Sunday, August 30, 2015

Idea Garage Sale: Cults of Cahokia?

So it's a good year for the archeology of the Moundbuilders, looks like. This week my sources (i.e. random internet news sources I follow; thanks, tumblr!) tell me that recent analysis of mass graves at Cahokia reveal them to be full of people who were from Cahokia, not Aztec-style war captives as had previously been speculated.

Specifically, the researchers looked at two different, but chronologically related, mass graves. In one, over 200 young women who died in ways that didn't leave obvious marks on their bodies were laid out and stacked up in neat rows.

In another one nearby, however, a mixed lot of men and women, not quite 40 in all, between the ages of 15 and 45, were tumbled together after being killed in gruesome, spectacular, and obvious ways - stone points still embedded in their bones, decapitation, all the awful violence of warfare or massacre.

When these graves were first excavated, slotting them into a narrative similar to the historic MesoAmerican custom (not unknown to historical Europeans, either) of appeasing the gods with captives taken from conquered and subject peoples rather than your own. But modern methods of analysis are allowing archeologists to find out quite a lot of personal information about bones these days, and the indications are strong that all the bodies belong to natives or long-term residents of the Cahokia region.

Furthermore - and this is where my story nose starts twitching - the tidy grave, though more uniform in appearance, is more diverse biologically than the messy, violent grave, which contains people biologically more distinct from other people unearthed at the site, and more similar to each other, than one would expect from a random sampling.

So the massacred people all belonged to the same extended family; and the presumed sacrifices were drawn from the general population.

I don't know about you, but this snaps into a definite picture in my head: a tyrannical ruling elite imposing an increasingly unbearable young-woman tax on their subjects to feed an implacable god to stave off some real or imagined disaster. Until the ruled, or a rival, couldn't take it anymore and revolted in a vengeful night of horror...

This sort of thing, after all, does happen. Read the history of any country, any group of people, any power structure. It's likely to involve politics, economics, and personal pathology with a veneer of religion making it easy to go too far - for it can't possibly be evil if God requires it, right? You're just doing your job...

But that is only a general outline. For a solid theory, one would have to examine more data and run more tests and compare dates (or rather, date ranges; all date measuring tech necessarily gives results in a range within a safe margin of error). If it can be established that the tidy sacrifices precede the messy massacre, that's one story; but if the messy massacre precedes, or occurs halfway through, those are very different stories.

And as far as I could tell reading the article, there's still much that isn't known about how the inhabitants of the tidy graves died. Human sacrifice is one way to account for their uniformity in age, burial method, etc.; but it's not the only conceivable one. Might there have been an epidemic in an institution which concentrated young women into a single physical space, some analog to a convent or a girl's finishing school?

And though the story that forms in my head associates the massacred remains with guilty parties, it is by no means unheard of for a disadvantaged group to take the punishment belonging to an advantaged group; or for a group to be powerful in a way that doesn't protect them from scapegoating and mob violence (cf the history of anti-semitism, for example); or for the innocent to be punished along with their guilty relatives; or for institutions to overwhelm the conscience of individuals to a point that personal guilt and innocence aren't even useful concepts. The sacrifices may have been criminals in ways we wouldn't view as crime; the massacred may have been virtuous in ways from which we recoil.

All of which is overwhelming to one who wishes to write a story about it suitable for publication. Archeologists don't have to come out with any one "truth" - they can always say "we need more data!" and dive back in. Fiction writers, however, have to do a certain level of research (varying with their personal comfort level and the intended market) and then commit to a narrative, centered on one character. Most modern American narratives prefer a sympathetic protagonist who triumphs in the end, which limits your narrative choices. You can try to buck this trend and opt for an unsympathetic protagonist and/or a tragic ending, if you're prepared for the flak you'll take from readers, reviewers, and armchair moralists on the hunt for the motes in the eyes of others, who will all assume that to write from a character's viewpoint is the same thing as endorsing that character's viewpoint.

If you can find your way to a narrative and a protagonist based on this setting and this situation, however - what a book that would be! Universal human themes and experiences, in a unique setting that doesn't have the thumbprints of dozens of pulp novelists all over it!

The more I think about it, the more certain I am that there's a Great Native American Historical Novelist out there, somewhere, being discouraged from writing a whole string of powerful works about the great pre-Columbian civilizations, which, when finally published, will be runaway bestsellers and create a new subgenre of historical fiction, centered on Native American history and viewpoints.

And I hope I live long enough to read them.