In the Annals of the Obscure: The Ancient Civilization of Cahokia
We drive south for a solid five hours, passing small towns lined with red brick store fronts, two-egg-and-pancake-breakfast diners, and the occasional abandoned petrol station dressed in clapboards. Through the charming main streets we maintain an obedient 30 m.p.h., but once the cornfields envelop us (and there are oh-so-many of them), we cruise at nearly 80, accompanied by one of those midwestern sunrises resplendent with pinks and purples, yellows and greens. There is nothing in these parts to obscure the view; indeed, this part of the United States is noted for its hypnotic flatness. Just miles and miles of farmland, mostly, with the occasional mist-shrouded silo or tumbling old barn.
Near the border with Missouri we start to see signs for our destination: Cahokia State Historical Site. It’s the largest archaeological site in North America, though no one's really heard of it. In the archaeologist’s albums boasting the grandeur of the Pyramids of Giza and the it-ness of Macchu Picchu, someone forgot to make a note about Cahokia.
If you’re not paying attention, it’s easy to miss. There are no massive, mysteriously-transported stones here, like those at Stonehenge or Easter Island. The first clue that this was once the site of a bustling metropolis of up to 40,000 souls (including the surrounding areas) are the mounds themselves. After all, the midwest is flatter than the black keys of any piano, so a ten-story grassy emergence from the landscape with a fourteen-acre base (on par with Giza’s largest pyramid, Khufu) is a pretty obvious calling card. Monks Mound (named for the French monks who lived in its shadow in the 1800’s) stands proudly in what was once the city’s main plaza. More than 120 smaller mounds surrounded it, each one topped with a dwelling structure for presumably important Cahokians. The immediate city center was surrounded by a fence nearly thirty feet high, and while it no longer stands, parts of it have been reconstructed to give visitors an idea of the city’s fortitude. Today, only about 80 of the original 120 mounds remain (the price of development: even the epicenter of the once-great city is now bisected by a brazen four-lane road), but from the top of Monks, one manages to understand the scale of Cahokia. This flood plain, known as the American Bottom, stretches for 175 miles. The vantage point is clear. The soil is fertile and the Mississippi river teems with life. The location is a perfect one for a city (even today, the mounds overlook the Missourian capital city St. Louis).
But the crucial questions -- most notably, the who? and the why? -- remain unanswered. Indeed, the name “Cahokia” itself is a misnomer. The Cahokians did exist, but they didn’t move into the Mississippi basin until the 1600’s -- two centuries after the fall of the glorious city in question. But with little to go on (pottery shards and bones, literally), local historians christened the Mound Builders, “Cahokians,” and the name has stuck to this day.
What we do know is this: around the year 700 A.D., communities began springing up, subsisting not only on fish from the mighty Mississippi, but also on the crops that flourished in the basin’s nutrient-rich soil: goosefoot and amaranth, for instance, as well as the weather-hardy corn. The Cahokians stayed put: houses were organized in lines and around plazas, which in turn surrounded the aforementioned main plaza. Trade commenced and blossomed, reaching the sea and even the area now known as Minnesota. In the artifact-rich mound known as Mound 34, archaeologists have excavated trinkets such as sharks’ teeth and fragments of ceremonial cups made of shells (Illinois is landlocked). As Cahokia grew in stability and population, construction commenced on the behemoth Monks Mound sometime between 900 A.D. - 1200 A.D., using some 22 million cubic feet of earth. Soon thereafter, the main plaza’s wall was erected: a two-mile long stockade complete with guard towers every 70 feet. This wall not only protected the city center, but also separated Cahokia’s elite from the wretched common man.
In the 1960’s, excavation began on the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it mound known as Mound 72. Aligned with the southwestern corner of the much larger Monks Mound and the western edge of Mound 49, archaeologist Melvin L. Fowler surmised that the three mounds were part of a larger structure known as a “Woodhenge,” one of several found throughout Cahokia. He was right -- Mound 72, along with Monks and Mound 49, formed a north-south axis which ran along the axis of the solstices (which is why even today, Cahokia is known as the “City of the Sun”). But perhaps even more interestingly, excavations at 72 yielded a new and juicier piece of information: the Cahokians practiced human sacrifice. The curious human remains at Mound 72 incite more questions than they’ve answered. Who was the apparently important man buried on 20,000 shell pieces arranged to look like a falcon? Why were four men -- heads and hands removed -- interred with their arms interlocked? And the women laid to rest near them -- 53 of them, nutrient-deficient, strangled and some buried alive -- who were they? Did they really need all 53 of them?
Cahokia’s society peaked around 1050 A.D., and thereafter began a slow descent into oblivion. By 1400 A.D., they were gone. No one is sure what happened to them, though theories abound like fireflies on a languid summer evening. Maybe the recorded change in the climate made farming too difficult and the Cahokians moved on, absorbed by neighboring tribes. Or perhaps, like so many other civilization in recorded history, the Cahokians were the cause of their own demise, with inter-social quarreling and subsequent warfare. And then there’s the legend, which says that the then languishing Cahokians were visited by robed super-beings around the year 700 A.D. These beings offered to give the Cahokians the tools and information they needed to flourish, but only on one condition: that in five hundred years time, when the super-beings returned, the Cahokians would yield to them not only their wealth, but also their children. Unable to resist this pact with the devil, the Cahokians agreed. As the centuries passed, the visit of the super beings was remembered as folklore -- until, of course, they made good on their word and returned, demanding their payment. The Cahokians refused, sending their most valiant soldiers to battle, but unfortunately, they were no match for the super beings. In a last-ditch effort to save their society and their children, the Cahokians scaled their impressive mounds and collectively emitted psychic shockwaves meant to keep their attackers away.
They were successful -- in fact, too successful. As the ground shook and the sky rumbled, no one was safe from elements awoken by the Cahokians. Not only were their attackers vanquished, but sadly, so were the Cahokians themselves. When the smoke cleared and the dust settled, all that remained were the mounds.
Or so they say.
Thanks for introducing the readers to this amazing place. The Interpretive Center with museum exhibit galleries associated with the site gives an introduction and history of the archaeology that has been done, but your piece invites the reader to come explore and dream about what happened there so long ago.
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