American Sabbatical 014: 9/16/96


9/16.. On the bottom.

Cahokia Birdman
Yesterday we traveled to another time and found one of America’s lost treasures. Kahokia Mounds. We may fantasize about Flannigan and his barrowfuls of dirt, but a thousand years ago Mississippian peoples WERE busy erecting the largest earthen ceremonial structure in the western hemisphere (two stone pyramids in Yucatan are bigger), and hundreds of lesser mounds. THIS is the American Bottom. The lowlands just below where the Missouri joins the Mother of Waters. We had to circle round to find it, but you know when you get here.

Now forgotten in the wasteland of East St.Louis, bisected by I-94 and surrounded by industrial artifacts, this great flat heart of the heartland still has the power to stun the imagination. Just like at Niagara, we have tried to overlay the power of place with the power of industry, but all we’ve achieved is a parody of natural force. Here, in the most unexpected place, is the memory of a civilization we never learned about in school, and an air of strangeness that jolts you out of time. It also has the best museum at an archeological site we’ve ever seen, with knowledgeable volunteers willing to hike all over the place to fill you in. From the heartpounding top of the Monk’s Mound, the big one, you can see the smutch and towers, the great arch of St. Louis across the water. Here it all is: an ancient civilization now worn down to hummocks in a green parkland, looking westward through the metaphoric gateway of another civilization, whose smoke and fumes will also pass. Being on a big hill after all that flatland makes you kind of dizzy.

(Monk's Mound 1832 by Carl Bodmer)

(Memo #13)

Sept. 16 - CAHOKIA

Who? Mississippian people (Pre-Columbian Native Americans or "First People")

What? 20,000 person city of Cahokia - major ritual center

Where? in East St. Louis, Illinois

When? 900-1400 A.D.

How? trade empire (reaching from Florida to Great Lakes, Appalachians to high plains)

Topics: pre-Columbian sites, Native American Cultures, urbanization, ceremonial centers, images of Native Americans, moundbuilders, archaeology.

Festiva at Cahokia

Questions: Where do you find a New World city of perhaps 20,000 people several centuries before Columbus? Where do you find the largest earthen structure in the western hemisphere, a pyramid over 100 feet high whose base covers 14 acres? Why do we call these amazing civilizations "moundbuilder"?

You may have many guesses, I’m betting they’re in Middle or South America. You may be thinking of the Aztec, Inca, Maya cultures and places like Chichen Itza, Monte Alban, Teotihuacan. None of these is the answer. The great mound and the great city I saw today are Cahokia, a pre-Columbian urban ceremonial center of the Mississippian people in what is now East St. Louis !!!

A long view
The first impression is of green. The whole huge site is covered with grass, mounds and great plaza and thousands of house sites alike. None of the aristocrats’ structures that crowned the great mound or the myriad thatched homes that formed the city remain. ”I am grass, I cover all”. Long expanses of mowed lawn are broken by large trees and the shapes of the seventy odd mounds that remain. Cahokia today almost has the feel of a great groomed park. Yet even a modern superhighway in the background and a major city visible from the top of the great mound do not overpower this site. A huge city was here. You can feel it .

Walk the huge central plaza from a lesser mound toward the looming bulk of the great mound. You walk and walk and walk and walk - a journey across the open field area that was the city heart. Climb the stairs of the four levels of the great mound and arrive breathless at the top. Looking south you can see perhaps ten other smaller pyramids of the seventy odd that remain. Others are hidden by woods or obscured by modern structures. Looking west you can see the Mississippi River, the great arch, and the city of St. Louis far away. On the east a line of hills defines the horizon. We take heights and views for granted , but what power for people of a thousand years ago to have gained this view!

Archaeologists have excavated many structures at Cahokia (though only perhaps 10% of the city’s key sites). They have used their archaeological findings and the descriptions of European explorers who described similar peoples (but centuries later) to understand this site and this culture. Food and crafts and religion and houses and social structure are all explained in the superb interpretive center. It has dioramas and demonstrations and a fullscale replica of a house and a village area that begin to set the modern visitor in the real Cahokia.

