America has been a nation of sports nuts for even longer than you might imagine—a thousand years, in fact. In “America’s First Pastime,” Archaeology magazine (Sept.-Oct. 2009) writes about the early Native American game of chunkey, which involved throwing spears or sticks at a rolling, hockey-puck-size stone disk. The game was an important tradition in the culture that sprang up around the great prehistoric city called Cahokia, which existed near where St. Louis, Missouri, now lies. And apparently it was much more than just a game, being used to win converts, settle scores, and spread culture:
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.
The article describes the biggest chunkey contests as great spectacles taking place on large town plazas with a 30- or 40-foot-tall obelisk or wooden post in the center on a raised mound. And if you think things get crazy when Manchester plays Liverpool or the Packers play the Vikings, consider that other nearby posts were used to exhibit enemy scalps, skulls, and recently captured foes who would soon be killed. “Not only was chunkey an important event,” the magazine writes, “but there were other possible associations, direct or indirect, with warfare and enemy executions.” Suddenly, burning a Brett Favre effigy seems almost tame by comparison.
The story of Cahokia itself, with its cultural undercurrents of brutality and power, is an incredible tale in its own right. The author of the Archaeology story, Timothy Pauketat, writes more extensively about it in his book, Cahokia: Ancient America’s Great City on the Mississippi, which is the subject of a recent Salon article, “Sacrificial Virgins on the Mississippi.” “Some of Pauketat’s ideas,” writes Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir, “are both speculative and controversial”—but with characters like “He-who-wears-human-heads-as-earrings,” they certainly are fascinating.