Thursday, September 12, 2013

Ancient Trade: 9th Century

Part 1: The Great Trade Centers
One of the things that strikes me as I travel around to different ancient Native American sites is how focused the information is at each location.  I often get the feeling that this spot was completely isolated from the other sites in the Americas.  But then, I will run across some artifact that was found at the site that I know came from far, far away.  Or I notice some influence (like the bow and arrow or corn) that seems to have appeared on the scene and spread instantly across the continents.
Casa Bonito, Chaco Culture

This tells me that there was a lot more interaction among the different cultures than we give them credit for.  For instance, at Casa Bonita in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, they found chocolate and a parrot feathers from Central America and copper ornaments possibly fashioned at Cahokia, near St. Louis, Missouri and shells from the coast.  They had to have been trading with those cultures.  And archaeological evidence shows us that trade and communication throughout the ancient Americas was extensive and prolific.

In this series of articles, I want turn the clocks back to the 9th Century and propose a hypothetical trade route starting in Cahokia (near St Louis) connecting to Chaco Canyon (New Mexico) and Tula (or Tollon) in Mexico ending at Tikal in the Lowlands of Yucatan.  Not only were these great cities and cultural centers, there is good evidence that commerce had as much to do with their significance as anything else.

There is also good evidence that each of these cities were trading with other regional cities as well as internationally.  In the case of Chaco Canyon, for instance, it may have started as a regional center for the Ancestral Puebloan cities scattered all around the southwest.   It may have become the warehouse or storage cooperative for surrounding puebloans and then grown into a massive central storage facility, market and distribution center.  This area was notorious for erratic weather.  As populations grew, it became necessary to store surpluses in good years and then draw from them in draughts.  Hopefully, the draughts were localized and not widespread so that areas with better weather could support the less fortunate.

Cahokia was an enormous city—the largest city in the United States until 1780 when Philadelphia grew larger.  Cahokia was the home of the only known copper workshop in North America.   It hosted great ceremonies and games with a huge central plaza that had been meticulously leveled and surrounded by important mounds supporting great palaces on top of them.

All of these great trade centers were flourishing in the 9th century and, based upon the archaeological evidence, most likely traded with each other.
Mississippian City similar to Cahokia

So, what would it have been like?  Let’s start with Cahokia.  Picture a huge caravan of men and women carrying trading goods in tump baskets and on wood carriers approaching Cahokia from the west.  They send out a messenger to the leaders of Cahokia announcing their estimated arrival.  Cahokian leaders then send out messengers to other cities across the Mississippi valley and east coast and soon traders from the region flow into Cahokia with their goods.  Cahokia sponsors a great market with dances and feasts and special ceremonies.  They have already built great storage houses for just such events and have also built great houses for the visitors to stay in and have large open areas for the market and celebrations.  It is a grand affair with the market buzzing during the day and great feasts,  dances and religious ceremonies during the evening and nights.

The caravan has brought Turquoise trinkets from Chaco, cotton and obsidian from Tollon (Tula), parrot feathers and cocoa from Tikal.    They will
trade for corn, beans, squash, copper ornaments made in Cahokian shops, and shell beads and necklaces from the coast. 

In the meantime, the caravan brings news from around the world and sometimes new inventions like the bow and arrow, or advanced pottery techniques, or fertile seeds for new or improved crops.  The regional traders soak up the news and share news from the region that the caravan will carry back with them.

Over the years,  different trading centers may fall and others pop up, but the trading caravan adjusts and continues across the centuries providing a vital link between the cultures.

by Courtney Miller

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