Till today, archaeologists aren’t sure why the huge city of 20,000 at the Cahokia Mounds near Saint Louis, Missouri disappeared without leaving any traces. The city of Cahokia began long before Christopher Columbus discovered a ‘New World’. In recorded history, Cahokia, which, during its peak in the 12th century had a population larger than London, is considered to be the first city on the continent. It was spread across six square miles and had a population between 10,000 to 12,000 people which was considered huge for the time. However, Cahokia’s height didn’t last long and its decline and eventual end remain a puzzle to this day.
Who were the people of Cahokia?
The city of Cahokia was situated across the Mississippi River from what is now Saint Louis. It was the largest pre-Columbian city to the north of Mexico. As it had not developed any writing system, archaeologists rely largely on marginal data to interpret any artifacts which they find and which may solve the mysteries surrounding the city.
The name ‘Cahokia’ comes from the indigenous people who lived in the area in the 17th century. However, five centuries before that, the land was inhabited by a highly developed society which made copper work, jewelry, headdresses, stone tables with birdmen engraved on them, a game called ‘Chunkey’ which was very popular, and also a caffeinated drink. Recent scientific research carried out on fossilized teeth indicates that the Cahokians were mostly migrants from the Midwest and they had also traveled from other far-off areas like the Great Lakes and the Gulf Coast. To the south of the Cahokia Mounds was Washausen which was an ancient settlement that archaeologists believed by the time Cahokia reached its peak in 1100.
It is likely that the warmer climate during Cahokia’s apogee was not a coincidence but showed evidence of climate change as the city had grown. There was also an increase in the amount of annual precipitation which was accompanied by the warmer weather. This bought about the right conditions for the farming of maize. This has been mentioned in a paper published in Medieval Mississippians: The Cahokian World by Timothy Pauketat and Susan Alt.
However, by 1200, the city was in decline probably due to climatic factors as there was flooding at that time. The city was abandoned entirely by 1400. Today, most of it is buried under 19th and 20th-century structures like highways and construction
The Monks Mound
The most prominent remnant of ancient Cahokia near present-day St. Louis is the ‘Monks Mound’ which is 100-feet tall. It was given this name as a group of Trappist monks lived near it long after the city had gone past its peak. The American history before colonization and settlement from Europe which is taught in schools is mostly broad and simplistic in nature dealing with cowboys and Indians, and feathers and tepees, which are colonial and European stereotypes about Native Americans. But Cahokia shows a far more developed past than many people realize. The city was laid out according to a plan and it led to the creation of the largest earthen mound in North America according to University of Illinois professor of anthropology Thomas Emerson.
Scientists carried out scientific examinations on the teeth which were discovered in the area. They have shown that Cahokia’s population was a mix of people from the Natchez, the Pensacola, the Choctaw, and the Ofo tribes of Native Americans. The findings also showed that at least a third of the people were not from Cahokia but elsewhere throughout its existence. However, the Native Americans of Cahokia traded, hunted, and farmed together. They used urban town planning and astronomical alignments to design Cahokia with a town center, wide plazas, and mounds that were made by hand.
The Monks Mound which originally covered around 14 acres is undamaged today, some 600 to 1000 years after it was completed. Archaeologists have also discovered postholes that indicate that a temple-like structure may have been situated at some point in time at the top of the mound. There was also a two-mile-long palisade made of wood which required 20,000 posts and which once surrounded the Monks Mound, some smaller mounds, and one of the grand plazas. All this reveals the vast and cosmopolitan urbane landscape of Cahokia.
Half a mile south of the Monks Mound lies Mound 72 which is only 10 feet high. It dates back to between 1050 and 1150 and contains the remnants of about 272 people, many of whom were sacrificed. According to most accounts, human sacrifice was an integral part of the cultural and spiritual foundation of Cahokia. More remains of people who were sacrificed were discovered in Cahokia than at any other place to the north of Mexico.
