The Cahokia Mounds are one of the greatest mysteries of the North American continent, unfortunately the civilization is often forgotten about. Many school children know of the grand Mesoamerican cultures of the Mayans, Aztecs, and Incas, but rarely know anything about the civilization that reigned in the middle of the United States known as the Mound Builders. The height of this enigmatic lost culture was Cahokia, which built large tumulus of earthen pyramids in the Mississippi valley in what is now southern Illinois.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, European settlers found the unique looking mounds of earth yet contributed them to ancient European migrations such as Atlantis or the Lost Tribes of Israel, disenfranchising the construction to Indians. It was the perception of the day that it was simply impossible for “savage” Indians to have constructed what must have been massive earthen construction. Early settlers plowed many of the smaller mounds into the earth, turning ancient sacred lands into farm fields.
With recent archaeological exploration, Cahokia is emerging from the mists of the past and the fog of imaginative cultures (i.e. Atlantis). With the help of a new generation of historians and archaeologists, such as Professor Monty Dobson and Professor Timothy Pauketat, Cahokia is finally getting the proper respect that it deserves as one of the key civilizations of America. Professor Dobson is in the process of making a television documentary called “Cahokia: Native American City of Mystery” that will detail and discuss the culture and the new findings of recent archaeological exploration. A preview of the documentary can be found at:
Cahokia was known for monumental earthen architecture with flat-topped temple mounds and enormous communal architecture. The civilization also had a complex hierarchical society that had advanced astronomical and mathematical skills, which is evident with the construction of a wooden “Stonehenge” for astronomical viewing and agricultural calibration. The large circle of timbers stood thirty feet high and had a circumference of four hundred feet. The timber for this monument was salvaged from homes and was built over and over again at least four times.
Cahokia also had an extensive trading network with complex relationship with other Indian tribes stretching to the Gulf of Mexico, Atlantic seaboard, and far west into the Rocky Mountains. They traded a large list of commodities, but it is apparent that seashells were highly prized. Among other imported goods were arrowheads, stylized axe heads, and knives.
Recent archaeological evidence suggests that the culture also exhibited the practice of human sacrifice, but it is still unclear if it was religious, secular, or redemptive. It appears that the sacrifices coincided with large festivals held in the communal areas of the city. “The Cahokians seem to have been building a new kind of esprit de corps, a new sense of community – a community that, in its mix of festive gatherings and human sacrifice, in a way, linked the church and state. Possibly Cahokians accommodated the bizarre mortuary spectacles and tolerated the excesses of their leaders in part because of social and economic rewards that might have accompanied the great festivals.”
Cahokia existed in the Late Woodland period, approximately between 300 CE and 900 CE and had completely disappeared by 1200 CE, more than 300 years before any European even set foot in the New World. “Cahokia, more than any of its contemporary ‘Mississippian’ neighbors, was a vortex of native social, political, economic and religious activity. For a time it was the preeminent cultural center in the Mississippian valley.” Cahokia, at its height, had a population of more than twenty thousand inhabitants, larger than any city in all of North America and rivaled early Mayan cities of Calakmul or Chichen Itza. “The Cahokia Group, the most important manifestation of the culture it represents, is a northernmost thrust of the great Lower Mississippi area, excluding the Aztalan ruin in Wisconsin.”
Based on the archaeological findings and geological data from the area, we can conclude that the environment and weather of this epoch was comfortable and life for the population was ostensibly easy. “Nearly every fall hunters were able to stalk and bring as many deer as they needed to feed a village population of over a hundred for months to come.” The soil was both rich and easy to till, producing bountiful crops with minimal labor. The floodplains are ideal for this balance, except for the occasional floods that would occur along tributaries and the Mississippi. Corn and other crops grew in abundance, and often more than a single crop could be harvested in a year. Though the people had no fired clay pottery for cooking and agriculture was in its infancy, some archaeologists believe the very richness in the ecosystem may have made it unnecessary to develop more advanced technologies.
The construction of the earthen pyramids were more than simply piling heaps of soil and forming a large tumulus. “While it is clear that there were massive clay cores to the first pyramids of Cahokia’s central precinct, it is equally obvious that there was a highly ritualized construction cycle materialized around alternating light and dark “blankets” of mantles of soil to the mounds.” The pyramids of earth were both temples but also sites of veneration for elites and royalty buried within. “The invention of tradition at Cahokia is no more evident than in the unprecedented construction of the pyramids and the Grand Plaza of the central precinct, perhaps an import from Toltec or other Coles Creek places to the south.”
