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Coopers Corner April 2020


Every day we hear virus virus virus. We are all tired of hearing it and want things to return to normal.  Rest assured, they will, because they always do. But really, it will be a new normal, because things are always changing. But our new normal will be a lot more the same than prehistoric peoples experienced.

First, they had no idea of what was infecting them.  We know these nearly invisible cells are the culprit. I find it interesting that science isn’t really certain what they are, and don’t classify them as “living.” That is because they don’t do anything but replicate. They don’t eat or perform any of the usual functions defined as life. They are biologically simple, with just 30,000 genomes compared to our 3 billion. But we know what they are. Prehistoric peoples thought evil spirits or angry gods. They blamed the Christians when a pandemic struck, not because of the Christian’s beliefs, but because the Christians didn’t perform their supplications at the temples. They thought the Christians made the gods angry, thus the pandemic.  

The history of Europe is full of great battles, plagues, religious struggles, lengthy wars; the rising and falling empires, monarchies and legendary leaders.  We know all of this because of writing. As archaeologists uncovered long gone cities in Mesopotamia, they found small tablets with marks on them, which they realized was a long gone writing system. With enough research, they deciphered the code and were able to reach back into thousands of years of history. This has happened time and again, with the histories of China, Rome, Babylon, Assyria, Israel, India and other counties coming to light. The history of these past worlds is fascinating.

But when you come to the Americas, virtually nothing is known. We have an Aztec history which recounts their origin myths. We have the last few centuries of Peru thanks to Spanish chroniclers recording oral traditions. But that is all. The rest is shrouded in the mists of time. We have small clues in the artifacts we uncover and cities that still show evidence of their existence. But there are no tales of kings, empires, knights, plagues or religious struggles. All we can do is essentially “read the bones.”

This lack of writing doesn’t say that great and amazing histories equal to any of those in Europe and Asia didn’t occur here. It just doesn’t share the details. The last years of the Aztecs and Incas were fraught with power struggles and wars. Each Empire could mass armies of immense size. A few years ago I heard a researcher say the when Columbus landed there were 25 million people in the Old World, and 32 million in the New World! This implies that perhaps much more was going on here than across the oceans. We just don’t know about it.

Archaeologists studied North America with rabid interest for more than 100 years. From the 1850s to the 1980s digs and research abounded. Their discoveries came none too soon, as our modern population swelled and virtually obliterated the evidence of past peoples. Most of the vast earthworks of the Hopewell today are just marks on the earth revealed by ground penetrating radar. Many Mississippian Mound complexes were utilized for railroad fill dirt. We have no idea if there were other sites like the Mid Archaic period Watsons Break. Poverty Point was only recognized by reviewing photographs taken from the air. These two sites were part of a massive movement in North America at the same time the Pyramids were being built. This is the same time as the Israelites were leaving Egypt and the Trojan War was being fought. Surely similar events were happening here, we just do not know anything about them. Cahokia dumfounded early archaeologists.  As late as the 1930s, geologists were arguing that Monks Mound was a geologic feature and not manmade. Once it was realized that this truly was a monumental city around the year 1100, most archaeologists were amazed. Here was a population center bigger than London at the same time. Recent study has shown it was a planned city. One archaeologist, Dr. Melvin Fowler, used mathematics and was able to pinpoint ancient buried posts, showing that the prehistoric architects had extensive abilities. For once there was proof that a society in prehistoric North America was cable of planning and large scale community effort! What an amazing written history all this might tell, except of course, there isn’t one to read. A small mound near one of the posts Dr. Fowler found revealed a massive grave with thousands of points, chunky stones, beheaded individuals, a pit full of young women as well as a special burial of two individuals, one on top of the other, buried with thousands of beads in the form of a bird. We can only guess what was going on, but what a tale it might tell.

Today, archaeology is doing very little. Laws restricting digging, Native societies rejecting science in favor of traditions and the lack of public support of archaeology make further discoveries improbable. We may slowly learn a few things, but the flow of new knowledge is diminishing. The sad thing is, the rest of the world is flourishing. Digs occur all around the world. Discoveries are being made in Central and South America, Asia, Europe and Africa. But in our homeland, we will have to settle with pondering what our artifacts tell us. Perhaps the spear points in your collection are left over from a great battle? Perhaps a gorget or pendant was worn by great warrior? Perhaps a chunky stone was won as the result of a “Hector vs Achilles” struggle. Perhaps a pottery vessel was an offering from one leader to another?

While these ancient peoples knew nothing scientifically about a virus, they were certainly affected by them. We know nothing about ancient plagues that occurred in North America. Perhaps they caused wars, population declines or new religious ideas to germinate? We know what happened to the Aztecs. Their society was destroyed by a virus. The strongest, the most religious, the powerful and the weak all succumbed. It was easy for the Spanish to conquer them.

So look at your collection. It tells stories long forgotten. Was that big blade on the wall a gift from a wife’s family to a future husband? Was that arrowhead hurled in a massive war between two Native American empires? We do know from archaeology that people traveled tremendous distances, trading goods across North America.  Was the stone in that axe hauled a 1000 miles by an ancient trader to a prehistoric craftsman, who then sold it for a bale of furs? These are stories we can only speculate about, but our artifacts do tell a tale far beyond where they were found or when they were picked up. So enjoy your collection of heroic tales, princes, kings, explorers, traders, craftsmen, brides, scorchers and more. The real stories our collection could tell might really amaze us!


Steven R. Cooper
Editor-in Chief
Central States Archaeological Journal