Sunday, October 18, 2009

Chunkey --- another elite sport, from pre-conquest North America

Included in my scholarly interests is the history of chivalric sports, which has made me sensitive to the influence that other elite sports and festivals have had. So I was really interested to read about the sport of "chunkey" as practiced by the Cahokia culture of North America during what we call the Middle Ages. Here are some excerpts from the on-line version of Archaeology.

The chief standing at the summit of the black, packed-earth pyramid raises his arms. In the grand plaza below, a deafening shout erupts from 1,000 gathered souls. Then the crowd divides in two, and both groups run across the plaza, shrieking wildly. Hundreds of spears fly through the air toward a small rolling stone disk. Throngs of cheering spectators gather along the sidelines and root for the two teams as they play chunkey, a game that had a significant role in organizing social and political life at Cahokia, the great prehistoric city that arose around A.D. 1050 near present-day St. Louis, Missouri.


Many, possibly most, Midwestern, Southern, and Plains Indians were in one way or another entangled in a history that began at Cahokia. The evidence is often indirect, but it is compelling, and points toward a singular history-changing moment 1,000 years ago, when social life, political organization, religion, art, and culture were all utterly transformed in the middle of the Mississippi River Valley. At the epicenter of events was a radical new kind of social and political experiment: a planned capital city. Someone--or some governing body--designed one from scratch at Cahokia. The leaders superimposed a new plan directly over an old village and supervised the construction of great earthen pyramids, open plazas, and huge wooden buildings. Then they gained control over people living throughout the region, an unprecedented move in the history of ancient America north of Mexico.

A new culture developed at the city, perhaps inspired by Mesoamerican models. The people of Cahokia practiced human sacrifice, incorporated obelisk-like timber posts into their worship, told stories of superhuman men and women, used Mesoamerican-style flint daggers, and understood the cosmos in ways similar to Mesoamerican notions. They then spread this new way of life, which included intensified maize agriculture, across the Midwest and into the South and Plains with a religious fervor. Archaeologists refer to the culture as Mississippian, after the river that flows by many of its known sites.

One of the primary vehicles for the growth of this new civilization may have been Cahokian envoys who carried chunkey stones in one hand and war clubs in the other as they ventured into the hinterlands with the purpose of making peace or political alliances. These emissaries seem to have established and enforced a region-wide peace of sorts, a veritable Pax Cahokiana, an important element of which may have been the game of chunkey.

Timothy R. Pauketat is a professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

I have been to the Cahokia site, and not only are there some surviving Cahokian "ziggurats" made of earth, but a great modern museum.

Image: Chunkey player.

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Saturday, June 28, 2008

The state of Canada

In the summer of 2006, when Lebanon was being bombed by Israel, those who could get out, did. Among them were a large number of Canadian citizens of Lebanese background. I sat beside some on the plane across the Atlantic -- as I was returning from Latvia at the time. This experience increased my anger with the Prime Minister's lack of concern about this illegal and inhumane bombing campaign and its effect on people he is responsible for and to.

Imagine my astonishment, then, when I was exposed on my return to loud complaints about these refugees when some of them -- I heard -- complained about the lack of response of their government to their urgent plight. It was strongly implied by some people that these were not real Canadians just holders of "passports of convenience." Others expressed the sentiment of "what do you expect, going to live in such a dangerous place?"

As an immigrant myself married to another immigrant, my perspective is quite a bit different, as you can imagine. That incident opens a whole raft load of issues; but at the moment I'd like to raise just one. What kind of country, I ask, is it that does not have a significant number of its citizens living and working elsewhere?

I don't really have to answer that question, because Canada is not an isolated country of that sort. Today, in the lead up to Canada Day on the first, the Globe and Mail is running a series of articles on the state of Canada and its place in the world. It is quite an amazing article and I recommend that you read it all. I will be back Monday for more. Today's installment, by Michael Valpy, has a lot to say about this issue of what makes a real Canadian. Not everyone will agree with this perspective, but it corresponds to many aspects of my own experience.

