Cahokia: America’s first city

[Thank you all for returning to my blog after a two month hiatus!  The exceptionally busy time is past, and I can resume writing.  I’ve missed sharing these with you!]

Because I grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, driving back and forth across I-70 has always seemed like a birthright.  When I attended the 2017 ASMS conference in Indianapolis, driving there from my parents’ home in KC seemed an obvious choice.  On my way back to KC, though, I stopped at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site.  A comment from my brother had jogged my memory of Guns, Germs, and Steel, a core text of human anthropology.  The Mississippian cultural tradition, to which Cahokia belongs, could have been one of the original “Cradles of Civilization,” and I wanted to see it first hand.

At first glance, Cahokia is visually marked by the massive Monks Mound (with a base covering 14 acres / 57,000 m²) and many nearby mounds.  What makes this site significant?  Cahokia represents the first urban settlement within the borders of the United States.  Researchers have estimated that its population approached 20,000 citizens at its peak, between 1050 and 1100 A.D.  This development was possible because of plant domestication along the Mississippi River, starting as early as 3000 B.C. with squash, sunflower, and marsh elder.  The rise of Cahokia, however, probably coincides strongly with the arrival of corn, domesticated in central America.  Farming made city development possible, since adequate food supply allows diversification of labor into different functional roles.  I borrowed my title for this post, by the way, from William Iseminger’s book detailing decades of archaeological research at Cahokia.

I have mentioned several World Heritage Sites in my travels, such as the Great Wall of China, the Historic Center of Warsaw in Poland, or even the Cape Floral Region of South Africa.  The United States of America offers a total of 23 sites on the World Heritage list, and Cahokia Mounds was added to this list in 1982, putting it on a parallel with Mesa Verde or the Statue of Liberty!  It seems unfortunate, then, that Cahokia has never been granted National Historic Landmarks protection from the National Parks Service.  Instead, the State Historic Site has scraped together enough funds to acquire around half of the land originally covered by Cahokia; many of the original mounds of the city, in fact, have already been lost as farmers consolidated fields and as St. Louis expanded its reach.  The destruction of Powell Mound, the marker for the western boundary of Cahokia, illustrates the pressures on this site.

Walking around the site


Monks Mound (Mound 38) is the tallest structure remaining at Cahokia.

If I may reverse the order of the walking tour, I would start at Monks Mound itself, “North America’s biggest prehistoric earthen structure.”  In some respects, the mound represents a high platform (~100 feet above ground level) built atop a lower platform (~35 feet above ground level).  The name comes from a group of Trappist monks who farmed atop the lower platform during 1809-1813.  One might naturally ask of the mounds “what’s in there?”  In fact, several of the mounds have flat tops, and that’s because they served as platforms for important buildings; one will not find buried treasure in this type of mound!  It is worth noting that the mound builders lacked some key tools, such as the wheel and axle.  All the clay and mud of this mound was taken from a nearby “borrow pit” by individuals with baskets or pots and then walked to the construction site.  Recent research suggests that Monks Mound was built within a span of 20 years!


The view toward St. Louis from atop Monks Mound

The view from atop the mound is stellar.  The Mississippi River flood plain is vast and flat, so 100 feet of elevation is enough to see quite far.  In the picture above, you should be able to see the St. Louis Arch, at a distance of approximately ten miles.  This high elevation was home to a temple, courtyard, and high pole, with the temple measuring 104 by 48 feet.  The mound sends a clear statement about who ruled Cahokia, much as the massive construction of the Forbidden City sent that message in Beijing.

If Monks Mound represented Cahokia’s Capitol Hill, where was the city?  The large field in which I was standing for the first photo has been named as the Grand Plaza.  The 40 or 50 acres of ground are almost completely flat.  As our tour guide said, “Illinois is flat, but it’s not that flat.”  In fact, archaeologists have produced evidence that the Cahokians leveled the area by adding fill dirt of up to three feet across this large area, then added a sandy surface atop it.  The area likely played a fair number of community roles, not least of which was the field where athletes would try their hands at chunkey, a sport where players would compete to roll small stone discs onto the playing field and then launch a stick to land as close as possible to where the stone would stop its roll.


The Twin Mounds appear to have served as a ceremonial center for funerary rites.

The Grand Plaza extended south to the Twin Mounds.  Mounds 59 and 60 are approximately half a kilometer away from Monks Mound, and they appear to have functioned as a “charnel house” or site for funerary rites.  Mound 60 was a platform mound, so it is likely to have had a structure constructed atop it.  Mound 59 is not a platform mound but rather a conical structure named “Round Top”– it appears to the right in the photo above.  When these conical mounds have been excavated at other sites, they frequently contain burials; respect for the dead is one of the reasons that Round Top has not been formally excavated.  Since much of this site was unprotected for years, though, Round Top was occasionally pilfered by the curious.  The link for Mound 59 relates a story from 1915 of boys who began digging for treasure in Round Top.  They found a skeleton with a copper serpent on its chest.  One of the boys claimed it as his own, and it has been lost to history.

