Cahokia (fl. 1050-1250) was the largest North American city north of Mexico in 1100. It was as large as Paris or London in its day, or New York in the late 1700s. It had 15,000 to 40,000 people and stood across the Mississippi River from where St Louis now stands. It arose almost overnight, five times bigger than anything for thousands of kilometres – and then suddenly it fell 200 years later.
Thomas Jefferson knew about it, yet it was little known or studied till the 1960s when the US government dug up part of it up to build an interstate highway. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage site, one with a billboard for Joe’s Carpet King in the middle of it (as of 2011).
Monks Mound (pictured) is the main thing left. It has stood for a thousand years – yet is built on clay! In a flood plain. But it was built by the Mound Builders, who by then had been building mounds for 4,500 years.
The Mound Builders: Eastern North America once had tens of thousands of mounds, some of them shaped like animals. Most of them have been destroyed by White Americans, but when Whites first saw them they thought they had been built by people from Scandinavia or China or Phoenicia or Israel or Atlantis or even Wales. Jefferson had one on his property and studied it. He said the Mound Builders were Native American.
From what they left inside the mounds we know that at least some of them had class-based societies, practised human sacrifice, smoked a powerful, hallucinogenic form of tobacco and traded with all parts of eastern North America.
- hickory nuts,
- marshelder (Iva annua),
- knotweed (Polygonum erectum),
- sunflowers (Helianthus annuus),
- maygrass (Phalaris caroliniana),
- little barley (Hordeum pusillum),
- squash (Cucurbita pepo)
and so on. Whites see some of these as weeds.
After -200, the Three Sisters arrived from Mexico: maize, beans and (a different kind of) squash.
Maize at first did not grow well north of Mexico, but by 800 the Mound Builders had created a new sort that did. Mound Builder maize grew so well that from 1100 to 1300 it led to widespread flooding because so many trees had been cut down to grow it. After 1600, it became the main food of Whites.
Maize was the base on which Cahokia grew. But it sprang up so suddenly that there was more to it than that. Maybe a religion or powerful leader drove it. Since Cahokia left no writings, we can only guess.
Cahokia was not a pretty world: in one mound 50 young women were buried alive.
The increase in flooding may have undermined Cahokia’s religious leaders. A wall was built separating the inner part of the city. It cut right through commoners’ houses.
In the 1200s an earthquake and a flood destroyed the city. It was rebuilt, but then came civil war. By 1350 Cahokia was nearly empty.
Of the Native Americans that Whites know about, Cahokians were most like the Natchez.
Thanks to George Ryder for suggesting this post and for his help with it.
– Abagond, 2015.
Source: Mainly “1491” (2011) by Charles C. Mann, National Geographic (January 2011), “The Human Web” (2003) by J.R. McNeill and William H. McNeill.
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