Here's what caught my eye in the article, with particular passages of importance bolded:
... Canada ... has arrived at multiculturalism Mark II and a generation of new adults who have moved decisively beyond nationalism to embrace a kind of transcendent planetary supranationalism. We are becoming the land of global citizens, by all accounts galloping out ahead of other advanced democracies.

It appears to be occurring within a broad consensus.

University of Montreal political philosopher Daniel Marc Weinstock, who studies globalizing cultures, says there is little evidence to suggest it is causing Canada problems. A recent Environics poll found nearly 70 per cent of respondents thought it was a positive thing for Canada's image that three million Canadians live outside the country.

Canadians comprise 10 per cent of the population of Hong Kong. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, more live as immigrant transnationals: maintaining a cultural and even physical presence in both Canada and the countries that they, or their families, may have left years earlier.

A huge majority of young Canadians - as well as a majority of all adult-age cohorts - say they want to live, study or work abroad, according to the same Environics poll done earlier this year.

Forty per cent of Canadians say they donate money to international charities. Twenty per cent say they send remittances to overseas relatives. An increasing portion of Canada's international trade comprises Canadian Diaspora entrepreneurs doing commerce with their original homelands.

I know that some Canadians, including friends of mine, will be ticked off by the notion of 10% of Hong Kong being "Canadian." "Passports of convenience" indeed! But the story is more complicated than one might imagine:

Queen's University geographer Audrey Kobayashi has studied what are now in some cases three generations of families who have moved back and forth between Hong Kong and Canada, for education, for business, for periods of residence.

They speak with Canadian accents - Prof. Kobayashi talks of being in Hong Kong business offices and hearing nothing but Canadian accents. They have deep emotional feelings for the land, a pride in Canada's public institutions, an engagement in Canadian affairs. Rooted in Canada, but from time to time living elsewhere.

I won't excerpt any more, but I will refer you to two other stories concerning former Chilean refugee Luz Bascunan and second-generation Indo-Canadian Radha Rajagopalan. Ms. Bascunan's story really speaks to me. I didn't come to Canada as a refugee, but I did come for a very specific purpose, to attend the best graduate program in medieval history in North America, and I thought I'd be leaving when that purpose was accomplished. When I was done, however, I found that I'd acquired a family, a family, I'll point out, which was divided between Canada and Latvia. I was living this version of the Canadian dream -- or at least the Canadian reality. (I think Canada's better at realities than dreams.)

I will end this piece by saying something about my own experience Nipissing University. The consensus of world outreach referred to in the article is evident here. The vast majority of our students come from Ontario, many of them from small places in the country or the suburbs. When they come to Nipissing University, the place seems quite diverse to them. I lived in Toronto for 13 years, and I have different standards of what counts as diverse, but I'm happy for these students, especially since they are happy about the diversity! And a great many of them want more: they are taking the opportunity to travel to other countries for study and then making a great success of it. University is supposed to be a gateway to the greater world and I'm glad we are fulfilling our function.

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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Crusade pageants in New Spain

Note this from Tyerman's God's War, pp. 672-3.

In faraway Central America, local allies in the conquistadors that Tlaxcala, a state city state east of Mexico, marked the Treaty of Aigues Mortes between Charles V and the French king Francis I in 1538 at the lavish pageant showing the anticipated conquest of Jerusalem by the King of Spain. On Corpus Christi Day 1539 in the presence of the consecrated host, the lavish display included two Christian armies laying siege to the holy city, 11 compromising Europeans, the other commanded by the Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza with the Tlaxcalans and other "New Spaniards" in their own war costumes, complete with "feathers, devices and shields." Seemingly a good time was had by all. A few weeks earlier, the Mexicans to the east had laid on a similar show depicting the Turkish siege of Rhodes. Through these traditional images of past future crusading, New Spain was being assimilated into the culture of the old.

Tyerman calls these "bizarre consequences" of the appropriation of crusading as an element in national identity and imperialism (Spanish). But how is this any more bizarre than other aspects of crusading?

It is pretty colorful, though.

