Times Square, A.D. 1100
The Indian metropolis at Cahokia
See Illinois (unpublished)
A selection from my never-published guide to Illinois history and culture, intended for the thinking tourist. (See "See Illinois" in Publications for more about that project.) The remains of the Mississippian metropolis at Cahokia in Illinois's Metro-East area have tantalized scholars as well as tourists for more than a century. How people lived there, and why they stopped living there, have been the subjects of much scholarly disputation. (For example, see the thought-provoking Cahokia: Ancient America's Great City on the Mississippi by Timothy R. Pauketat (Penguin Books, 2010).
A few miles west of Collinsville in St. Clair County, at the 2,200-acre Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, is the remains of a truncated pyramid with four terraces that rose more than 100 feet, or roughly the height of a nine-story building. It is known today as Monks Mound, after the French Trappist monks who lived here in the early 1800s and whose contribution to the region’s history is otherwise negligible. At more than 14 acres the mound’s base is bigger than that of the Great Pyramid of Egypt. Radiocarbon sampling by archaeologists suggests that it took 250 years to build—not surprisingly, considering that its 22 million cubic feet of dirt was hauled in baskets borne on human backs.
About 3,000 years ago, Illinoisans began to cultivate certain plants for food. Their society’s shift from hunting and gathering wild foods to a more sedentary agricultural existence marks the beginning of what is usually (and carelessly) called civilization in the state. Cahokia was the great city of that era, its Chicago, and it sprawled over the sites of the modern communities of Mitchell, Dupo, Lebanon, East St. Louis, and St. Louis.
At its peak between A.D. 1100 and 1200, Cahokia covered nearly six square miles and was home to as many as 20,000 people. It was the largest population center with the most complex social organization yet seen in what is now the U.S. and a node on a continental trading network; archaeologist Bill Iseminger, a State of Illinois archeologist, has called the city "the Times Square of a distant American past.” While it was inhabited (from about A.D. 700 to 1400), Cahokia was the focal point of an urban complex of satellite towns and farming outposts whose urban form anticipated, on a much smaller scale, the urban mosaic of today’s Metro East that has accreted around St. Louis.
At its peak, Cahokia must have dazzled first-time visitors the way that Chicago was to do half a millennium later. (No American city north of Mexico would surpass its peak population for 800 years.) The city center was enclosed by a stockade of upright logs perhaps 20 feet tall. In form, Cahokia was a series of neighborhoods, each with a prominent flat-topped mound on which rested the residence of an important citizen. (Sixty-eight mounds survive of the more than 120 mounds that once stood within today’s Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site.) At the north end of the biggest plaza they built the biggest mound, Monks Mound.
Just as Cahokia dominated the social life of the larger region, Monks Mound dominated the landscape of Cahokia. It is the largest prehistoric earthwork in the western hemisphere—one reason the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1982 designated Cahokia Mounds as a World Heritage Site, a status it shares with the pyramids of Egypt, Independence Hall in Philadelphia, and the Palace at Versailles. The digging, metaphorical and actual, into the site’s past has been energetic. The monographs published on one aspect of Cahokia life or another number in the hundreds, even though only about one percent of the site has been excavated.
Cahokia was built by people of the Mississippian culture, who dominated the southeastern U.S. and the Mississippi Valley from about A.D. 700 until the 1700s. The builders of Cahokia probably had come north from the Arkansas or Tennessee valleys to build here on what was the frontier of their civilization. The Mississippians sustained their civilization with an economy based on maize, an ancestor of today’s corn. As civilized people everywhere tended to do, they made calendars, traded with remote peoples, suffered from a too-rich diet, and organized themselves according to social status.
They also dedicated beautiful artworks to the gods. Among the artistic treasures unearthed from the region are stone figures such as the frog pipe from St. Clair County and “the Birger figurine” from just east of the Cahokia Mounds site in Madison County; the latter depicts a woman kneeling on the back of a serpent (possibly a fertility symbol). Both are in the collection of the Illinois State Museum.
Some Euro-American settlers of scientific bent concluded that the structures were too large to have been made by primitive humans and must instead be the remnants of an ancient eroded landscape. Others accepted the mounds’ human origins but guessed wrong about their purpose. William Oliver, touring the American Bottom in the 1840s, concluded that they were fortifications. Archeologists, relying on hard digging and radiocarbon dating rather than imagination, have divined different purposes for mounds of different styles and eras. Some were built as burial places of important clan members. The people of the Mississippian culture also built them as artificial hills, manufactured prominences on which they erected the civic and religious buildings, including the dwelling place of important personages.
The connections remain unclear, but it seems plain enough that the Mississippians of Cahokia adopted many customs from the Indians of what is now Mexico, with whom they may have traded. Much evidence suggests this cultural link. They shared motifs in jewelry and pottery and carvings, and both built large, flat-topped temple mounds in central plazas of towns as sites of such common religious practices as human sacrifice. It would be as foolish to posit direct ancestry, however, as it would be to conclude that the residents of Collinsville are Mexican because of the presence there of Taco Bell restaurants.
