Large, advanced city near what is now St. Louis rose and fell before the explorer set foot in the Americas
Collinsville, IL – The man who “discovered” America may have been amazed had he known about a large North American city near what is now St. Louis, in several respects more advanced than European cities of the time, that rose and fell long before the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria crossed the Atlantic in 1492.
Just eight miles east of downtown St. Louis, Missouri in Collinsville, Illinois is Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site due to its significance as a major cultural center in prehistoric North America. Cahokia had modest beginnings around AD 700 but had a population explosion around AD 1050, when its 10,000 to 20,000 residents made it larger at the time than London. Cahokia’s residents built massive structures and used technology that was in some cases equivalent to that used by Europeans of the day.
If Columbus had landed in North America a few hundred years earlier and journeyed up the Mississippi River, the regional capital of Cahokia would have been more impressive than any Native American settlement he would have encountered. Cahokia was the largest city north of Mexico, with at least 120 mounds, plazas, and ritual and residential areas spread over six square miles. It was the megalopolis of the Mississippian Culture, and was THE place to be in North America for nearly 300 years.
Approaching Cahokia from any direction, Columbus and his men would have first seen Monks Mound, rising 100 feet in four terraces at the center of Cahokia and covering more than 14 acres at its base. It was the largest prehistoric earthwork in the Western Hemisphere, and from the huge building on its summit, the paramount chief governed Cahokia and the surrounding communities. Today’s visitors can climb the 156 steps to the top for a fantastic panoramic view of the site and the wide Mississippi floodplain.
Other mounds, shaped like cones or ridges, marked important locations throughout the city, including burial places for key people. With his European sensibilities, Columbus would have been impressed with the careful and aesthetic layout of Cahokia and its stunning earthen architecture. Of course, if he stayed long enough, Columbus may have witnessed the darker side of this modern-looking civilization – human sacrifice, which probably occurred at mounds built for that purpose.
Columbus and his men may have heard of England’s Stonehenge, and would have been surprised to see a similar structure built of wood at Cahokia. The sun calendar now known as Woodhenge was a large post-and-circle monument, and was so cleverly designed and built that the rising sun aligned with certain perimeter posts on the equinoxes and solstices, as well as other important dates in the Mississippian calendar. The 410-foot-diameter, 48-post Woodhenge has been reconstructed at the original location and public observations of the equinox and solstice sunrises are now held during the year, on the Sunday morning closest to the actual events.
Another feature that Columbus and his men would have recognized was Cahokia’s Stockade Wall, consisting of up to 20,000 log posts set in deep trenches that enclosed the central ceremonial area of the city. It had guard towers at regular intervals along its nearly two-mile length. It is difficult to imagine who would threaten a city of this size, but the threat was there because the Stockade Wall was built at least four times. The wall separated the classes within Cahokia society, as the community extended for a mile outside the wall. Monks Mound, the Grand Plaza, and 17 other mounds were within the walled district, and it is likely that many of the elite lived within this central area.
Columbus, as a visiting leader, may have been received by the elites, but his men may have been invited into several of the “working class” dwellings at Cahokia. The hundreds of small, rectangular, single-family dwellings consisted of posts covered with mats or clay plaster; the roofs were covered with bundles of prairie grass. Other buildings of similar construction were used for storage, meeting places or public functions. Many homes were clustered around courtyards or neighborhood plazas.
The visiting explorers would have been well fed. The Mississippians grew large amounts of corn, squash, pumpkin, and several seed bearing plants. They also hunted deer, waterfowl and smaller animals; caught huge amounts of fish from the nearby rivers, lakes, sloughs and marshes; and gathered many wild fruits, nuts, seeds and roots. They stored surpluses, most likely in public granaries, to feed the masses year round.
Alas, Columbus never visited Cahokia, because he never made it to what is now the continental United States. And even if he did, by 1492 all of the residents of Cahokia were gone. The decline of Cahokia began in the 1200s, probably due to a combination of depleted natural resources, warfare, climatic changes, and loss of economic and political controls over local and regional groups. By AD 1400 Cahokia had been abandoned, and we have not identified the direct descendants of this once extraordinary community.
Modern explorers are more fortunate. They can visit the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, see a number of the original mounds that made up this once magnificent city, and enjoy the Interpretive Center that tells the story of the Cahokia site and the people who lived here. The focal point of the Interpretive Center exhibit gallery is a full-scale recreation of one of Cahokia’s neighborhoods, complete with houses and life-like figures representing citizens engaged in daily activities.
Cahokia Mounds is administered by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. For more information, call (618) 346-5160 or visit www.cahokiamounds.org.