Though it is difficult to identify the remnants of people a millennium after they have died, archaeologists are certain that the remains are those of people who were sacrificed. According to Pauketat and Alt, in one incident alone at the Mound 72, 39 men and women were lined up at the edge of the burial pit and killed one after the other so that their bodies fell into it consecutively. On another occasion, 52 malnourished women between the ages of 18 and 23 were sacrificed together for unknown reasons. Their teeth showed that they were locals and not captured prisoners of war who could have been punished criminally. The remnants of many couples and a child were also found at the site. One couple had been buried along with 20,000 shell beads showing that they were of high social status or were figures who were revered religiously.
Religion and Cosmology
The remnants of Cahokia indicate that it was a very religious society. To the west of Monks Mound was a series of five wooden circles which were built at different times between 900 AD and 1100 AD. They vary in size from 12 red cedar wood posts to around 60. Some researchers think that these structures were used as calendars to mark solstices and equinoxes to satisfy cultural and religious urges and plan their festivals accordingly. It is believed that a priest must have officiated the ceremonies by standing on a raised platform in the center of a henge.
Sunrise during the equinox was a site to see from this location. The position of the post in alignment with the Monks Mound to its east made the scene look as if the giant mound was giving birth to the Sun. Though there is no written record of these theories, the archaeological discoveries at the site of Cahokia suggest that the city had a very cosmological appreciation. The central precinct of the city was designed to align with cosmological objects like the sun, moon, earth, water, and the netherworld according to a paper published in ‘Antiquity’ in 2017. Around a dozen mounds and the remains of wooden buildings in the city are believed to have had lunar alignments. Some of the buildings were also found to be closed to store water for religious activities. One of them contained a buried infant which is thought by the researchers to have been given as an ‘offering’
The life of Cahokians wasn’t all serious and reverential as they are thought to have had their fair share of fun and leisure activities as well. The game of Chunkey was a common pastime in the city for recreational purposes. There are accounts in the 18th and 19th centuries which detail how chunkey stones would be rolled on a field and people would throw sticks at the stones to see who would get closest. Points would be awarded proportionally to how close the stick came to the stone. The accounts also confirmed that gambling on these matches was a regular occurrence. According to Pauketat, chunkey was played in the grand plaza behind the Monks Mound. An imagined description of such a match has been given by him in Archaeology Magazine. According to it, the chief would raise his arms standing at the top of the mound while below in the grand plaza, 1000 people would shout their approval and then divide into two groups which would run across the plaza shrieking. A multitude of spears would thereafter fly through the air towards a small rolling stone disk.
Decline of Cahokia
The city of Cahokia didn’t last long but while it did it was a thriving place. The men hunted, gathered resources, and did the construction work whereas women worked in the fields and homes, where they built pottery, mats, and fabrics. There were also many communal activities and gatherings. According to James Brown, professor emeritus of Archaeology at Northwestern University, the people of Cahokia also believed that what occurred on the Earth also took place in the world of spirits and vice-versa. Everything which happened on a religious basis had to be very precise.
Finally, the remnants of the city were many mounds, human remains, and a roster of assorted artifacts. It’s not known why people were killed or what caused the destruction of the civilization. There was no proof that invasion or warfare destroyed the entire city. According to Thomas Emerson, in Cahokia, the danger to people was not from outside i.e. from other tribes but their own leaders. According to Williams Iseminger, an archaeologist, some form of threat must have existed for the city to be eventually destroyed. There may or may not have been an attack but a threat may have existed and the leaders must have expended a large amount of time, labor, and resources to protect the central precinct.
But despite the theories, the facts which are known are still insufficient as to what exactly happened to the city. Its population peaked in about 1100 and then it began to decline and completely disappeared by 1350. Some experts have suggested that the decline of natural resources or climate change may well have contributed to the city’s eventual decline. The city doesn’t appear in Native American folklore either. The only remnants of the city include a historical site in present-day St. Louis which was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1982. The site comprises 72 existing mounds and a museum. The site is visited by about 250,000 people annually. After a millennium of being built, it still holds an attraction to those who want to see it in person. But according to Brown, Cahokia is a non-dramatic story that is comparable to the valley of Mexico in antiquity but still is an orphaned, lost city.