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Fate of Casqui people is one mystery of Parkin

By JACK SCHNEDLER SPECIAL TO THE DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE

This article was published January 30, 2014 at 2:40 a.m.

A bust at Parkin Archeological State Park gives a sense of how a Casqui warrior might have looked in the 16th century.

PARKIN - An episode from the earliest recorded history in present-day Arkansas took place in June 1541 on the edge of this Delta town. Now a National Historic Landmark, the Parkin location ranks among the nation’s important archaeological sites.

What happened here nearly five centuries ago was the encounter of explorer Hernando de Soto with an American Indian community. The event was chronicled by members of De Soto’s Spanish expedition, who called the place and its chief Casqui.

Parkin Archeological State Park, on the St. Francis River 120 miles east of Little Rock, brings to life this meeting between two deeply different cultures. The locals, who had no written language, peacefully welcomed the Spaniards. They didn’t know the Europeans carried Old World diseases that would devastate America’s native populations.

Visitors can start by watching the park’s 12-minute video, which asserts that Parkin “is one of the most significant archaeological sites in the United States.” In 1541, its population numbered perhaps 2,000. Villagers lived in wattle and daub dwellings around the platform mound of their chief.

The screening room also houses an array of objects evoking the Casqui people and the Spaniards. One of the most distinctive items is a quiver made from the skin of a bobcat and lined with a hollowed-out tree branch to hold the arrows in place.

Another gallery displays a sampling of 16th-century objects unearthed in digs by the University of Arkansas’ Arkansas Archeological Survey. Evidence of the Spanish visit includes two distinctive brass bells, a seven-layer glass bead and lead shot from firearms of the time.

Unlike most other prehistoric settlements in Arkansas, which were uprooted in modern times by farm plows and looters, Parkin has remained pretty much intact. That’s in large part thanks to a sawmill town that covered the site in the 20th century.

The chroniclers wrote that the Casqui chief believed the Spaniards had come from heaven. The party’s 12 priests conducted a Roman Catholic Mass, and De Soto had a large wooden cross erected atop the chief ’s mound. In 1966, archaeologists found bald cypress fragments that may be remains of the cross - another bit of evidence for the site’s authenticity.

One unearthed object on display hints at a sense of humor among the Casqui. It’s a clay pot decorated with two figures perched on the rim across from each other. The exhibit’s caption suggests that the scene depicts “a hunter gazing wistfully across at a rascally rabbit. A potter may have been poking fun at an unsuccessful hunter.”

A park brochure maps out a walking tour of less than a mile on a paved path. The route passes the remains of the elevated chief’s mound, a common feature in Mississippian Period villages. The structure was originally flat topped and pyramidal, perhaps 21 feet high, though erosion and looting have altered its shape.

According to the chronicles, De Soto’s party camped for two nights at Parkin and joined Casqui warriors in destroying a village of the rival Pacaca people. The Spaniards then set off on a meander that eventually brought them back to the Delta, where De Soto died of disease in May 1542 in what is now Chicot County.

What happened to the locals remains a mystery. When Europeans passed through the area in the next century, Casqui and its surroundings were deserted.

As archaeologists continue to study Parkin, a document available at the visitor center notes that “one ultimate aim of research at the site is to learn the fate of the Casqui people after the De Soto expedition left the area.”

Parkin Archeological State Park, at the junction of U.S. 64 and Arkansas 184 on the northern edge of Parkin, is open 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and 1-5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is free. Guided walking tours cost $3.50 per adult, $2.50 per child 6-12, $12 per family. For more information, call (870) 755-2500 or visit ArkansasStateParks.com.

Weekend, Pages 38 on 01/30/2014

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