In his recent four-part documentary Exterminate All the Brutes, director Raoul Peck explores the deeply flawed popular understanding of what Native American culture looked like before European contact. As a result of European conquest, 55 million Natives were killed in war and by the spread of diseases like smallpox. In essence, the idea of a great, sparsely populated frontier is a myth, and Spiro Mounds is key to unlocking the truth.
Spiro Mounds, a 150-acre cultural site near the Arkansas border in eastern Oklahoma, are remnants of the Mississippian civilization, which comprised more than 60 tribes speaking 30 different language groups. At their peaks, cities like Spiro and Cahokia, the center of the Mississippian culture, were home to thousands of people — around 1100 AD, Cahokia was larger than London. Spiro, a major city populated by the Caddoans, was smaller but a center of great wealth, commerce and culture. All told, about 9 million people lived in the Mississippian region.
Based on materials recovered from the mounds by archaeologists, Spiro developed an immense trade network with other communities throughout North America, including the East Coast megacity of Tsenacommacah. Much of this commerce took place via waterways like the adjacent Arkansas River, and the Caddo residents of Spiro used massive dugout canoes, some of which had sails and could hold upward of 80 people, to sail west and east for trade purposes.
Dennis Peterson, director of the Spiro Mounds Archaeological Center, 18154 First St. in Spiro, said this centrality and proximity to major trade routes made Spiro a major power in the region. They were able to travel from as far west as the Rocky Mountains and east to Tsenacommacah, which was located in what is now Virginia.
And Spiro had a corner on at least one major market.
“Things like Osage orange, which is the main bow wood for the U.S., was only here in eastern Oklahoma, in western Arkansas, parts of Texas, Louisiana — all controlled by Spiro,” Peterson said in a recent edition of Oklahoma Historical Society’s Crossroads.
The Spiro culture thrived from around 900 A.D. to 1650 A.D., and they left behind 12 mounds at the site, which are large, raised earthen areas in which Caddo leaders were buried with their possessions. At the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, these mounds line up with the sun, indicating that they were used as a kind of calendar for determining the start of seasons.
In the mounds, successive leaders’ remains and fortunes were then placed on top of their predecessors, resulting in stratified layers of Spiro civilization. In these layers, archaeologists have found copper that was brought to Spiro by Caddo representatives in Iowa, and the important conch shells brought from representatives in Florida were used for inscribing Caddo history and creation myths.
Such conch shells conferred high status on their owners — Peterson describes it as equivalent to owning gold or diamonds.
Spiro has more of this stuff than any other place in the nation. The conch shells are very important, because it’s also the only pan-tribal writing system for the U.S. prehistorically,” he said. “It’s their equivalent of the Bible.”
Because of this, the Spiro Mounds were prone to raiding and desecration. In Looting Spiro Mounds: An American King Tut’s Tomb, University of North Carolina Wilmington professor David La Vere describes how, in 1933, a group of locals calling themselves the “Pocola Mining Company” started plundering the Craig Mound, excavating engraved conch shells, axes and arrowheads.
“So, from 1933 to ‘35, these six men and their helpers destroyed about a third of the mound or about 400 burials and sold hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of items to collectors, universities and museums throughout the world,” Peterson said. “Anywhere you go, there will be something from the Spiro collection nearby.”
University of Oklahoma anthropologist Forrest Clements worked with the Oklahoma State Legislature in 1935 to craft laws banning such raids, but not before these artifacts ended up in collections throughout the U.S. and Europe.
Fortunately, most of the other mounds survived intact, and the Spiro Mounds Archaeological Center offers tours and talks about what lies beneath the mounds.