Image: Cortez and Dona Marina negotiate with the Tlaxcalans.

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Saturday, March 15, 2008

Old world and new world agricultural origins

Phil Paine has for years been a critic of most archaeological reconstructions of early human history, both older ones that emphasized large scale migrations to explain technological (agricultural) change and newer ones that explained agricultural innovation by very slow adoption practically farm-by-farm.

In this blog post, "I Called the New World to Redress the Balance of the Old"... A Final Word on the European Neolithic (under Friday, March 7, 2008), Phil suggests that since evidence about the "New World Neolithic" is much more available than that about the European Neolithic, perhaps that evidence can be used to rethink how ancient innovation and ancient economies worked in the Old World. In the process he tells an interesting story of the Three Affiliated Tribes, and zings the notions of "simple" and "complex" societies and the idea that prehistoric trade was only ceremonial gift-giving.

You really need to read the whole thing, but here's a big excerpt to spark your appetite:

When I look at this kind of large-scale trade network [on the Great Plains], what strikes me most dramatically is that sedentary agricultural people, prairie nomads, fishermen, and isolated bands of hunters all participated in the trade network on an equal basis, and trade was of economic importance to all of them. People could not, in fact, be automatically pegged to a specific category, and there is no evidence that particular modes of production constituted a fixed evolutionary sequence, or distinct “levels”. People who lived as mobile hunters in also operated large-scale copper mines that supplied customers as far away as Mexico. Other “nomadic” people set up large permanent fish weirs in order to sell the products to distant farming villages, though they could easily have lived comfortably off of hunting in their area. This did not in any way alter their self-identification with linguistic and cultural relations who did not do this. All these intricate variations lead me to conclude that the trade-networks long predate agriculture, and that agricultural villages expanded into areas, like the Upper Missouri, already well-known through trade and travel. The sites of villages were selected, I believe, because they were already known to be productive centers of fishing, harvesting wild prairie turnips, berry picking, and good places to drive herds of buffalo over bluffs. North America’s network of rivers was an effective system of highways that could carry goods and people swiftly over long distances, and this network was as familiar to everyone as English people are now familiar with the M4 and M6. Significant gaps between agricultural regions along the Missouri, as well as clear traditions of migration (the three Tribes each arrived from different directions) demonstrate that a slow-moving “wave-front” of agriculture was not how agriculture spread, at least in this part of the world. All the evidence points to agriculture being a practice that took advantage of an already extensive trade and transport network to establish itself at strategic nodes, which were already significant for fishing, specialized hunting, as pre-agricultural trading places, or for the availability of specialty products. The Three Tribes were as much concerned with the availability of suitable construction timber as they were with the fertility of the soil, when they placed or moved their villages, and it is not accidental that a major move created a new village called Like-a-Fishhook. The scale, complexity, and economic importance of long-distance trade networks has long been familiar stuff among New World archaeologists, but somehow, this has had only reluctant, and devalued influence on the theoretical framework of European prehistory. There, old habits that regard commerce as ignoble, travel as unnatural, pre-ordained stages as the essence of history, and hierarchy as the preferred ordering principle of society still shape attitudes toward the past. Such ideas, of course, influence New World archaeologists and historians as well, but apparently not quite so rigidly. So, what do these examples from , where we have some secure knowledge of social systems and economies, have to say to us when we contemplate Neolithic Europe, where we have none?
They can tell us nothing for certain, but they can give us a good idea of what was possible, and even what was most likely.

What seems most likely to me is that agriculture spread through Europe by plugging itself into an already-existing network of trade and travel.

Image: Life on the Upper Missouri some time ago (George Catlin, 1832).

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Tuesday, March 04, 2008

The Great Warming -- medieval climate change in Europe and the world

Brian Fagan has written a book called The Great Warming: Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations, about the effect that the warming period between 800-1200 A.D. had on global living standards. There's a preview of his argument on NRO Radio. He also talks about fishing!

Thanks to Scott Nokes at Unlocked Wordhoard (again!).