There was no new invention that make Cahokia possible in the sense that the railroad made Chicago possible; indeed, the Mississippians were still stuck in the Stone Age, having not yet mastered the wheel, metallurgy, or the training of beasts of burden. The innovation that gave rise to Cahokia was social. What the Mississippians of Cahokia did was organize themselves in a way that allowed them to not just cope with but capitalize on an undependable environment. Rainfall in the area was, and is, unpredictable. The land is drowned many years with floods and parched in others by drought. To cope, the Cahokians learned to exploit several types of soils for food in specialized farming communities in the city’s hinterland. Fields on the nearby bluffs were safe from flood, bottomland fields safe from drought, each providing insurance against crop failure in the other.
The Mississippians in the American southeast were doomed once the Spanish arrived there, undone by European diseases against which the stoutest wood stockades were no defense. Cahokia was doomed too, although the causes are less clear. The mute ground has yielded no evidence of war or plague which might explain Cahokia’s demise. Some anthropologists speculate that the cause was economic, that the population grew too large to be sustained by the local resource base. Others point to evidence that hostile Late Woodland peoples—hunting tribes that were culturally less evolved and materially poorer—might have disrupted trade networks.
Or the Mississippians may have inadvertently flooded their own fields. Cahokia consumed a lot of wood for construction. The one-mile-long defensive palisade around Monks Mound alone used 4,500 logs and it was rebuilt at least three times. The Bottom was not heavily forested, and experts calculate that the Cahokians would have used every mature wetland tree for several miles around the town site. Deforestation meant that trees for fuel and construction had to be fetched from some distance and at a higher cost in labor.
Perhaps more important, the loss of trees that once drank up summer rains on the bluffs left rainfall to slide down into the Bottom, inundating crop fields at the height of the growing season. These suddenly vulnerable fields apparently were abandoned, as the Mississippians moved their settlements upslope, onto the drier alluvial fans at the base of the bluffs. Culturally advanced for their day, the Cahokians were perhaps not advanced enough to survive their own careless stewardship of local resources.
In any event, the city simply collapsed, and the culture the Mississippians had introduced to this part of the world quickly degraded. By the time the French arrived in the area some 300 years later, the local Indians regarded the mounds as Europeans first regarded the pyramids outside Cairo, with a mix of awe and puzzlement.
There is no new Cahokia being born, but at least what is left of the old one is being treated with new respect. The gradual awareness of the site's uniqueness led to political pressure to save those parts of the old city that had not yet been plowed or paved, with the result that the site was made an Illinois state park in 1925. However, for decades, the state’s custodianship was so perfunctory as to amount to neglect, since the state park was managed for recreation rather than history; a picnic grounds once sat atop Monk’s Mound. Baker Brownell found the state park in the 1950s “ill-kept”—not unusual in Illinois in that era—with a “dingy” museum.
The site's status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site does not impress everyone in today's Metro East; residents around Collinsville have broken down fences that protect the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, using mounds as playgrounds for all-terrain vehicles. Local farmers and builders still level mounds on private land, especially in St. Louis's fast-growing Illinois suburbs. While state law does not compel the preservation of such privately-owned mounds, it does require their investigation; unfortunately, landowners are not prosecuted for destroying an unrecorded mound that doesn’t officially exist, and many mounds are being lost that are not yet identified as such, indeed are being destroyed to prevent their being identified as such.
In the 1970s, Cahokia Mounds was finally promoted from park to historic site and run with the more fastidious management which that status demands. The area under state protection was only 144 acres at first, but has since been expanded to 2,200-acres. The State of Illinois also has improved its stewardship. Hidden in the present parking area were three mounds whose presence had eluded officials until archaeologists excavated the area prior to building; officials reshaped the planned lot to avoid a burial mound—perhaps the highest compliment a late twentieth century Euro-Americans civilization could pay another.
The State of Illinois’s recent investments at the site reflect official appreciation of importance of the culture of its first inhabitants, and not a little of the importance of tourism as Illinois’s response to the sports stadiums, amusement parks, and museums on the other side of the river. Visitors now find a first-rate museum with imposing 800-pound bronze doors decorated with Cahokia motifs. Inside, the inevitable gift shop is augmented with a site model and a life-size diorama of Cahokia around A.D. 1200.
All the tricks of the museum trade are needed in these displays, as it takes more imagination than most people possess to see an ancient city on 2,200 acres that has been scarred by old airport runways, a drive-in movie theater, construction borrow pits, and farms. Still, people try; while attendance is down from the more than 400,000 who used to tour it each year in the early 2000s (mainly due to reduced school visits) a quarter-million people still visit Cahokia Mounds every year. ●