Over the years we’ve heard a great deal of the Mayans and Aztecs. They were a marvel. But they weren’t the only sophisticated civilizations on the North American continent. We’ve just heard more about them.
Did you know there was a huge metropolis in the Midwest long before Columbus stepped foot on what is known as the United States? It rivals the Mayans and Aztecs in knowledge, finance, commerce, agriculture, and medical practices. Furthermore, this group of people built a mound that took up the space of a pyramid and was at least a hundred feet tall (considering erosion rates, it could have been even taller)? In fact, the base is larger than the Great Pyramid in Egypt and covered fourteen acres. The surrounding town, consisting of at least 120 pyramid styled mounds (massive bases and flat tops), built around the central plaza and mound and boasted a population larger than many cities in Europe?
Cahokia was huge, even by European standards. It’s estimated the nation was made up of about fifty loosely connected communities in the greater area spread out from the main mound (Monks Mound). Surrounding the mound were many well-built houses and many had family gardens. Numerous mounds had official buildings sitting on the top of them; some were homes of the elite. Population is estimated at around 20,000 in the city and probably another 30,000 in the surrounding area.
We think of football fields are huge, but the plaza was roughly the size of 45 football fields. That’s huge and it was enclosed in a wooden stockade (which took approximately 20, 000 logs to make).
What’s truly amazing to me is that the residents built these mounds. Keep in mind they didn’t have horses and wagons to do this. Instead this dirt was hauled by basket carried by men and, no doubt, some slaves were also used. Many tribes had slaves from enemy tribes.
The surrounding area was lush because it was part of the Mississippi bottomland. Rich soil, at least initially, for supporting an advanced agricultural society. It boasted of some good forests but those were cut down for building, especially the wooden wall around the top of the mound. Cahokia also sat at the convergence of the Missouri, Illinois and Mississippi rivers and so there was commerce from trade. Using the rivers trading reached from the gulf area north to the Minnesota area. Who knows, for sure, how far traders went on foot through out the lands surrounding the city. Archaeologists have found goods that indicate the trade routes were quite far reaching. But can you just imagine being on a trade canoe and seeing Cahokia for the first time? It would have been a wondrous sight to see.
Experts say the town only lasted about 300 years and then was abandoned. I imagine as they used up the resources (they weren’t great land managers) and the weather changes had many leaving and heading to smaller, more sustainable, settlements and villages. Many of the Native Americans in the area had similar beliefs and building styles so that would fit.
Cahokia is one of the largest archaeological areas in North America and it’s practically at my doorstep. I want to visit the area again and really look around. Walk up those 150 some steps and stand on Monks Mound and imagine a world of 700 years ago. I want to stand below the mound, in what was once the plaza, and imagine a sunrise cresting that mound and the awe of the populace when they saw the sun ‘being born’ from the top of the mound.
Have any of you visited this area? Or have you visited other archaeological sites?
Here’s a 10 minute excerpt from 500 Nations The Cahokia mound builders. Pretty cool.