarter of the annual budget, the true answer is around one percent.  In this post, I want to explain two key programs that have impacted my new home country: PEPFAR and AGOA.  The United States plays a substantial role in making the future of South Africa brighter!

PEPFAR: Curtailing the epidemic of HIV/AIDS


During the first eight years of the millennium, I rarely had anything positive to say about the President of the United States.  President George W. Bush, though, signed into law the “U.S. Leadership Against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria Act of 2003,” which transformed medical care in southern Africa.  His name is still respected in South Africa because of this law; it yielded the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).  This program has been renewed twice by bipartisan vote, in 2008 and 2014.  In the thirteenth year of the program, PEPFAR supported anti-retroviral treatment (ART) for 11.5 million people living with the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), with that number having climbed by 50% since 2014.  Some two million babies have been born without HIV from mothers who carry the virus.  This is an amazing accomplishment, and it couldn’t have come at a more critical time.

The HIV crisis in South Africa began as it did in the United States, with AIDS appearing in the community of gay men during the early 1980s.  Cases were documented in the heterosexual community in 1987.  By 1990, the crisis had begun to grow rapidly.  It is worth noting that South Africa was coping with tremendous changes during this period as the Apartheid government was compelled to cede power; Nelson Mandela was released from prison in February of 1990.  When he became President in 1994, however, the new government was unable to do much about the growing epidemic.  1996 was a watershed year for HIV as ART was announced, and the first drugs became publicly available (though expensive).  In 1999, Thabo Mbeki was elected President, and the public thought that HIV prevention and treatment might become a priority under his leadership.  His Presidential AIDS Advisory Panel, however, was dominated by HIV denialists / “AIDS dissidents” who claimed the virus had nothing to do with AIDS.  Not only were ART drugs not made available widely, but ART was withheld from pregnant women carrying the virus.  Nelson Mandela re-entered the debate in 2000 by a powerful closing speech at a Durban international conference on AIDS.  The topic became even more personal to him when his son died of AIDS in 2005.  Against this complex historical background, the prevalence of heterosexually transmitted HIV-AIDS was surging.  “By 1994, this had risen to 7.6%, and by 2005 was 30.2%, with an estimated 5.5 million of South Africa’s 47 million people infected.  An estimated 1000 new HIV infections and 900 AIDS deaths occurred each day” [Giliomee and Mbenga, p. 418].

PEPFAR has a tremendous role to play in today’s South Africa.  The program currently estimates that 7,000,000 people in the country are living with HIV, with approximately half protected by ART.  180,000 people die of AIDS each year in South Africa. “South Africa now has the largest number of patients on anti-retroviral drugs in the world, and South African life expectancy has increased by more than a decade.” [Bekker et al.]  Just imagine the impact if PEPFAR were no longer paying for HIV treatment!

Please be aware that there have been changes in the Trump Administration that suggest this program may be in trouble.  It is no exaggeration to say that real people will die without PEPFAR.

AGOA: “Trade, not Aid!”


Debate may never end over the best way for wealthy nations to support the growth of poor nations.  When wealthy countries give food aid to poor nations, those efforts can undermine the economic growth of agriculture in those countries.  The African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) was enacted in 2000, the last year of Bill Clinton’s presidency.  You may be thinking, “gosh, another economic treaty I need to know about!”  In fact, AGOA is not a treaty.  AGOA is a unilateral decision by the United States to drop taxes and quotas on imports of particular goods from countries in sub-Saharan Africa.  The program began by including 34 countries and soon expanded to 40.  After the first fifteen-year run of the program, the U.S. Congress decided to renew AGOA for an additional ten years in 2015.  Each year, the President decides exactly which countries will be extended these benefits.

The metrics for AGOA success paint a somewhat equivocal picture.  The 2016 biennial report shows $23.5 billion in exports from Sub-Saharan Africa in the year 2000.  This number grew to $86.1 billion in the year 2008 before falling back to $18.5 billion in 2015.  This might seem an abject failure, but much of the decline reflects reduced oil exports to the United States and the worldwide recession of 2009.  Most Sub-Saharan countries, of course, would like to export to the world’s biggest economy!  America, in turn, uses this desire to requiring development toward “a market-based economy; the rule of law, political pluralism, and the right to due process; the elimination of barriers to U.S. trade and investment; economic policies to reduce poverty; a system to combat corruption and bribery; and the protection of internationally recognized worker rights” [2016 biennial report, p. 8].  Essentially, the United States waives taxes on imports from countries that behave as the United States would like to see.

South Africa has had an interesting story within the framework of AGOA.  As the continent’s most advanced and diversified economy, South Africa was a bit of a question mark for inclusion in the 2015 renewal of the law.  Did it make sense to give these trade benefits to an economy that was already moving rapidly?  South Africa made itself a less attractive trade partner by raising trade barriers against American farmers exporting meat to South Africa, which caused them to violate the “elimination of barriers to U.S. trade” rule above.  At the start of 2016, the situation had deteriorated enough that Barack Obama suspended AGOA benefits for South Africa.  This action was enough to convince the foot-dragging South African government to drop its trade barriers, and so South Africa is once again an AGOA beneficiary in good standing.

