Mary Beth Writes

Last week we went to Cahokia with our pals, Otis and David. Our Corps of Discovery (not to be confused with Lewis and Clark’s expedition of the same name) started because, at my daughter’s request, Otis had sewn a quilt for her. Len and I decided it would be fun to drive to the central Illinois village where he lives to pick it up, thus saving them the fortune it would cost to ship it.

And if one is going to be tootling down along the Mississippi River, why not hop on down to Cahokia, across from St. Louis?

I mean, how much further can it be? 

The answer is: FOUR HOURS EACH WAY FROM WARSAW!

Last Friday we picked up Otis and Dave at 8AM, drove to Cahokia, hung out several hours in blistering 90-degree temps with 70% humidity and then drove back to Warsaw. Nine hours altogether in the car definitely causes cement butt.

Cahokia is one of the US’s 23 UNESCO World Heritage Sites and is a huge and haunting place.  As you drive towards to it you see a wide, flat, park-like area. There are bumps in the acres of flatness, each covered with a tangle of grass and vegetation. One of the bumps is WAY bigger than the others; that’s Monk’s Mound.

Here are some things I have learned about this quietly spectacular place.

Cahokia was built and populated by people of the Mississippian culture, the mound-building Native American civilization that flourished in the big central areas of what is now the US from about 800 to 1600 CE. Cahokia was, by far, the biggest of these cities.

By 1100 CE Cahokia covered 6 square miles, contained 120 earthen mounds, and the population was somewhere between 6000 and 40,000 people with even more folks living in outlying farming villages.

Modern archeologists estimate that until Philadelphia in 1780, Cahokia was the largest city north of Mexico. The population of 13th-century Cahokia was quite likely larger than the population of 13th-century London.

So why was it here? A couple reasons. Chert is rock that can be struck into sharp-edged pieces that can then be made into hoes and other tools and weapons; there was a good supply of chert not too far away in what is now southern Illinois.  Cahokia controlled the manufacture and distribution of chert hoes and tools; this economic activity allowed the city to thrive. (Like FB and Google, they who start the business control the business and make the fortunes).  Cahokian tools have been found near Red Wing, Minnesota, in Pennsylvania, along the Gulf Coast and around Lake Superior. Bartering, not money, was used in trade.

The northern hemisphere’s climate from 1100-1300 CE was extra warm and wet – we know this from European records as well as from evidence in North America.  Cahokia thrived in those centuries on the three-fold crops of corn, beans, and squash, as well as bountiful fish and animals.

No one is completely sure why this powerful culture disappeared in the 1400’s, but its decline coincides with the Little Ice Age; a worldwide climate crisis that started when ash from a huge volcano in the Pacific islands blocked out much of the sun’s warmth for two years – and crops didn’t grow. There was hunger and hard times worldwide which affected people’s stamina. In Asia and Europe plagues decimated the population; it is possible that happened at Cahokia also.

Whatever happened, the people disappeared.  Eventually other Indian people moved in; it has been populated since French explorers first came upon Cahokia in the 1600’s.  But the population was small and the people they encountered told them they didn’t know the original inhabitants.

So let’s talk about those mounds … Monk’s Mound looks significant from a distance. You decide to climb the modern cement stairs built into the east side. Now you understand that 10 stories up is a LOT of steps, especially when you are huffing and puffing in steam bath weather. At the top you can see to the St. Louis arch and beyond. Scientists know a large structure was built at this apex; this was the center of Cahokia. Building Monk’s Mound took 20 years and required thousands of workers who moved more than 55 million cubic feet of earth – all accomplished via woven baskets.  It covers 14 acres; the footprint is larger than the pyramid at Giza.

The rest of those mounds - 80 remain to this day – tell a mysterious and violent story. One mound contains the bones of 270 women and men. Four of the mounds seem to contain far more women than men, though that is still being researched and debated. Some skeletons have been unearthed in a vertical position, their fingers clawing upwards, evidence they were buried alive. No one knows why. Why would a successful civilization kill and bury so many of its healthy adults? What was going on?

During excavation of Mound 72, archaeologists found the remains of a man buried on a bed of more than 20,000 marine-shell disc beads arranged in the shape of a falcon, with the bird's head appearing beneath and beside the man's head, and its wings and tail beneath his arms and legs. All those shells were brought from far away.

Excavations reveal a copper workshop; the only known copper workshop to be found at a Mississippian culture site. Someone was pushing the frontiers of technology.

The Cahokian “Woodhenge” was a series of large timber circles located to the west of Monks Mound. When the holes were plotted out, they formed arcs of equally spaced holes. It is believed the that the placement of these arcs became part of whole circles, like Stonehenge in England – marking out solstice days and other astronomical dates. What did they do to mark the arrival and departure of the seasons here at the swampy confluence of the Mississippi, the Missouri, and the Illinois rivers?

Cahokia, North America’s first river city, was wealthy, dangerous for some, complicated and urban. And then it disappeared.

Perhaps the most modern and relevant question of all is this.  Cahokia was massive, powerful, and sophisticated.  Why have so few of us heard of it – and even fewer visited it to observe, learn, and marvel?

Racism doesn’t always come up and punch us in the nose. There is so much chauvinism and racism that is silent, that is a curtain of myths and lies which separate us from the powerfully wonderful and horrible stories from which we and our nation arose.

If you want to learn more, start at Wikipedia and wander around on the internet where there is MUCH information. Including tales about “black drink”, a caffeine drink made from holly leaves.  For those who live in Wisconsin - Aztalan is an offshoot from Cahokia.  It’s 30 miles east of Madison, a couple miles south of I-94.

 

 

 

 

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Good read! I didn’t know any of this. So interesting.

Fascinating!

Thank you for writing about this place! I had never heard of Cahokia! Now I know it will be added to my list of places to visit one day!

Was there nearly 30 years ago - also Aztalan in Wisconsin and Effigy in Iowa, and some other places, but Cahokia was certainly the largest. All of the sites are rather mysterious and I definitely felt the sacredness of the sites when I was there. Now I live near Chaco Canyon -- no mounds, but ruins of another ancient culture which mysteriously disappeared.
Mary Beth's picture

When we were by Casa Grande in Arizona a couple years ago - same story. Successful community - and then in the 1400's the people disappeared.

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Location, location, location.

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