Formal archaeology has continued at this site for decades, of course, and one of the most interesting stories has come from Mound 72.  To an untrained eye, the mound appears quite small and dull.  Its unusual orientation and location away from others, however, drew attention from researchers beginning in 1967.  In total, the remains of 270 different people have been found in the mound.  Most of them appear to have been young women, killed ritually, but a group of 39 skeletons seem to represent individuals who died in violent chaos.  Their mass burial completely contrasts with the “beaded burial,” an individual lying atop twenty thousand beads made from shells imported from the Gulf of Mexico.  Certainly mound 72 demonstrates that residents of Cahokia were not held to be equal after death.


The palisade wall stretched two miles, a thousand years ago!

Cahokia was protected from possible attack by a two-mile palisade.  This wall ran outside Monks Mound, around the Grand Plaza, and encompassed even the Twin Mounds.  Rather than building the wall of masonry, as practiced by the Chinese in constructing an early segment of the Great Wall, the Cahokians cut down young trees, stripped their branches, burned the ends to prevent decay, and buried the ends in a long trench.  Since the trees rotted with time, the wall needed frequent replacement.  This demand for timber was apparently a big driver in the deforestation of this area next to the Mississippi River.

Early civilizations sought to regularize the cultivation of crops, and the Cahokians constructed “Woodhenge” to show the changing seasons.  A circle of tall poles are found to the west of Monks Mound.  At the equinoxes, the sun rises directly behind Monks Mound from that vantage.  Archaeologists have found evidence for at least five different constructions of Woodhenge on this site, ranging up to 476 feet in diameter.  Today, Woodhenge is somewhat separated from the rest of the Cahokia site as the nearby town continues to develop.  The atmosphere of the calendar is diminished only a bit by the gas station across the street.

Cahokia in context

How did Cahokia rate in the world of 1000 A.D.?  As I mentioned above, Cahokia was missing some key resources.  The Americas lacked the invention of the wheel (as well as domesticated animals for pulling wagons), and Cahokia is prehistoric by definition since the population had not developed a written language.  Cahokia had very little ability to work with metals; most of its copper came from up north, and they lacked techniques to smelt it, for example, to produce bronze.  Once corn arrived at Cahokia, its cultivation swiftly exhausted the soil since beans were not available for crop rotation.  These are some pretty big barriers to the longevity of this city!


Porcelain figurines from the Song Dynasty (National Museum of China)

By comparison, we might look at four cities that were the greatest successes of 1000 A.D: Córdoba, Baghdad, Constantinople, and Kaifeng.  Córdoba and Baghdad were enjoying the “Golden Age of Islam.”  Córdoba was the capital of its Caliphate under the Umayyad dynasty, and its population may have reached a half million inhabitants (about twenty-five Cahokias).  Baghdad, on the other hand, had already crested a million in population by this time under the Abbasids, who made it a renowned center of learning.  Byzantium had endured for almost a thousand years when it became Constantinople in 330 A.D., serving as the new capital for the Roman empire; by 1000 the city was experiencing the Macedonian Renaissance, with a population somewhere between that of Córdoba and Baghdad.  Kaifeng had been selected as a capital by the Song Dynasty of China when they came to power in 960.  The population of 400,000 struggled with typhus, but the armies this city controlled were sophisticated enough to use gunpowder in siege warfare!

Compare these major cities with Cahokia in the same era.  Its less diverse agriculture, limited availability of soft metal, and oral tradition without a written language forecast an unhappy fate when its descendants met those of the East.  In fact, one of the great mysteries for Cahokia is discerning which native American tribes are most related to the great Mississippian city!  By the time De Soto reached the Mississippi River in 1541, Cahokia had long since been abandoned.  A 2004 exhibit by the National Endowment for the Humanities attempted to show the richness of the culture that existed before contact with Europeans.  Tragically, that first contact led to plagues that ravaged the indigenous inhabitants of North America well before colonists began moving their boundaries westward.  To visit Cahokia, though, is to witness a high point of the culture of native America.


One thought on “Cahokia: America’s first city

  1. Anna Belle Leiserson

    Great to see you back in the blogosphere! Even better, Alan and I are headed west for my astronomer brother’s birthday on the day of the solar eclipse, and were looking for sites to see on the way. Cahokia just went to the top of my list.

    Liked by 1 person


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