Long before Columbus reached the Americas, Cahokia was the largest, most cosmopolitan city to the north of Mexico. Nevertheless, by 1350, the native inhabitants of Mississippi left it, and no one knows why. In the prime of life, about four centuries before Columbus came across the western hemisphere, Cahokia was a prosperous pre-American city with a population similar to London. Located in the southern part of Illinois, eight miles from present St. Louis, it was probably the largest North American city north of Mexico of that time. It was built by the Mississippians, a group of Native Americans who occupied most of the modern southeastern United States, from the Mississippi River to the Atlantic coast.
Cahokia was a complex and cosmopolitan city for its time. However, its history is almost unknown to most Americans and modern Illinois. This is one of many stories that have been circumvented in favor of narrative filled with shops, in literature and the century of American Indians cinema as backward and primitive.
Many people still refer to cowboys and Indians, feathers and Tepin, says anthropology professor at the University of Illinois Thomas Emerson. But in 1000, from the very beginning, [the city] was laid down according to a specific plan. It does not turn into a plan, it begins as a plan. And they created the most massive earthen mound in North America. Where did this come from?
His mix of people made Cahokia like the early Manhattan, attracting residents from the entire Mississippian-controlled region: Natchez, Pensacola, Choktau, Ofto. Archaeologists who test strontium on the teeth of buried remains found that one third of the population was not from Cahokia, but somewhere else, according to Emerson, who is the director of the state archaeological service of the State of Illinois. And this is throughout the entire sequence [of the existence of Cahokiaas].
Native Americans in Cahokia were grown, traded and hunted. They were also early town planners who used astronomical schemes to build a low-budget megacity of 10-20,000 people, with the city center with wide public squares and key buildings located on huge earthy mounds built by hand. The largest of these hills was 100 feet high and covered 14 acres and still exists today.
But instead of developing, like London, into a modern metropolis, Cahokia is more like the legendary lost continent of Atlantis. Having become a large populated center in the AD1050 area, by 1350 it was largely abandoned by its people, and no one knows why. Neither the war, nor the disease, nor the European conquest led the residents of Cahokiaas to leave their homes. Indeed, the first white man who reached these lands, the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto, did not do this until 1540.
Illustration of people from Cahokia
City of pilgrimage: Cahokia is considered to be dedicated to spiritual gatherings and ceremonies. Illustration: Alamy
The Mississippi hillfort prevailed in much of the eastern half of the modern US between 1000 and 1500 years. Many of their villages were located near trade routes or sources of water and food, but Cahokia was different.
Despite the abundance of forests, deer and fish from the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, the land was flooded, so why build there? According to Emerson, the most likely explanation is that Cahokia was planned and built to double it as a city of pilgrimage, where all the Mrspips could gather for religious events.
Perhaps it was a good area to study, but not so good to live on, Emerson says. But then something changed about 1000, and it became the main center. Most of the changes have nothing to do with the economy, but what we broadly call religion.
Unlike the post-war suburbs of America, such as Levittown, Pennsylvania or Park Forest, Illinois, the Mississippi planned and built Kahokiya, successfully predicting that the population would come to it. They created a city of six to nine square miles, with 120 earthen embankments in its untreated borders. The construction of the embankment would be a very laborious task when the Mississippians dug, hauled and stacked 55 million cubic feet for several decades, using nothing more than wicker baskets to transport the whole of this land.
Arrows and other ancient Mississippi artefacts found in Cahokia.
Arrows and other ancient Mississippi artefacts found in Cahokia. Photo: Historical site of Cahokia Mounds
According to archaeologists, the largest town of Cahokiaas (later named Monksom Kurgan, after the French trappists, which tended to its terraced gardens in the 1800s) was the site of a large building that met the political and spiritual leaders of Cahokiaas. Surrounded by a wooden palisade almost two miles along the circumference, the center of the city was a place where residents, pilgrims and leaders worshiped and held ceremonies.
