So what’s a guy who’s overly fond of southwest archaeology doing in Illinois, just east of Saint Louis, looking at mounds of dirt? Good question.
Turns out these mounds of dirt are the remains of what was probably the greatest city in America north of Mexico. Yes, bigger and badder than Chaco Canyon. Until recently I had never heard of Cahokia, but the more I found out the more I wanted to see it. Curiously, its rise and fall seemed to be timed similarly to the Chaco/Mesa Verde areas, although there’s no evidence of their interaction.
Unfortunately Saint Louis is freeway close to nowhere I usually go. But then due to a variety of circumstance, I ended up with a Southwest Airlines ticket to anywhere I wanted, so off to Cahokia I bounded.
Cahokia was substantially occupied from around 700 to 1400 AD, by which time it was completely abandoned. It reached its 50 year peak, beginning in 1050 AD, with a population of perhaps 20,000 people over 6 square miles. It was the Chaco of the Midwest….and then some.
An excellent book on Cahokia is “Cahokia, Ancient America’s Great City on the Mississippi” by Timothy Pauketat. Pauketat suggests that there is some evidence that growth and expansion at Cahokia went off the charts starting around 1050 AD around the same time a massive supernova was observed in the sky, the same one recorded at Chaco Canyon in the Penasco Blaco pictograph. Pauketat also goes into detail about the substantial indications of human sacrifice at Cahokia. Apparently it’s not just an Aztec thing.
In his book, “A History of the Ancient Southwest“, archaeologist Steve Lekson muses about a possible New Mexico/Cahokian connection. Many are familiar with the Spaniard Coronado and his expedition north from Mexico in 1540 seeking Cibola, the alleged seven cities of gold. After passing through many New Mexican pueblos and finding, well only dirt and stone, Coronado eventually met an Indian guide near Pecos who claimed he could show Coronado the way to Cibola. The guide lead Coronado to the northeast, well into Kansas, where Coronado finally lost patience with the guide (or was just sick of Kansas), killed him and headed back for Mexico.
Now conventional historical wisdom regarding the affair says the pueblos were just fed up with Coronado and had the guide lead him on a wild goose chase to anywhere but here. But that seems like a pretty risky thing to do when dealing with a prickly Spaniard with pointy steel weapons. Lekson says some historians believe the Indian guide was actually a member of the Wichita tribe. If that’s the case, it may well be that the guide could have been acting upon stories told to him by his grandfather, of a rich city to the east. So perhaps Coronado was in fact being led to the remnants of Cahokia. Saint Louis = Seven Cities of Gold? Don’t know, but it’s a good story anyway.
Now admittedly I had low expectations for the place. It apparently wasn’t worthy of national park status and was only a lowly state historic site. And it was, after all, Illinois. Having originated in Illinois myself I understand full well what the state’s capable of. I had seen so many impressive southwest ruins that this place couldn’t possibly be anything too interesting, despite what I read. Turns out I was very wrong.
My first inkling this was going to be something great was driving onto the massive grounds towards the visitor center. The place was immense with mounds everywhere. Monk’s Mound (named after some monks who lived near it many years ago) is over a hundred feet high and covers 14 acres! You could probably take all the great houses combined in Chaco Canyon and drop this sucker completely over them (A Cahokian house dropped on the wicked witch of the Southwest??). And it was only one of, well….craploads of mounds.
And the visitor center was a stunner. Maybe the best I’ve ever seen. Packed with real artifacts from Cahokia and copious information. An amazingly cool exhibit was a reconstructed village in the middle of the visitor center. A small cluster of thatched huts and that sort of thing. But the trick was they surrounded it with semi-reflective glass walls. This gave an infinity effect of the village extending off into the distance. Combined with the audio sounds of animals and children playing, it was extremely effective at creating a sense of place. I usually find such attempts rather sad and cheesy. This was neither.
Leaving the visitor center I started exploring the grounds. Now I will freely concede all there really is to see are dirt mounds of various shapes and sizes. However things become very impressive when one has knowledge of what it took to construct these suckers and an understanding of the community surrounding each of them. Oh, and most of them probably still had considerable human remains and other artifacts still buried within them. As much as I’m impressed by Chaco Canyon and its outliers, in some ways Cahokia impressed me more.
The only way to really get your mind around the size of it all is to climb Monk’s Mound. Figure ten stories worth of stairs. But once at the top you get a sense of just how big Cahokia really was. Except that it was even bigger. Originally it stretched all the way across the Mississippi River to Saint Louis, where in the 1800s a mound the size of Monks Mound was scraped away in the name of progress. And you can see Saint Louis, way off in the distance. Damn…..This was quite a place!
So if you’re anywhere near Saint Louis, or even if you’re not, Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site is more than worth a visit.