Cahokia: Ancient America's Great Walled City on the Mississippi

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Just a short distance from the modern city of St. Louis, across the Mississippi on the Illinois side, you will find the remains of one of the most impressive ancient cities in North American history. In its time, Cahokia supported a larger population than medieval London and maintained a trade network that extended the full course of the Mississippi River, from the Gulf of Mexico into the Great Lakes territories.

This fabled walled city included a huge ceremonial complex with gigantic pyramid step mounds topped by large structures housing the Cahokian rulers and their shaman. The central and largest, terraced pyramid was over 100 feet high and sat at the head of the ceremonial plaza. Today, known as Monks Mound, it was undoubtedly home to the ruler of this powerful metropolis.

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At its zenith, between A.D. 1050 and 1300 Cahokia grew dramatically with a population of more than 40,000 people in and around its main urban center. Archaeological excavations have uncovered many remarkable artifacts that have given us an entirely new perspective as to what life in the Americas was like centuries before the European contact.

The City Wall:

Cahokia wall and palisades - reconstruction

The stockade wall enveloping Cahokia was nearly two miles long. It required roughly 20,000 one foot diameter logs each 20 feet tall. The wall was initially built sometime around A.D. 1100 and was subsequently rebuilt three more times over a 200 year period. Based on archaeological evidence, the rebuild was sometimes hastily executed and cut right through residential areas as if there had been imminent danger. Evenly spaced bastions (towers) were placed along the entire length of the wall. These presumably offered an elevated platform for archers or atlatl armed guards. The entryways were between two closely placed towers.

There has been some debate among archaeologists as to the purpose of the wall. A few will argue that it was a 'social wall' intended to define social order and separate the classes. (And quite possibly in times of peace it was.) In my research on this time period however, and considering the height and obvious defensive style of the construction, I must agree with the majority of archaeologists that identify the wall as a defensive fortification.

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Views of Cahokia as it is today. Center: 2007 archaeological dig near Monks Mound.


The Urban Reach and the Mounds:

Within the urban landscape of Cahokia (roughly a 5 mile radius) there were likely over 120 mounds. To date, 109 of the mounds have been located and examined. In excavating some of them evidence of executions and human sacrifice were uncovered.

Mortuary Practices and Human Sacrifice:

In a mound identified simply as Mound 72, archaeologists uncovered an apparent high-prestige burial. It included the remains of a man aged in his 40's who was buried on a bed of over 20,000 disc beads cut from marine shells. The shells were laid out in the pattern of a falcon, with the bird of prey's head under that of the man. The falcon warrior is an important motif in the Mississippian culture and indicated that this was indeed a very powerful person. In his burial he was also surrounded by caches of different types of arrowheads made of different materials, representing the extent of Cahokia's power and trade reach.

Within Mound 72 there were also over 250 other skeletons found. Some of the bodies were missing heads, while others were missing hands which would certainly suggest human sacrifice. In addition, there were many young females found in the mass grave that forensic evidence indicates had never borne children. Archaeologists have suggested that they were likely virgins sacrificed to accompany the great ruler into the afterlife.

Mound 72 radio carbon dates to a time between A.D. 950 and 1000.

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St. Louis News Paper Headlines from July 18,1890 when archaeologists were making dramatic finds.

Examples of Mississippian Culture Artifacts: (Courtesy: Cahokia Interpretive Center)

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1.) Effigy Pottery 2.) Pot Excavation
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3.) Effigy Pottery 4.) Stone Figurine

Mississippian Arrowhead

Typical Mississippian arrowhead type
and hafting method. (reproduction)

Related Informative Cahokia Facts:

Cahokia is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

It was designated as a National Historic Landmark July 19, 1964 and was added to the list on the National Register of Historic Places on Oct. 15, 1966.

The actual name of this ancient city is really unknown. The name "Cahokia" is based on an unrelated clan of Illiniwek people who were living in the area when the French explorers first arrived in the 1600's.

The main step pyramid referred to as "Monks Mound" is 103 feet tall with a base that measures 1,037 feet long by 790 feet wide. In terms of area covered, it has been characterized as the 'Worlds Largest Earthwork Pyramid'

The central plaza of Cahokia covered an area of 19 hectare (190,000 sq. meters)

In A.D. 1300 the population on medieval London was about 20,000; the population of Cahokia was 40,000

Cupped Discoidal used in the ancient spear throwing game of Chungke.

Mississippian Cupped Discoidal

Cahokia Woodhenge

Woodhenge at Cahokia:

Archaeologists have discovered the remains of five ancient timber circles (they dubbed "Woodhenge") which were built over a period of 200 years and used as calendars to track the seasonal cycles. Each circle had a tall timber pole at it center which obviously defined a ceremonial plaza inside of the circle.

Red cedar was used to construct these circles which archaeologists have concluded, was considered a sacred wood.


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The Collapse of the City:

Cahokia faded from existence nearly two centuries before the commonly accepted timeframe of the first European explorers reaching North America. The reasons for the demise of this powerful civilization are still shrouded in mystery however, archaeologists speculate on three possible scenarios. 1.) Political strife and/or warfare. 2.) Over population and exhaustion of natural resources. 3.) Diseases brought on by the dense urban population and related sanitation issues.

The Cultural Shift:

Sometime around A.D. 900 a significant and dramatic shift away from the prehistoric traditions of the wandering hunter gatherer transformed life in the heartlands of North America. As it became clear that there was greater strength, and greater efficiencies in collaboration and organization, societal structures built around central leadership started to emerge.

The benefits of larger scale agriculture and craft specialization served as the cornerstones of transition to increasingly larger and more permanent settlements. Through craft specialization, these settlements began to develop infrastructures for trade, prosperity and security.

Warfare and Defense:

As observed with any society throughout world history, once a group of people figure out how to better leverage their efforts and resources and produce more food, clothing, and shelter, there are others who covet their successes. The need for fortifications and the professional warrior was born. Greater security and defense has always enabled an advancing culture to prosper and grow.

The one constant in the history of our evolution, has been human nature, which never seems to evolve. Then, as now, there are always those who desire more power, more control, or more wealth who are willing to take by force, whatever they perceive as better. (That is not to say there was no warfare with the "hunter gatherer" peoples, there certainly was. Skirmishes were just on a smaller scale and they simply moved on when an area proved too hostile.)

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