Gods of Thunder: How Climate Change, Travel, and Spirituality Reshaped Precolonial America

Review by Eric Singleton

It is a welcome departure to see a scholar stepping outside their regionalised field of study to offer an interconnected view of North American history that is not often discussed. This is what Timothy Pauketat, an expert on Mississippian archaeology, does in his new book exploring how people across much of North America faced climate change. As he mentions, ancient American cultures were not living in a vacuum, but rather actively communicating, trading, acquiring, and adapting. If we are going to understand this ancient world, it needs to be through a holistic lens that can look across fields of study and areas of expertise. Pauketat does also provide a list of regional sites to be explored in each chapter, which is a nice addition for the general reader.

Getting to the heart of the book, Pauketat offers connections between the ancient Maya, the Huastec people of eastern Mexico, the inhabitants of the Southwest, and the Southeastern Mississippians. These connections, he argues, were due to the North American Medieval Warm Period (AD 800-1300). At the start of this period, drought ravaged the Yucatán, which led to a Maya migration into eastern Mexico. Maya influence in this area then directed ideological changes that swept through the Southwest and Southeast, creating a new cult or religious movement that influenced the architecture and cultural practices of the people inhabiting these areas. These changes, he proposes, included the use of roundhouses, steam baths, voladores poles (the tall poles from which four people ‘fly’, hanging from their feet), and eventually the Sun Dance ritual.

Environmental upheaval certainly can have a significant impact on people – especially agriculturalists. This was probably the cause of the Maya decline around AD 800, and the reason for the flourishing of the Southwestern and Southeastern peoples as well. But the ideological influence of Mesoamerican deities in the north may not have been as dominating as Pauketat suggests. Instead, what we are probably seeing is the ability of these cultures to devote more resources to already established religious beliefs – beliefs that are ancient, Pan-American, and not the product of diffusion. This is not to say that sacred bundles and rituals would not have come into the Southeast with corn, as he suggests, only that the ideology was already in place and not recently derived from Mesoamerica.

For example, Pauketat does not account for the religious belief in twins, which is seen well outside the areas discussed in the book including, but not limited to, the Northeast, Great Lakes, and Plateau regions. Moreover, the poles he describes at Cahokia are referred to in 18th- and 19th-century journals, drawings, and paintings throughout the Plains, Northeast, and Southeast, but are never discussed by these sources as being used with voladores (‘flyers’). The circular steam baths or sweat lodges, which act as earthmother’s womb and are tied to agriculture and rebirth, are mentioned as having come from the south. But these were probably already in use, and their rise in the Mississippian period (c.800-1600) is linked to amplified crop production, increased population sizes, and greater architectural resources – namely, large cities that can be excavated.

Last, we need to move away from the expressions ‘Old World’ and ‘New World’, which are offered in the book. What we are really seeing is a clash of two old worlds. By framing our discussions as old versus new, we are, albeit unintentionally, not giving ancient Americans their due. That said, the author makes numerous mentions of other cultures around the world as comparisons. This is great: we should place ancient America on a world stage.

In his treatment of Mississippian archaeology, Pauketat’s expertise is evident. His ideas surrounding the influence of the Caddoans in the western Mississippi area on the large city of Cahokia, Illinois, are extremely intriguing and, if correct, would significantly alter our perceptions of the iconographic and cultural makeup of the Mississippian cities in the Southeast and possibly elsewhere. The author and Oxford University Press should be commended for broadening our methodological approach to North American ancient cultures and history with this volume.

Gods of Thunder: How Climate Change, Travel, and Spirituality Reshaped Precolonial America
Timothy R Pauketat
Oxford University Press, £19.99, Hardback
ISBN 978-0197645109