Cahokia Mounds
North America's Pre-historic Culture

Collinsville, IL

April 5, 2000

While spending a week in St. Louis, Laura searched around for a possible story and found something most unusual, at least to me. Although never having traveled to the part of Mexico where the great pyramids are, I have always pictured these great structures as part of an ancient Mexican Indian culture. I was quite surprised when we came across one of the great mounds in Illinois. The Cahokia Indians created a city of some 20,000 people beginning around 700 AD, and at one point they created an earthen mound the size of a pyramid. The Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site which is also a World Heritage Site, is a 2,200 acre site preserving the central section of the largest prehistoric Indian city north of Mexico. The 65 man-made earthen mounds, wooden sun calendar and Interpretive Center presents an account of the sophisticated culture whose city was centered here. The 33,000 square foot Interpretive Center who's metal clad front doors are covered with a bas-relief that tempts one to come in, explains in great detail, the almost 1000 year history of Indian life at the convergence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. The flood plains of these rivers provided rich soil, abundant plant and animal life, and access to an enormous trade network. Pre-Columbian cultures developed and flourished here for several hundred years before vanishing sometime after the 14th century. The loosely connected villages gradually condensed. The first organized culture probably emerged in the late woodland period, somewhere around 700 A.D. Very little is known of these first dwellers, as they centered in small compact villages. They were hunters and fishermen, leaving little behind to mark their existence. A second, more sophisticated culture, the Mississippian culture, emerged between 850 and 900 A.D. Rather than being a completely different Indian group, the Mississippians were probably descendants of the late Woodland people. Differences between the two cultures are explained by the gradual integration of new ideas and technologies which among other things allowed the Mississippians to develop a more extensive agricultural system which included corn and squash as the principle cultivated crop. Sustained by a staple food base and bountiful hunting and fishing, the Mississippians built a complex community with a highly specialized social, political and religious organization. The prehistoric city that we call Cahokia became the regional center of that culture. Cahokia was governed by a Chief claiming divine power. Called "Great Sun" in later Mississippian cultures, the Chief was thought to be the brother of the solar sun. Under the Chief were high ranking relatives, sub-chieftains and an elite class. From there, power spread downward to the heads of clans that controlled the general population. Cahokia was an urban center, with a large central population and support settlements. Major U.S. cities today are generally regarded as urban areas if their populations exceed 250 people per square mile. There were 4000 people per square mile at Cahokia. The dense population created what is now is called urban stress. Symptoms of urban stress at Cahokia included malnutrition, increased exposure to disease, pollution from wood fuel and human and animal waste, and the depletion of natural resources. Cahokia was one of the biggest cities in the world around 1250 A.D. At the height of its existence, Cahokia had a population of over 20,000 people. Around 1100 A. D. the Mississippians built a wooden wall 12 to 15 feet high around 300 acres of the central city. Perhaps it served to protect the central sacred area or to separate the social classes. Whatever the purpose the wall was so important to the Indians that they rebuilt it three times. Each reconstruction required 15,000 trees. The resulting depletion of the wood supply may have contributed to the eventual disappearance of the Mississippians from this area. The Mississippians were builders of earthen mounds, sometimes similar in shape to the pyramid of other Central American Indian cultures. They built as many as 120 of these mounds in an area stretching as far away as St. Louis. Many have been altered or destroyed by modern farming and urban development. Of those that survived, approximately 65 are preserved within the boundaries of this historic site. Though a few of the mounds were used for burials, most were for ceremonial activities for the living. The mounds are made entirely from dirt dug with tools of stone, wood or shell, and transported on people's backs in baskets to the mound site. The digging left large depressions called borrow pits, which can still be seen. Most mounds were built in several stages. It is estimated that the Indians moved more then 50 millions cubic feet of earth for mound construction with almost half of it going into one mound. Mounds were built in platform, conical and ridge-top formations. Platform mounds usually served as bases for buildings for ceremonial or religious uses or residences for rulers and priests. Monks Mound is the most commanding mound and is the largest prehistoric earthen construction in the New World. This 100 foot tall four-tiered platform was built in stages over a period of 300 years. Its base covers more then 14 acres, and it contains about 22 million cubic feet of earth. A massive building 105 feet long by 48 feet wide and 50 feet high once stood at the top. Here the Indians' principal ruler lived, conducted ceremonies and governed the city below. Running up the almost 150 steps, broken up by 16 landings was a grueling exercise but the view from the top was spectacular. Imagining looking down on the activities of some 20,000 people and the line of basket carriers stretching out for miles, was something to experience. This was a great outing and a perfect way to get some much needed exercise. Sometime around the 15th century, a slow steady decline in population occurred, as it is presumed the land simply could no longer provide for the people. With it being many centuries before fertilizers would be introduced, the one or two staples repeatedly planted on the same patch of land, finally drained the soil of its needed nourishment, and cleared land was no longer able to protect the game previously abundant everywhere. Eventually, hunger and disease reduced this great city to its final ghost town stage. Too much of a good thing had finally brought down the most sophisticated culture, to date, in North America. I went away hearing the pre-historic warnings offered and wondering what had we learned in a thousand years. 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