Recent Issue | SUMMER 2019
Book Reviews

Secrets in the Dirt: Uncovering the Ancient People of Gault
By Mary S. Black

(Texas A & M University Press, 2019; 132 pgs., illus., $30 paper;

This is the story of the Gault site in Central Texas and of the archaeologists and others who have been studying it since its discovery in 1929.  The site covers some sixty acres on spring-fed Buttermilk Creek, where two bioregions come together.  To date some 2.4 million artifacts have been recovered, and they indicated an almost continuous occupation over the past 16,000 years, including a large Clovis component dating from 13,500 to 12,900 years ago.

Since 1998, the chief archaeologist at the Gault site has been Michael Collins, currently of Texas State University.  Under Collins’ leadership, the age and importance of the Gault site has become clear. He also ensured its protection by donating it to the Conservancy in order to establish it as an archaeological research preserve.  Hundreds of volunteers have aided the research projects.

Collins’ work at the Gault site has already greatly broadened our knowledge of the First Americans, and it will continue to do so for years to come.  Secrets in the Dirt is an easy read and folksy account of the history, scholars, and research at this great American archaeological site.

Cahokia’s Complexities: Ceremonies and Politics of the First Mississippian Farmers
By Susan M. Alt

(University of Alabama Press, 2018; 176 pgs., illus., $50 cloth, $50 ebook;

Cahokia, which developed around A.D. 1050 and then declined about 1350, was the largest and most important pre-Columbian city north of Mexico. Located on the Mississippi River flood plain just east of St. Louis, it contained some 120 earthen mounds of various sizes and shapes, including the massive Monks Mound that rises 100 feet above the plain. Cahokia was the economic, political, and religious center of the Mississippian culture that dominated the Central and Southern regions of the United States from about A.D. 1050 to 1600. Cahokia’s peak population may have reached 40,000, and the city covered six square miles.

In this volume, Susan Alt, an archaeologist at Indiana University, examines the complexity of Cahokian society, especially in relationship to satellite settlements in the nearby uplands to the east. She focuses on two concepts that shaped the development of Cahokia— “complexity,” which is demonstrated by societies that are strongly centralized and hierarchically organized; and “hybridity,” which is evinced when unlike peoples come together to produce dramatic social change. Alt argues that both complexity and hybridity are present at Cahokia, and that they shaped its development.
While the Cahokians hunted, fished, and gathered wild foods, they were first and foremost farmers, and maize was their main crop, supplemented by beans and squash. Much of this study centers on Alt’s research of upland farming villages located to the east of the main center. One of these, the Grossman site, was completely excavated from 1998 to 2002 for a highway project by a team led by the author. The archaeologists found 113 structures along with associated features. In addition to residences and storehouses, they found four large public structures where gatherings undoubtedly took place.

Grossman and the other satellite settlements were administered by Cahokia, Alt concludes, to grow food for the city’s residents. The upland people reflect the diversity of the Cahokian system as well as the centralization of authority in downtown Cahokia.
Cahokia’s Complexities is an important contribution to the growing literature on Cahokia and its various aspects. It shows how archaeological research can uncover new information not only about the material culture but also about how the society was organized.

End of the Megafauna: The Fate of the World’s Hugest, Fiercest, and Strangest Animals
By Ross D.E. MacPhee

(W.W. Norton & Co., 2019; 256 pgs. illus., $35;

Beginning about 50,000 years ago, very large animals that ranged over most of the planet began to go extinct. These gigantic species included the wooly mammoth and sabretooth cat, as well as flightless birds three times the size of an ostrich, lemurs as large as gorillas, and lizards that weighed half a ton. This era from 50,000 to 500 years ago is known as Near Time, and it includes the end of the last Ice Age, when sea levels rose and humans arrived in the Americas.

Somewhere between 750 and 1,000 species disappeared—primarily the largest animals on most continents and many islands—in the Near Time extinction. These animals had low reproductive rates and slow maturation, making them especially prone to extinction. Curiously, marine animals were not affected.

The cause of this remarkable event has been the subject of heated scientific debate for decades, and it falls into two broad categories. The first is climate change. The second is human depredations. Those in the climate change (this includes comets, volcanism, etc.) camp tend to discount any important role for people. Those in the human-caused camp discount changes in the environment. And, of course, there are hybrid and novel positions as well.

In the 1960s, Paul S. Martin, a geoscientist at the University of Arizona, advanced the theory that the Near Time extinctions were the result of human overhunting. In the Americas, he argued the extinction of thirty species of megafauna mammals coincided with the arrival of humans. Martin offered the idea of prey naïveté—that megafauna animals had no fear of human hunters and were easy victims to slaughter. The human overhunting theory has become the topic of an impassioned debate among American archaeologists ever since.

Author Ross MacPhee, a paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History, lays out all of the arguments and all the facts in this engaging volume and comes to his own conclusions. It is superbly illustrated by artist Peter Schouten whose drawings of megafauna make these long-gone animals come to life. Well-written for the general reader, End of the Megafauna is a fabulous introduction to one of our most perplexing questions.

Seventeenth-Century Metallurgy on the Spanish Colonial Frontier: Pueblo and Spanish Interactions
By Noah H. Thomas

(University of Arizona Press, 2018; 124 pgs., illus., $20 paper; $20 ebook;

When the Spanish conquerors arrived in New Mexico in the early 1600s, the local Puebloans, like most New World people, had no knowledge of metallurgy.  But to Europeans wealth was largely measured in metal, so they quickly enlisted the local people in the search for, and development of, a metals industry.

This fascinating book tells of the research into metal production in the 1600s at Paa-ko, a large Puebloan ruin near Albuquerque. Paa-ko was ideally situated near mineral ores, abundant wood, and water, and it became a center for metal production in the early Spanish colony.   Archaeologist Noah Thomas describes and summarizes ten years of research at the large village site.  The excavation of Paa-ko’s metallurgical facility revealed furnaces and ventilating features for smelting copper and lead ores.  Metals, slag, refractory material, and ores were also recovered and analyzed.

This is the most extensive research into the establishment of an early metals industry in the Spanish Southwest, and it tells an interesting story of the early interaction of Spaniards and Puebloans.  It will also help lead archaeologists to other metallurgy locales in the Southwest and elsewhere. — Mark Michel