Community Building with Human Sacrifice

cahokiaTimothy Pauketat’s new book, Cahokia: Ancient America’s Great City on the Mississippi,  explores the Native American city-state of Cahokia, located in western Illinois (not far from modern-day St. Louis), whose population of 20,000 people made it the largest American city north of Mexico for 600 years, until Philadelphia attained that size.

As such, during the 150 years or so when it flourished (from 1050 to 1200), it “held economic, cultural and religious sway over a vast swath of the American heartland.” How did it hold sway? At least one way was through human sacrifice:

Cahokians performed human sacrifice, as part of some kind of theatrical, community-wide ceremony, on a startlingly large scale unknown in North America above the valley of Mexico. Simultaneous burials of as many as 53 young women (quite possibly selected for their beauty) have been uncovered beneath Cahokia’s mounds, and in some cases victims were evidently clubbed to death on the edge of a burial pit, and then fell into it. A few of them weren’t dead yet when they went into the pit — skeletons have been found with their phalanges, or finger bones, digging into the layer of sand beneath them.

Pauketat theorises that some of the burials may be connected to a myth about “supernatural twin brothers.” In Mound 72, for example, are “a high-status burial of two nearly identical male bodies,” surrounded by about 250 other corpses somehow “related to the two important men.” Some were “honorific burials” and some were human sacrifices, executed on the spot.

Pauketat concludes that based on the evidence of the many excavations at the site — including the mortuary mounds and garbage pits — Cahokia was “a metropolitan Native American society ‘characterized by inequality, power struggles and social complexity‘ and not by “half-feral savages nor eco-Edenic villagers.” The evidence seems to suggest that a new king was welcomed or a ruling family honoured with mass sacrifices held alongside extravagant feasts.

As the Salon article reviewing the book notes, for 150 years this city-state functioned well by creating a sense of community deriving from these rituals.

Rene Girard has posited that human sacrifice is the foundation of all human societies and of human culture itself, because it so effectively brings about peace, allowing human communities to function and even flourish.

As he says in Violence and the Sacred, the victim(s) serves as “a substitute for all members of the community, offered up by the members themselves. The sacrifice serves to protect the entire community against its own violence. … It goes without saying that the rite has its violent aspects,  but these always involve a lesser violence, proffered as a bulwark against a far more virulent violence. Moreover, the rite aims at a the most profound state of peace known to any community: the peace that follows the sacrificial crisis and results from the unanimous accord generated by the surrogate victim.

Girard also notes that the sacrificial rite is “designed to function during periods of relative calm; as we have seen, its role is not curative but preventive.”

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