What will happen to AGOA under the Trump Administration? Although President Trump has been ambivalent on the subject of free trade, he has not signaled that he will seek to end AGOA either by unlisting all participant countries or seeking the repeal of AGOA through the Congress.  Africans do not expect great things from President Trump, though.  His Tweets about South Africa have had a generally negative tone.

In the end, South Africa is proud of its ability to take care of its own problems.  If AGOA comes to an end, the country will lose one of its best customers for fruits and vegetables, and the automobile industry growing in the Eastern Cape would suffer.  The loss of PEPFAR, on the other hand, would devastate health care in South Africa.  The economy of South Africa is not strong enough to bear the cost of supporting ART on this scale.  The country already relies on the permissive, pro-public health intellectual property laws of India to have access to generic ART.  We can all hope that the PEPFAR and AGOA relationships between South Africa and the United States continue under President Trump!

It’s Republican, not Republican’t!

My high school debate coach once gave me a very sage piece of advice.  Mrs. Brady explained that I should not combat the argument made by my opponents, since they might not have used the best words possible.  Instead, I should infer the central idea to which their arguments pointed and argue against that instead.  Her advice has stayed with me more than two decades.  Today I want to look at the current state of the Republican Party in the United States, using that perspective.

As President Obama recently noted, the United States is strongest when both its political parties are contributing ideas to the political process.  Several forces, however, have reduced the ability of Democrats and Republicans to exchange ideas in the Senate, the House of Representatives, and in state legislative bodies.  Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein are political historians who have evaluated these forces, concluding that the Republican party has raised expectations of change in its base that are not achievable; as a result, Republican voters have sought candidates who are ever more unwilling to find compromise with Democrats in Congress.  Changes in individual members of Congress have led to a substantial shift to the right among Congressional Republicans.  The creation of “safe seats” through gerrymandering has helped to perpetuate extreme ideology in some politicians.  The gap between parties has made our legislature brittle, in my view, rather than flexible and solution-driven.

As Barnard Baruch wrote, “Every man has a right to his own opinion, but no man has a right to be wrong in his facts.”  Unfortunately, many citizens now seem to believe that the media cannot be trusted to report facts faithfully.  Instead they turn to media that embrace an explicit conservative or liberal bias, producing an echo-chamber effect.  Political polarization and even radicalization is the natural result, producing an electorate that cannot see any value in the other party.

My own politics are generally liberal, but I still see that America needs a functional conservative party.  What I do not know is whether that party will come about through the dissolution of the Republican Party (as happened to the Whigs in the 1850s) or through its reform.  Why do I think the Republican Party of today is in trouble?  First, I believe that their manufactured debt ceiling crises and government shutdowns represent a lack of moderation in method.  Next, I would point out that the Speaker of the House found his job unmanageable, even with a large majority of the seats taken by his own party.  The different factions within the Republican Party simply could not agree on a path forward.  The most compelling argument that the Republican Party has lost its way, however, is that it has nominated a populist, demagogic candidate for the Presidency who differs substantially from party orthodoxy on many issues.

With so much disarray among today’s Republicans, it may be hard to remember that conservatives have quite a lot to offer.  With the remainder of this post, I thought I would try to spell out some of the value that a conservative party can offer America.

Constructive Engagement
Randolph Churchill once explained that “The duty of an Opposition is to oppose.”  This tautology does not imply that whatever Democrats may propose should be automatically gainsaid by Republicans.  When the Republicans did not have the numbers in the Senate to block the Affordable Care Act, their strategy of preventing its passage was probably not sound.  If they had instead engaged with the Democrats in moderating its provisions to make it a better law, the United States would have a better health care law.  Making the best future requires the contributions of conservatives and liberals alike.
A Rudder
Everyone recognizes that the world is changing at a brisk pace.  Historically, conservative political parties have sought to moderate the influence of new ideas.  Their efforts help to relate the dynamic present to the past.  Today, America is filled with people who feel that their world has been taken away from them.  We cannot return to the past, but we can certainly do a better job of making room for the alienated among us.  For conservatives to stoke the fears of this group is beyond counter-productive; it is their role to see that our future honors and learns from our past.
Financial Discipline
To their credit, Republicans talk quite a lot about keeping government expenses down.  To their discredit, Republicans have done quite a lot in recent years to ensure that government finances are abysmal (see “Starve the Beast“).  Americans now pay lower taxes than most other developed nations, but one would never believe that by listening to most rhetoric on the subject.  Since most government spending is on security, health, and Social Security, meaningful cuts in government expenditures require changes to these carefully protected categories.  In this case, financial discipline would mean that conservatives should at least consider increasing taxes or decreasing the armed services
Limited Government and Individualism
Is government over-reach a real thing?  Assuredly.  We would all feel threatened if the government began shutting down newspapers that published anti-administration articles.  The United States has recently come to believe that the government cannot dictate that men must marry women and vice versa.  Individual freedoms are the heart and soul of the Bill of Rights!  Conservatives have generally sought to protect these freedoms, but we have also seen conservatives on the other side when those freedoms weren’t ones they supported.  A government that grows so large that taxes become oppressive should be opposed by conservatives.  A government that regulates business so egregiously that new businesses falter should be opposed by conservatives.  This expansion and contraction is an ongoing dialog between conservatives and liberals.

The United States deserves a thriving conservative party. We will see what party emerges from today’s conservative community.