'The city that history forgot'
Tenn. - The Mississippi River has its mysteries, but none that can
touch the one that unfolded on its banks 1,000 years ago in what
is now southwestern Illinois, across the river from St. Louis. We
began the second week of our journey down the Mississippi by visiting
the eerily magnificent mounds of the native American metropolis
of Cahokia and hearing an archeologist describe the rapid rise and
fall of "the city that history forgot."
good mystery needs a detective, and we found ours in Tim Pauketat,
an associate professor of archeology at the University of Illinois
and a leading expert on Cahokia. Also joining us for our tour of
the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site was Susan Alt, a post-graduate
student who is working on her dissertation on Cahokia and the surrounding
we began our tour by climbing Cahokia's biggest mound a tiered
pyramid known as Monks Mound for a group of Trappist monks who built
a monastery nearby in the early 1800s Pauketat filled us
in on the basics of what is known about the city and its people.
Indians first arrived at Cahokia around A.D. 700, but sometime around
1050 the population exploded for unknown reasons and the city became
a regional center of what is known as the Mississippian culture.
At its apex, the city had between 10,000 and 15,000 residents, with
the regional population, including parts of St. Louis and East St.
Louis, estimated to have been 30,000 to 40,000. That would make
it one of the biggest if not the biggest world metropolises
of its time.
fall was just as sudden. For reasons that remain unclear, by 1300
only 250 years after its emergence as a prehistoric powerhouse
the once-magnificent city had been virtually abandoned and
its people dispersed.
as baffling as Cahokia's rocket-like ascent and Icarus-like fall
is the fact that many Americans have never heard of Cahokia and
the Mississippian civilization.
said that stereotypes about American Indians likely play a role
in the dearth of knowledge.
think Cahokia has been forgotten, especially by Americans today,
because it's in North America, it's in our backyard, it's not exotic,"
he said. "
That's partly wrapped up in the subtle racism that
still exists against American Indians. People typically don't think
that American Indians could have built a civilization given the
biases that were developed during the westward expansion."
we gained the top of Monks Mound and gazed out at nearby mounds
and restored features a palisade intended to protect the
inner city and a giant solar calendar called Woodhenge for its resemblance
to Great Britain's Stonehenge Pauketat painted a picture
of how the ancient city looked during its heyday.
Cahokians built three types of earthen mounds pyramid-shaped
platform mounds, which had flat tops that served as bases for ceremonial
buildings or residences of the elite, and conical and ridge-top
mounds, both of which were used for burials of VIPs and, in some
cases, victims of sacrificial rituals.
Mound was the centerpiece of the complex, rising 100 feet from its
14-acre base. Archeologists estimate that it took 22 million cubic
feet of earth, all transported from nearby "borrow pits" by baskets
carried on the backs of workers, to create the mound in several
phases. A large building 105-feet long, 48 feet wide and
about 50 feet high once stood atop the mound and is believed
to have been the ceremonial home of the city's ruler or an elite
the mounds were a series of plazas, the biggest of which
the Grand Plaza covered almost 50 acres.
were places where you'd have feasts, processions or other public
gatherings," Pauketat said.
plazas also were used as arenas for chunkey a two-player
game that consisted of rolling a smooth wheel-shaped stone and then
throwing spears to try to come closest to the spot where the stone
would come to rest.
game, which was developed by Cahokians, remained popular hundreds
of years later among Southwestern and Midwestern tribes. It likely
involved high-stakes gambling, or at least it did when the first
European explorers saw it being played.
explorers wrote that they got so into it that they would lose their
families (through gambling)
and then commit suicide," Pauketat
said. "It was a very important game."
around the central city were many outlying villages, where Cahokians
raised corn, squash and a variety of starchy seeds on farms and
hunted to supply the inner-city residents with meat.
also practiced craft specialization, with individual clans or villages
producing artworks, tools and weapons.
said these villagers were clearly second-class citizens.
didn't eat the good meat even though they were closer to the source
at the woodlands
and may have had some social obligation
to send it here," he said.
said archeologists have barely scratched the surface of Cahokian
of the most significant discoveries to date is Mound 72, a ridge-top
burial mound in which archeologists found the remains of an important
ruler, a male in his 40s, lain on a bed of more than 20,000 marine
shell disc beads. Nearby were caches of arrow tips from present-day
states like Arkansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Wisconsin, apparently
sent in tribute to the deceased.
buried nearby were the bodies of many men and women, the victims
of a mass execution at the same time of the man's burial.
the reasons for the human sacrifices remain unclear, Pauketat said
it appears the deaths were part of "a theatrical ritual, and the
roles seem to be mythical," possibly a retelling of the story of
creatures like the birdman, a human looking figure with a falcon
beak, also figure prominently in Cahokian artworks.
such tidbits give glimpses of the ancient Cahokians, many aspects
of their lives are shrouded by the passage of time, including the
name by which they knew their city.
name Cahokia comes from a clan of the Illinois Indians the
Cahokia that was living in the area when the first French
explorers arrived in the early 1600s. But the city's original name
was never recorded because the Cahokians had no form of writing.
And strangely, no stories referring to the great city were ever
recorded among the tribes that are believed to be their direct descendants
the Osage, Omaha, Ponca and the Quapaw, among others.
theory, put forward by anthropologist Alice Kehoe, suggests that
"Cahokia had some negative associations and when people left they
were trying to get away from it and they intentionally forgot about
it," said Pauketat. "
(The Indians) didn't talk about it,
Euro-Americans came in, they didn't care about it. So this place
is sort of the city that history forgot."
what those "negative associations" might have been remains open
to debate, but Pauketat said he believes that an internal power
struggle that spun out of control is the most likely explanation.
looks like there were factions and they were vying for control,"
he said. "
First and foremost it was a failure of government."
have theorized that environmental problems, including a drought
and a major climatic shift that led to a "mini-ice age," may also
have contributed to Cahokia's rapid downfall, Pauketat said.
archeologists have fairly well-developed theories about the collapse
of the civilization, the question of what caused Cahokia to catch
fire has so far defied explanation.
1050, there is a sudden coalescence and a central authority emerges
and the site goes from maybe 1,000 to maybe 10,000 to 15,000
people and grows to 8 square kilometers (a little less than 5 square
miles)," Pauketat said. "Cahokia is a magnet. It sucks other people
said efforts to answer such questions are being hampered by the
fact that modern development in outlying areas continues to erase
clues that could provide new insights into Cahokia.
Cahokian sprawl is difficult to measure because it has been covered
by the St. Louis sprawl," he said.
Still, with much digging yet to be done at Cahokia, Pauketat believes
that the answers to many puzzles will eventually emerge.
an optimist," he said. "I think you can get at answers, sometimes
circuitously, through different routes.
But maybe I have
to be an optimist, because it can be depressing given the rate of
saying goodbye to Pauketat and Alt and touring the Cahokia Mounds
Interpretive Center, we pointed our van south and set off on a 250-mile
drive to Memphis, Tenn.
return to the river on Day 9 of our trip, joining the crew of a
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredge to learn the ins and outs of
river-bottom vacuuming to maintain the Mighty Mississippi's crucial