Imploding or Exploding? Pick your Poison
Written by Donald Hughes, 2016
Recently, I had the opportunity to visit a remarkable, historically significant site called Cahokia. It is a landmark that was the home to a pre-Columbian culture, most notably for building mounds within their village site, some reaching 100 feet in height and containing some 22 million feet of cubic dirt. And I use the term “village” loosely, because this particular site located just a few miles east of St. Louis, had a population at its peak of nearly 10,000 people. That was larger than any European city of its time, including London. The people who lived there, from around 400 BC to 800 AD, were a highly successful society. The mounds were used for a variety of purposes, including burial, religious, and social needs. They were well versed in architectural engineering, farming, and astronomy. They had abundant resources, including game, wood and timber, water and land. They flourished for hundreds of years along the Mississippi Delta, and the Ohio River Valley along with many of their mound-building cohorts, known today as the Hopewell Culture. Then they disappeared, leaving only the mounds and a few artifacts, and some of their bones.
What happened? We can ask the same thing about some of the better known civilizations like the Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, Persians, Aztecs, Incas, Mayan, and so many more. We see how they thrived, and what they accomplished, and what they left behinds: amazing art, architecture, science and culture. And yet, they are gone. Some covered by thousands of years of sand and earth. And we peer into the past and try to figure it all out. Of all the factors that resulted in their demise, one that is noticeably insignificant is outside, hostile influences. In other words, outside enemies or conquering forces were not the main reason for their downfall. Even with the Aztecs and Incas, the Spanish invasion was only aided by the fact that their respective cultures were already in significant decline. All of these once thriving, rich cultural centers imploded under their own weight, and as a result of their inability to keep balance with their resources, societal needs, and political agenda. As the ruling class tried to keep control of food growth and distribution, fuel needs, military and defense needs, health issues and population growth, the masses simply out- paced the resources.
Contrast that with societies that have been “exploded”, or attacked and wiped-out. They often times will completely rebuild. I think of Europe after World War II, how cities, countries, and even religious groups were destroyed and yet thrive today under new brick and mortar. Churches and synagogues completely rebuilt, cultures and traditions re-established, and new ones born out of the ashes. Or the Japanese after the atomic bomb. Or so many other peoples that have survived even the most brutal assaults from outside forces. Some emerge weaker or different, but none the less, they emerge and continue as a people.
My conclusion is that more often than not, an imploded culture has longer and more likely permanent damage than one that has been exploded or attacked. The resolve to continue is much stronger when the latter happens, but when a civilization gives up or gives in to internal pressures, it is likely to die a slow, agonizing death.
As I stood atop of the tall mound in Cahokia, I couldn’t help but feel a deep sadness for the vast emptiness of the once thriving metropolis below. If I could board a time machine and travel, not back but forward in time, would I witness the same desolation that was once us? Are we doomed to repeat the same scenario, of wasting natural resources, out spending our ability to repay, out taxing the working class, poor political decisions and lack of true leadership? Will future archeologists scratch their heads and wonder how such a culture, rich with everything they possibly could want or need just waste away? Are we on that long, sad path of imploding too? Only the winds of time will tell.