It was in the breath of those 600 years that the civilization grew to engulf more than three square miles along the great river. It was within this kingdom that more than 100 earthen mounds were built, with the greatest of these structures measuring larger in physical dimensions than the Giza pyramids of Egypt. At the height of the Cahokia civilization, the city-state had a population of more than twenty-thousand inhabitants which was greater than the medieval cities of London or Paris.
Unlike the massive stone structure of Egypt, the indigenous tribes of the Cahokia region used very little stone. “In the sense of actual building, only incipient forms of stone construction are found in the mound area. No examples of actual dressing of stone or lying up of masonry walls, as practiced by the Pueblo peoples, are known in the mound area.” What Cahokia lacked in masonry, they made up for in sheer mass of baskets of transported soil. As well as moving millions of baskets of earth to form the flat-topped earth mounds, the civilization also used timber from the local area to construct massive palisades and buildings. “At that time and over the next century, the Stirling phase residents of Cahokia and East St. Louis built a series of elite-sized pole and thatched domiciles and non-domestic buildings, some surrounded by compound walls or located near huge marker posts.”
Where did the people of Cahokia come from and how did such a great civilization rise from the wilderness of the Southern United States? This was the basic argument of 18th and 19th century Academics, who considered Indians to be a rather recent addition to the continent. Indigenous people have lived in the Americas for at least twelve thousand years and a recent archaeological discovery in Texas suggests that early cultures have been in America much longer. There is new evidence that Indians have been living as far south as modern day Texas thousands of years earlier. “Thousands of artifacts dating to between 13,200 and 15,500 years ago were uncovered by researchers led by Michael R Waters of Texas A&M University.”
The most current theory of the origins of Indians considers that tribes of protolithic hunters driven by food and new lands stepped across the frozen peninsula of the Bearing straights and into North America approximately twelve to thirteen thousand years ago. Over the course of another four to eight thousand years, Indians fanned out across North America settling in numerous locations. In the Eastern United States a set of people collectively called the Hopewell, settled along the Mississippi and Ohio Valley forming a cultural identity that represents an advance in complexity, and it significantly influenced almost all the peoples of the eastern United States. The Hopewell culture also built huge earthen hills, of which the largest was over one hundred and fifteen feet tall (in comparison the Tempo Mayor, one of the main temples in the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan stood slightly taller than ninety feet).
It was the Hopewell’s that created the innumerable structures such as the snakelike shapes that measured almost one thousand three hundred feet in length, twenty-three feet wide, and over five feet tall. It was the extension of this large geographical people that forged and formed the civilization of Cahokia.
Where did the Cahokia culture go? It was during the late 1200s that the population began to decline, some evidence suggest that the depletion of timber and soil condition resulted in the gradual decline of the city. Some evidence suggests that war was the cause of the culture’s decline. In any event, Cahokia was deserted hundreds of years before any European explorer even ventured into the Americas. The few tribes that did live in the area after the decline of Cahokia had no true relationship with the ancient civilization and considered the hills nothing more than freaks of nature. In the late 1400’s as Christopher Columbus landed in San Salvador, the Oneota culture of Indians had established small villages in the area – living in simple wigwams. It was even after the Oneota people lived with the area that the Illiniwek confederacy moved into the countryside taking up residence on the Monks Mound and other large unnatural earthen hills. It was the Illiniwek people that gave the name “Cahokia” to the forgotten people of the area. It is rather strange to consider that many of the great civilizations of the past had names other than the ones we relate to them, but as in Cahokia no recognizable written language is present nor is there any speakers of the culture still around. It probably will never be known what the people of the flat-topped soil pyramids called themselves.
