The Mississippi flood plain in Southern Illinois was once the location for America’s first large city. The lost city of Cahokia, whose name was acquired from a tribe close to the area in the 17th Century (BBC, 1998), was a large city with a population of 10,000 or more during its peak period (Lobo, Talbot, & Morris, 2010). No written records have been discovered by archeologists at the site. Through archeological discoveries and through studies of the mounds that still exist, a surprising picture of its citizens emerges. Cahokia was a city that rivaled contemporary societies in Europe.
The peak period of Cahokia began around 1050, when the city grew at a rapid pace, possibly reaching peak population within a few years’ time (Hodges, 2011). The peak years lasted about a century (Holley, Dallan, & Smith, 1993). The area was ideal for settling and was located at the convergence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. The soil was rich and provided a perfect environment for growing maize, a staple of Cahokian residents. A study of bones found at the site found one of the few health problems of the city’s occupants was anemia, which was likely due to their diets being composed mainly of maize (BBC, 1998).
The builders and occupants of the city were ancestors of different clans and lineages; these “Mississippians” formed a horticultural society spanning thousands of acres. People of high status lived on top of high flat mounds (BBC, 1998). The flatland areas around the mounds and outside of the city held small, thatched huts made of wood in which those of lower status lived (BBC, 1998). Archeologists estimate the surrounding population of the city to have been as high as 20,000 (Hodges, 2011). Cahokia is believed to have been larger than either contemporary London or Rome during its peak period and was equal in magnificence to the Aztec civilization (BBC, 1998).
The mounds were created by the inhabitants of the civilization. Earth was removed from borrow pits, dug out areas of land used to build ground up elsewhere, and layered to create large mounds of earth. Evidence of diversity of the Cahokian residents was found in layers of borrow pits (Holley, et al., 1993). Food, cooking pottery, and other feast-related artifacts indicate that large, well-populated feasts were a feature of the society. Archeologists speculate that the feasts were part of political negotiations held to bring together those of different beliefs and traditions (Pauketat, Kelly, Fritz, Lopinot, Elias & Hargrave, 2002). The feasts were believed to take place in the Grand Plaza, due to the proximity of the borrow pit to the plaza (Puketat et al., 2002). The Grand Plaza itself is believed to have been roughly 16 hectares in size (Holley, et al., 1993).
The Grand Plaza was a meeting place for both feasts and leisure. Chunky stones found suggest that men engaged in games in the plaza, rolling the chunky stones and betting on how far they would roll or attempting to stop their motion with spears (BBC, 1998). Thanks to the richness of the soil, the natives spent less time searching for food and had time for games (BBC, 1998).
A more macabre activity that took place at the sites was ritual sacrifice. Excavation at Mound 38 revealed the remains of over fifty women, as well as one man believed to be of an important status (Hodges, 2011). Four more bodies discovered at the mound were missing both their heads and their hands. These men were missing both heads and hands and may have been killed for some nefarious activities (BBC, 1998).
Mound 38, or Monk’s Mound, named after a group of French monks that lived near it, located directly behind the grand plaza, is the largest standing mound at the location. At roughly 14 acres total, Monk’s Mound is larger in its mass than the Cheops pyramid (Lobo, et al., 2010). The mound is roughly a hundred feet above the surrounding ground and covers . Smaller mounds run along the eastern and western sides of the Grand Plaza (Holley, et al., 1993). Cahokia is believed to have held about 120 mounds in total (BBC, 1998), although not all of them are in existence today.
Another interesting feature of the city discovered during excavations were post pits, suggesting the existence of up to five Woodhenges, circular formations of wooden posts. Seasonal markers indicating the summer and winter solstices and the spring and autumn equinoxes were most likely supplemented with posts to mark important feasts or festivals (“Information on Woodhenge”, 2008). The circles had different amounts of posts; in order of discovery, the sites had 24 posts, 36 posts, 48 posts, 60 posts, and 12 or 13 posts. Some of the posts have no known relevance (“Information on Woodhenge”, 2008). These henges were probably rebuilt several times (BBC, 1998). The use of red cedar for the henges suggests that they were of importance (Pauketat, et al., 2002).
Cahokia seems to have died out almost as quickly as it rose to grandeur. A dense population may have led to factors that changed the climate of the area; for example, deforestation may have led to soil erosion. Pollution of the land or water leading to disease are other difficulties that could have been encountered by the heavily populated city (Hodges, 2011). During its peak, however, Cahokia was a large and complex society in the country that was named the United States of America long after the civilization was abandoned.
BBC. (Producer). (1998). Cahokia: America's lost city. [Web Video]. Retrieved from http://www.sidereel.com/BBC_Ancient_Voices/season-1/episode-3
Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site (2008). Information on Woodhenge. Retrieved from http://cahokiamounds.org/explore/cahokia-mounds/woodhenge
Hodges, G. (2011, January). America's forgotten city. National Geographic Magazine, Retrieved from http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/print/2011/01/cahokia/hodges-text
Holley, G. R., Dalan, R. A., & Smith, P. A. (1993). Investigations in the Cahokia site Grand Plaza. American Antiquity, 58(2), 306-319. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/281972
Lobo, S., Talbot, S., & Morris, T. L. (2010). Native American Voices: A Reader (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.
Pauketat, T. R., Kelly, L. S., Fritz, G. J., Lopinot, N. H., Elias, S., & Hargrave, E. (2002). The residues of feasting and public ritual at early Cahokia. American Antiquity, 67(2), 257-279. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2694566