Most of the Mississippi lived on the other side of the stockade in rectangular one-bedroom houses about 15 feet long and 12 feet wide with wooden pillars covered with mats and a thatched roof. Far from collecting villages and camping sites, the houses were connected by courtyards and paths, forming common physical connections, unlike modern streets. Residents even built a road from east to west, which is essentially a route from the area to St. Louis.
His fall is a mystery
During his heyday, Kahokiya would have been busy working. Men hunted, grew and stored corn, and cleared trees for construction. Women had a penchant for fields and houses, made clay products, wove rugs and fabrics, often performed work and social activities in small yards and gardens outside of each group of houses.
Sacred meetings and ceremonies intended for urban purposes took place in squares and in buildings inside the stockade. There was a belief that what was happening on Earth continued in the spiritual world, and vice versa, says James Brown, honorary professor of archeology at Northwestern University. Therefore, as soon as you entered these sacred protocols, everything had to be very precise.
The Mississippi focused the center of Cahokiaas in a truly East-West way, using the line lines and positions of the sun, moon and stars to pinpoint the direction. To the west of the Monk’s mound, the circle of high pillars used the position of the rising sun to mark the summer and winter solstice and the spring and autumn equinoxes. The posts were rebuilt and dubbed by Woodhenge by archaeologists who began to explore the area in 1961.
Excavations since the 60s gave fascinating information about this ancient city. Scientists have found artistic stone and ceramic figurines; Brown was part of a team that discovered a small copper workshop next to the base of one of the mounds. Inside was a fireplace with coals, where copper could be pounded and annealed, he says. They drove him into the fire, heated up, so that the crystals in copper were reconstructed, and when they quenched it in the water, you had something like a decoration, a ball.
The site in Cahokia occupied an area of nine square miles. Illustration: State Historical Museum of Cahokia Mounds
Archaeological works also found a mound containing mass graves. Despite the fact that the degree is discussed, it seems that the Mississippi could perform ritual human sacrifices, judging by what appeared to be hundreds of people, mostly young women, buried in these mass graves. Some were probably strangled; Others, perhaps, died from bloodletting. Four men were found with cut off heads and hands; In another grave pit there were, in the main, men who had been slaughtered to death.
Apparently, what happened in Cahokia, left a bad taste in the minds of people – Thomas Emerson
The people from Cahokia may have pumped themselves and received a lot of this violence, since the researchers did not find any concrete evidence of war or invasion from the side. Emerson says that he unearthed other Native American sites that were filled with arrowheads left after the war; For comparison, in Cahokia there were almost none. His interest, he adds. In Cahokiah, the danger comes from people from above; No other people [from other tribes or locations] attack you.
But William Iseminger, an archaeologist and assistant manager at Cahokia Mounds, points out that there must have been some constant threat to the city, whether from local or remote sources that forced it to build and rebuild four times between 1175 and 1275. Perhaps they were never Attacked, but the threat was there, and the leaders felt the need to spend a huge amount of time, labor and materials to protect the central ceremonial site.
The story of the fall of Cahokiaas and its possible end is a mystery. After reaching an altitude of about 1100 people, the population is reduced, and then disappears by 1350. Perhaps they have exhausted land resources, as some scientists have argued, or have been victims of political and social unrest, climate change or prolonged drought. Whatever it was, the Mississippi simply left, and Cahokia was gradually abandoned.
Emerson says that tales of Kakhokin do not even appear in the folklore of indigenous peoples and oral histories. Apparently, what happened in Cahokia, left a bad taste in the minds of people. Earth and mounds are the only narrative.
As archaeological research continues, the Monastery Barrow is now a central element of the state historical center of Cahokia Mounds (UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1982), which includes 2,200 acres of land, 72 preserved hillocks and a museum. The US National Park Service is considering whether to take under the wing its area and nearby surviving mounds.
The federal designation could bring Cahokia additional recognition and tourism. Currently, about 250,000 people visit the site every year; For comparison, the more modern, designed by Eero Saarinen Gateway Arch in St. Louis attracts annually four million visitors.
Brown says that Cahokia is an underestimated story. Youd have to go to the valley of Mexico to see anything comparable to this site. It is a complete orphan, a lost city in every sense.