As it was said, earlier, Europeans venturing into the Mississippi valley had little idea that the huge mounds of earth was the remnants of an ancient grand civilization. For many, the idea that Indians could build such massive structures was beyond their feeble imaginations. Early French explorers had no idea that many of the rises and low rising hills they discovered along the tributaries of southern Illinois were anything but natural formations. It would not be for centuries until white settlers in the area would discover that the formations were more than that. At first though, the exploration of the area by French explorers and traders occurred around 1672 when Louis Joliet was sent to “discover the south sea” and to explore “the great Mississippi, which is believed to empty in the California Sea”. Joilet, Jesuit-educated, took along Jacque Marquette, and the pair with numerous others set out from Mackinac Island on May 17th, 1673, to journey along the tributaries that led into the great Mississippi river. Their exploits were recorded and they encountered few if any Indian tribes. When they did, they met with small tribes that Marquette could understand (Jacque Marquette was gifted with the ability to speak languages and had learned at least 6 tongues of indigenous peoples). This was most likely the first time that the Cahokia mounds were observed by Europeans which all along the river lay the mounds of the past, but they saw none of them. From the river, mounds and embankments would seem mere natural formations and they would have no reason to examine them more closely unless they had seen Indian settlements.
It would be more than a hundred years later before any further exploration would result in the chance discovery of the mounds. The attitudes in the 19th century was more of obtuse confusion than anything else, because most white settlers and the intelligentsia of the day could not truly comprehend a civilization of the Americas, most aptly applying to the present day indigenous peoples, as having the capacity to build such large earthworks.
In 1788, Manasseh Cutler arrived on one of the mound sites in the Ohio Valley and discovered settlers were felling huge trees on top of the earthen hills. He logically deduced that if he counted the rings of the oldest of trees, he could guess the age of when the mounds were constructed. Although he erred on the exact epoch, he at least determined that the site was extremely old, ranging from four hundred to more than a thousand years old.
In 1836, Albert Gallatin, the Secretary of Treasury for the Thomas Jefferson’s administration, concluded, “How shall we account for those ancient tumuli, fortifications, and the remnants, both east and west of the Mississippi, the origin of which is entirely unknown to the Indians, who in the seventeenth century were the sole inhabitants, and still continue to occupy a part of that country?” Gallatin could not fathom how such huge earthen works could have been constructed and it was beyond his reasoning to think that indigenous people could be held responsible for the construction. It was of Gallatin’s opinion that the mounds were perhaps a pre-cursor civilization to that of the Mexican and Central American highlands of the Aztec and Mayans, which according to the theorists of the time had “similar looking buildings”.
It would only follow, and of course be supported by modern archaeology of the time, that peoples of the north would gradually migrate to the south, bringing with them agricultural and architectural technology.
By other accounts, however, most notably those in Europe that mythical significance was being attached to the Cahokia mounds. In 1795 Jacob Bailey wrote stories of a great ancient empire being brought down by savages. “Bailey described the gory struggle between the Mound Builders and the fierce savages, driven on by famine, who burst like an impetuous torrent upon their polished more effeminate neighbors, involving in destruction all the monuments of industry, art, and refinement.” throughout the discourse never were Indians suggested as being the more advanced civilization, often suggesting fanciful concepts of ancient Viking or lost European colonies. Other stories circulating around Europe about the mounds draw conclusions to a party of Israelites being drawn to ships by the hand of God and then finding a new civilization in America. And if it could not get any worse, Major Powell, a U.S. soldier, geologist, and explorer of the American West, proclaimed that the mounds of Cahokia, and elsewhere in the Mississippi and Ohio valley, were that of the lost continent of Atlantis.
Every day reveals a new page in the history of the forgotten people and culture along the Mississippian valley. It is such a tragic shame that for the last three hundred years Americans have ignored and incorrectly attributed the hills, mounds, and tumulus as anything but natural formations, or even worse to the wanderings of mythical people such as the Lost Tribes of Israel or the fanciful mental creations of the Atlanteans. It was the pure racial intolerance of the 18th and 19th centuries to exclude Indians as the rightful heir to the lost civilization. It is only now within the last forty years we are finally rediscovering the epic civilization that existed along the Mississippi; learning their culture, religion, and how they constructed the great mounds known as Cahokia and finally giving credit to the American Indian as the children of this most prestigious and grand civilization. The Cahokia Mounds are one of the greatest mysteries of the North American continent, but in perhaps future generation of American school children the name Cahokia will reign up with the Aztecs, Incas, and Mayans and be recognized as a major culture that existed in America six hundred years before European explorers and settlers even stepped on to the North American continent.