Thursday, October 15, 2009

Natchez Trace III: Emerald Mounds

Stumble over serpentine roots and bat away the stinging vines inked in 4 a.m. darkness, claw your way up the slippery stones of an ancient temple straight up through jungle canopy. The momentary exultation of reaching the summit will be fleeting. Soon you discern the outline of the twenty Israeli teenagers who got there ahead of you. Just try to keep their hyena laughter from spoiling what you imagined for months would be the most sacred moment of your trip into the jungles of the Mayan homeland.

If you want to be only guy basking in the mystery of some ancient monument, you’ve got your work cut out for on this planet. There are no sacred moments to be shared amidst the swarms of tourists on day trips to Angkor Wat or the Pyramids at Giza.

Want to find some "undiscovered" destination? Well, adventure travel is for braggarts and morons. Before the ink dries on the next peace accord in a hellhole African province you’ve never heard of, some lunatic Aussie or Frenchmen will have opened a guesthouse near whatever passes for an attraction. If the soon to follow gap-year adventurers don’t get violated by the lingering rebel soldiers whose standard kit includes pouches of palm oil for the occasional anal rape, Lonely Planet will dispatch a writer for a chapter in their next guidebook to the Eastern Congo.

Which is to all to say that I did not take for granted my moment of solitude atop an earthen pyramid in Southern Mississippi. I hadn’t expected to find Israeli teenagers on the top of the Emerald Mounds, but I imagined someone would have been here taking pictures. I couldn’t see anyone for miles in any direction. I wanted to sit here as long as it took for another visitor to break my little meditation on the first wonder I had encountered free of flash bulbs and gift shops. I had to stay ahead of the rain. As I took a rest, I left my mind to wander.

Through a combination of instruction, story time and field trips to Fort Nashborough, my elementary school classmates and I were encouraged to develop a certain mental picture of the lands between the Appalachians and the Mississippi in tune with the legends of the old frontier. The shores of the Mississippi, the Tennessee and the Cumberland gave way to empty forests settled by sparse bands of Indians. By middle school we learned to call Native Americans.

For millennia these tribes had been uninterrupted stewards of the forests primeval, right up to the time Daniel Boone crossed the Cumberland Gap in his deerskin getup. These noble hunter-gatherers, as we learned to describe them, could not fathom land ownership. They had no need considering the bounty at their fingertips. By the time they wised up to the avaricious ways of the Europeans, naïve chiefs had exchanged vast stretches for worthless beads and even more worthless contracts for lands not yet taken by the new settlers. The disparate tribes were susceptible to the Europeans strategy of divide and conquer. The ceaseless flow of white men with their rifles pushed the indigenous people--as we learned to call them in high school--farther west to the barren reservations waiting at the end of the frontier and at the end of that really long movie directed by Kevin Costner we had to watch in history class.

That schoolhouse rubric doesn’t explain the 35-foot high mound I was sitting on. Tribal bands, whether hunter-gatherers or farmers, could not have devoted the manpower and resources required to refashion thousands of tons of earth into this New World pyramid. Of course no one is claiming the Daniel Boone types built them. It would have taken a civilization with a degree of economic complexity not found in our history books to leave a mark this permanent upon the earth. At least that’s how these same books explain the pyramid builders in every other corner of the world. Civilizations based upon thousands of farmers and artisans directed by consecutively smaller castes of soldiers, priests, and chieftains. The kings who comprised the capstones of these pyramid shaped societies built pyramids to remember themselves by.

The plateau below me was still an active religious complex as late as the 1600’s. Abandoned mounds even larger than the one here were found up and down the Mississippi when LaSalle and his men charted the river in 1682. Other mound networks have since been discovered throughout the Midwest. They are the last remaining monuments to an ancient civilization decimated long before the Natchez battled the encroaching French. A collection of trails, of which the paths that preceded the Trace were a part, linked the mound civilizations of the lower Mississippi to the Cumberland valley and further to the other mound civilizations of the Cahokia, the Adena, and the Hopewell. The economies that supported these monuments were based on the intensive cultivation of corn, beans and squash, and extensive trading networks that sustained a population as much as fifty to one hundred times as large as the native population at the time of first European settlement in this region.

What happened to the mound builders?

The mound I was sitting on would have looked about the same to the English, French, and Scotch-Irish settlers who arrived in the 1700’s to fight and to trade with and sometimes to marry into the scattered tribes of the Natchez, Choctaw, Cherokee and Chickasaw. Yet the first Europeans to reach the Mississippi, the gold obsessed Spaniards under Hernando De Soto, saw something much different. The centuries that followed DeSoto and La Salle brought a host of competing theories for the mystery of the lost mound builders. One of these served as the mental springboard to a major new religion.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, the historians of the day recognized the unlikelihood that the mounds were built by the natives as they existed at the time. Some speculated they were evidence of the lost tribes of Israel in the New World. Joseph Smith claimed to find his golden plates in a mound just south of his family farm in Palmyra, New York. The Book of Mormon didn’t just come out of a mound, it was an expansive narrative that explained the history of these ancient monuments in a manner which corroborated the scholarship in Smith’s day.

The non-Mormon world now recognizes these mounds were not the last defensive positions of fratricidal Israelis. The going theory is centered around the Columbian exchange, in which Europeans got corn, squash, tomatoes, cacao, tobacco and maybe syphilis, and the Americas got small pox, yellow fever, malaria, measles, the plague, typhoid, cholera, influenza, horses, and maybe syphilis. Everyone blames the other side for syphilis.

Historians now posit that Cortez and Pizarro conquered with germs that in some cases preceded them. From there the consensus fractures. One of the most intensive disputes among professional historians is just how many Native Americans were wiped out by first contact with these diseases to which their bodies had zero immunity. Those that use models with mortality rates of 95% are suggesting there were more people in the Americas than in Europe circa 1500. This would require radical revisions to the school books over the dead bodies of many a historian who believe the numbers are now being inflated.

Maybe we can call the chapter the First Pig Flu. We know that when Hernando De Soto landed near Tampa Bay to explore what is now the Southeastern United States, he brought 300 pigs as livestock. These pigs had no natural enemies in the New World, and they were free to spread even faster than the De Soto’s men could explore. The pigs carried all the Old World germs familiar to their Spanish owners but alien to the Americans. The Columbian Exchange had a porcine vanguard in North America.

Within months of landfall, the pigs made contact with the natives, and by the time De Soto’s men chanced upon the civilizations of the Lower Mississippi, some accounts at the close of the expedition suggest the possibility that diseases including tuberculosis, whooping cough, trichinosis, anthrax, measles and small pox were beginning to ravage towns along their path. It would not have been a subtle event. Imagine a half dozen Black Deaths leashed upon a population at once. Entire cities would have been destroyed, collective graves, if there was time for them, haphazardly dug to inter the victims of what must have seemed like the end of the world.

The same riverbanks De Soto’s men described as, “thickly set with great towns,” bristling with fortifications were empty stretches 140 years later. La Salle’s French expedition encountered large swaths of emptiness. Where the large population centers once stood, herds of buffalo ran wild over the landscape. Imagine if Joseph had known of the Columbian Exchange and had weaved his narrative out of the tragedy. It probably would have resonated in the burnt over district—only a wrathful Old Testament God could have wreaked such devastation.

My daydream went uninterrupted for nearly a half hour, with this moment all to myself. I got up and shook out out my thighs. Thirty more miles to Port Gibson.

No comments: