Echoes through history: Mississippian civilization scholar explains the people behind the artifacts at annual lecture

Monday, March 13, 2006

Dr. Tim Pauketat wants to change the way people think about pre-Columbian America.

"Most people tend not to think of history before the arrival of Columbus, and they think of the ancient past as pre-history, so a lot of generalities are used to describe the past," said Pauketat. "Now we're finding we can talk about real history with real people."

The "real history" is that of the Mississippian civilizations that populated the local area centuries before the arrival of Columbus.

At Wednesday's annual Beckwith Memorial Archaeology Lecture, Pauketat hopes to bring some of the personalities of the great civilization to life. The lecture will be at the Southeast Missouri Regional Museum on the campus of Southeast Missouri State University at 6:30 p.m.

Pauketat is one of the foremost scholars in Mississippian-era civilization, said museum curator of collections Jim Phillips. His work, much of it based around the Cahokia, Ill., archaeological site, has broken new ground in telling the personal histories of elites of the Mississippian civilization, the center of which was the city at Cahokia.

Cahokia's importance can't be overstated when talking about Mississippian culture, said Pauketat.

"Cahokia is the big city, so things happen there first," Pauketat said. "The people there are the driving forces behind these changes."

The city reached its height with a population of 15,000 to 20,000 around 1050 A.D., and had declined within 200 years. Pauketat said evidence points to both political and climatic reasons for the decline.

But recent discoveries at Cahokia and other Mississippian sites have given archaeologists new insight into the personal lives of individuals in the culture, including elites, farmers and even victims of human sacrifice.

Pauketat's lecture material is a great fit for the annual lecture, said Phillips. The lecture is named for Thomas Beckwith, who donated over 1,000 artifacts from pre-Columbian and Middle Mississippian civilization to the museum -- a collection that bears his name -- in 1913.

Beckwith stipulated that a lecture on new innovations in archaeology would take place on a yearly basis, said Phillips. The lecture doesn't have to be on Mississippian civilization, but given the artifacts that make up the collection the topic is ideal, Phillips said.

"We've had talks about riverboat archaeology, about cave archaeology, but in the past few years we really wanted to explore the new Mississippian research," said Phillips.

But Pauketat's talk will go beyond just the flourishing city of Cahokia at its height and the people who lived there. The Mississippian civilization didn't exist in a vacuum, said Pauketat, and the consequences of its quick rise and fall reverberate throughout American history.

If Cahokia had still been a thriving city at the time of European settlement the city would have created great obstacles for the Old World settlers, Pauketat said. And the scattered remnants of the Mississippian civilization would later become the tribes of the eastern plains, which were a shaping force in the settlement of the nation.

The lecture is free and open to the public.

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