View from the top

Cahokia had an open central square, room for a market, and a round pitch area for chunkey (a ball and spear game). The houses were thatched-roof wooden square structures, some 8 X 14, others 20 X 20. The platform mounds (one of the three types) had large buildings on them.

and the other way
Cahokia has three kinds of mounds: (1) flat topped or “platform” mounds that probably held the homes of aristocrats and religious structures and mortuaries, (2) conical mounds that were burial sites probably for aristocrats, and (3) ridge topped mounds that are markers. Four ridge top mounds in fact create a huge diamond with the points at the four directions.

Surrounding the main part of the city (about 400 acres) was a stockade made of an estimated 22,000 tree trunks (oak and hickory) with guard towers spaced regularly. The trunks were set side by side about 4 feet deep and stood 12-15 feet high. They formed a continuous fence that might have been covered with mud “daub”. West of the great mound was a circle of spaced poles at 12 foot intervals (now identified with a European name - “Woodhenge”) that served as an astronomical device and solar calendar (the central pole aligns with places on the great mound at the equinoxes and solstices).

Cahokia was the center of a great civilization that existed from 900-1400AD which combined hunting with effective gardening. Fields of corn, beans, squash, sunflowers, tubers and many other plants surrounded the city. The diet also included nuts, berries, wild animals (especially deer). Stone and bone tools and pottery are found in abundance. Archaeologists assume that it was a complex society with different social classes and that the highest leader lived on top of the great mound. There is evidence of a wide trade network (sharks teeth from the Gulf of Mexico were found at Cahokia!) as well as metals from around the great lakes and stone quarried in many places.

The great mound

People wonder about archaeologists. How can they say, for example, that there was a stockade of poles. You don’t find poles. No, what you find are clear dark circles in the ground where the poles rotted. Archaeologists find many clues - from tiny seeds and bits of bone to bits of pottery, to garbage dumps and dark circles where poles and fires stood. A technique called flotation uses water and screens to retrieve tiny bits of plant matter and pollen from soil from a site. Then laboratory work identifies the remains. For example, what animal and what parts of the animal bones came from. Marks on the bones can tell you a lot about food preferences and butchering techniques.

Peggy's Cahokia
A whole other topic is the restoration and preservation of the site, its rescue from the farmers and modern subdivisions that partially destroyed it. The first Jesuits in the territory built a chapel on the great mound, a site selected by an eighteenth century farmer for a house site (he also cut a road into the great mound for easier access!). In the 1950’s there were rows of tract housing on the great plaza (now gone). The superb interpretive center went in on an area they had already excavated.

Cahokia has all the hallmarks used by anthropologists to distinguish true civilization (like Egypt or Mesopotamia or China or Inca): specialized labor, a food surplus, long distance trade, social classes, monumental public works, science, high population density, great art. The only hallmark missing is writing (which the Inca also lacked). Many other mound sites exist in Alabama, and Iowa, Illinois, Indiana. Many are national parks. Archaeologists call the whole civilization the Mississippian - also known as the Moundbuilders - and have distinguished many different time periods within it.

Bryce's Cahokia

WHY ISN'T CAHOKIA MORE KNOWN AND VISITED? We told many people we were going to Cahokia. “Where?” This site may turn out to be the highpoint of the whole trip - an awe-inspiring and incredible thousand-year-old city with the grandeur of the Roman forum or the Greek Acropolis. Perhaps it is that our image of Native Americans is only teepees and small tribes, not monumental cities. And we trivialize the creation of huge pyramid by calling them "mounds". One video I saw explained that 18th century Americans couldn't cope with the idea of pre-Columbian civilizations in North America or the possibility that contemporary Native Americans were descendants of city dwellers.

(Bodmer - 1832)


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