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Thursday, January 17, 2008

Local history -- the graveyards of New York City

The Economist has a wonderful tour of graveyards large and small in some of the boroughs of NYC. You won't regret having a look.

In Ancient History we spend a lot of time figuring out what graves tell us about past cultures. Just two days ago, we in HIST 2055 had a quick look at what may be Philip of Macedon's tomb If you take the same attitude into more recent cemetaries, there is much to learn. Certainly this article will teach most people a little more about New York and American history than they knew before.

It might also lead you to think about the conditions necessary for the preservation of such evidence.

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Thursday, November 15, 2007

Chocolate began as beer

This is for my students in Modern World History, or anyone else who has contemplated the role of mood-altering substances in world history.

The title comes from a Reuters story, but I'll refer you to the wonderful presentation on the blog Driftglass.

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Saturday, September 22, 2007

The New Mamlukes?

The American blog Progressive Historians compares the prominent but secretive mercenary company Blackwater, whose activities in Iraq have been recently in the news, to the Mamlukes of old. Mamluke and Mamluke-like groups have come up in both my World History class and Ancient Civilizations. Is it a reasonable comparison? How about the "free companies" of the Hundred Years War as an analog?

Progressive Historians is notable for providing detailed historical arguments more often than most political blogs. One would hope that would be the case.

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Friday, July 27, 2007

What happened to Phil Paine in Europe?

Some time back I promised to keep my readers informed about the adventures of independent scholar Phil Paine as he traveled across Europe. Some of his blog entries were linked to from here (use the label "Phil Paine in Europe" at the bottom of the entry here) until they abruptly stopped. Not, fortunately, because something happened to Phil. Or maybe something did. He explains:

My last week in Czech Republic involved experiences so emotionally intense for me that it has taken two months for me to mull them over. I visited two strikingly different mining towns. One was a ancient city where miners where powerful enough to build their own magnificent cathedral, where the carvings and frescoes represented miners and metalworkers at their tasks, along with the traditional holy subjects. The other was a uranium mine run as a concentration camp by the Communists. Another moving event was a visit to the site of Lidice, the town in which the Nazis exterminated the entire population, including the dogs and cats, removed all the buildings and even dug the bodies from the graveyards, all for the purpose of celebrating their brutality and omnipotence. All this was taking place in a disturbing contemporary background ― one of my hosts’ friends had just been nearly killed by Neo-Nazi thugs, who infest the country, and enjoy the tacit support and encouragement of the corrupt police.

I will discuss all these events in detail, as they become relevant. But, they have impelled me to put down this series of meditations.
The meditations are on the subject of democracy, something that he and I have long been interested and have published about. The first of them are here, listed under July 25, 2007.

More as it becomes available, including the interrupted tale of the European trip.

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Saturday, July 21, 2007

Jonathan Dayton, forgotten land speculator

I was born in Dayton, Ohio, so I am pleased to see that Progressive Historians is featuring Jonathan Dayton, after whom it was named, as a "Forgotten Founding Father." My limited research into the life of Dayton left me with the impression that he was mainly notable as a land speculator and sure enough, the PH biography doesn't disagree -- though it mentions him leading a nighttime bayonet charge at Yorktown (!).

I have thought for years that land speculators, and land speculation itself, should not be ignored in the history of the Revolutionary War and its results. There's a book to be written on the US Northwest Ordinance as the model for a republican society. By me? Probably not. But claiming land and the terms under which it would be (re)settled was as important an issue as "taxation without representation," the Navigation Acts, and other aspects of European domination, in the rest of the New World as much as in the United States.

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Tuesday, July 03, 2007

William St. Clair, The Grand Slave Emporium: Cape Coast Castle and the British slave trade

The Atlantic slave trade will naturally come up more than once in my fall and winter course, A History of the Modern World. It is one of the key characteristics of the early modern period (which I define as 1400-1800), and its results can be seen on the faces and fates of the Americas, Europe, and Africa.

The complexities of this trade are well-treated in this new (2006) book by William St. Clair, who has a genius for taking one series of sources and illuminating a huge web of relationships. His sources are the documents preserved in London from Cape Coast Castle (now in Ghana), a British fort established and maintained to promote and protect the British slave trade. St. Clair says that there are few places that are potentially so well known over a long period (1660s to the mid 19th century) . His own presentation of this material is quite wonderful. If only more people could write like this. I haven't finished the book yet, but even if it goes steeply downhill after p. 115 it will still have been an enjoyable and illuminating read.

Students who will be in my first-year class in September (if any come across this) might want to ponder this impressive list from p. 4:

Among those who received dividends from the slave trade were the British royal family, the British aristocracy, the English Church, and many institutions, families and individuals. Plantation owners in the West Indies and North America prospered from the sale of commodities produced by slave labour, as did some of their employess and business partners, and profits remitted to Britain skupported others who never left home. A similar reckoning coud be made for the other slaving nations. But it is scarcely an exaggeration to say that every person in the Europeanised world who put sugar in their tea or coffee, spread jam on their bread, who ate sweets, cakes, or ice0cream, who smoked or chewed tobacco, took snuff, drank rum or corn brandy, or wore coloured cotton clothes, also benefited from, and participated in, a globalised economy of tropical plantations worked by slaves forcibly brought from Africa.

The jam connection never occurred to me...

Image: Loango, now in the Republic of the Congo, an early modern African coastal metropolis.

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

Councils in Venezuela (history of democracy thread)

Today's Washington post has a very interesting article on Hugo Chavez's Venezuela. It's about the founding of community councils to partially replace elected mayors and municipal councils. It's not exactly clear how these councils are constituted, but the article states that for "big decisions" the elected councillors have to go back to community assemblies for a final decision.

I don't know quite to think about it. I haven't bought into the official American propaganda about how evil and threatening Chavez is, since it's entirely self-interested, but neither do I trust Chavez. The danger sign for me is that his preferred political methodologies seem to be ranting at the population for hours on end about every subject imaginable, and throwing government money around like there's no tomorrow. He reminds me all too much of Castro the Omniscent, not to mention every 20th century dictator you've heard of and all of those you haven't.

Also, the use of "community councils" can be a mere mask for dictatorship. Khaddafi abolished all the government institutions of Libya in favor of assemblies supposedly inspired by Berber customs, but guess who still controls everything, notably the energy revenues that constitute practically the entire economy the country?

Going back a couple of centuries, there are also the "section assemblies" of Paris during the Revolution that gave democracy such a bad name in Europe during the 19th century. "Section assemblies" were grassroots neighborhood groups that elected an electoral college which elected members of the National Assembly. After they chose the electoral college -- by voice vote -- the people were supposed to go home and let their betters run the government and guide the revolution. Well, a lot of them came back the next day, and the next, and the day after that and in the name of the people continually critiqued the elected government.

Sounds all very democratic, yes? Unfortunately, the sections in Paris became dominated by people convinced that they knew what the people wanted, and that everyone who opposed the people were evil "aristocrats." Continual voice votes in each section allowed the local aristocratic stooges (not necessarily nobles or even rich) to be identified and expelled. The sections, full of zealots, set up a communication network, armed themselves, and eventually seized control of the capital. This was a further step to dictatorship and government by Terror.
(The awful flavor of the word "terrorists" comes in part from the open use of terror -- revolutionary justice dispensed by kangaroo courts leading to execution -- by the resulting regime.)

So these community councils could go nowhere or worse. On the other hand, according to the WP article, there's a lot of enthusiasm on the popular level for this experiment, even among opponents of Chavez. Some people think that the old institutions of local government, which go back to colonial times, are worthless and the new councils may provide a way for them to solve some of their own problems. I direct you for some relevant thoughts about the vital role of local government in real democracies in Phil Paine's blog (under Sept. 25).

Good luck, Venezuela!

Image: Chavez surrounded by "the people"(?).

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Tuesday, December 13, 2005

For those fans of ancient Maya

In today's L.A. Times, a story about a new find in Guatemala, the oldest mural yet, with a picture on the main webpage.

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