Long before Columbus sailed the ocean blue, there was a sophisticated metropolis on the North American continent known as Cahokia. What was Cahokia? It was a carefully planned city constructed by the Mississippian tribal people. It rose from the rolling plains of what is now Illinois during the 11th century, reaching its apex by the middle of the 12th century. Then, almost suddenly, Cahokia went into a steep and rapid decline. It became an abandoned Native American site with only its collection of enormous mounds left to bear witness to a once-great civilization.
Over the span of several centuries, Cahokia has been rediscovered by researchers and archaeologists. Many of its secrets have been revealed, but the question as to what happened to Cahokia remains a mystery. What is known is that Cahokia was considered the social, cultural, and political center for a large and diverse group of tribal peoples that rivaled any other world civilization of its size. To learn more about Cahokia, read on!
Some Americans mistakenly believe that the rise of cities on the North American continent began on the East Coast. In reality, grand cities were scattered throughout the large region. One such large, cosmopolitan, and sophisticated metropolis was located eight miles from what is now St. Louis, MO. This was Cahokia, a city which some historians say was, at its height, the largest North American city north of Mexico.
It was built by the Mississippian people sometime between 650 and 1000 CE. Their numbers spread out across the land from the Mississippi River to the Atlantic Ocean. The name, "Cahokia," stems from a group of tribal people who lived near the site in the 17th and 18th centuries (1600-1800 CE), long after the Mississippians had abandoned the city around 1300 CE.
Cahokia was not just a series of random villages and neighborhoods strung together - it was a carefully planned city. It evidence suggests that it was set up in an east-west orientation, and that the Mississippians used site lines and celestial guides to determine the direction and layout of the city. Most city residents lived on the far side of a large palisade in "rectangular, single-room homes about 15 ft long and 12 ft wide." These homes were connected by courtyards and paths that harken to modern-day streets.
Cahokia also had a town center with large public areas located on top of wide, soaring mounds built from the earth. The largest of the mounds, which is called "Monk's Mound," is estimated to have stood around 100 feet tall and spread over 15 acres. In the 21st century, it is the most prominent remaining feature of a once-great city. Archeological evidence suggests that the city's leaders lived in houses on top of the mounds, which allowed them to literally look down upon the less illustrious citizens.
At its height, more than 10,000 people lived in Cahokia, with thousands more living in villages and the countryside surrounding the city. Its place in history is significant, as for hundreds of years, it was the center and apex of pre-Columbian society in the region. It is believed that Cahokia hit its peak around 1100 CE.
It was an agricultural society, with most members working in gardens and fields, harvesting and preparing food. But Cahokians also had time for festivals, celebrations, and expression of religious beliefs. They had an official sport called "chunkey" and worshipped a number of deities. Cahokians also had a fondness for personal decoration, such as beads made from sea shells that had traveled over a thousand miles to reach the city. The beads were so highly regarded and popular that they were widely traded, essentially as a currency.
Despite its fame, wide network of trade, and high quality of life, Cahokia went into a sudden, swift decline around the start of the 13th century. Historians, anthropologists, and archaeologists have puzzled and debated over the decline and eventual abandonment of the city. Some say it was due to a series of droughts that ruined the annual corn harvests, which were vital as a food source. Others say that a change in climate led to the fall of the city, as temperatures became much cooler and crops did not grow as well.
Another popular theory with supporting evidence is that it was all those reasons and more that led the highly diverse Cahokians to simply return from whence they came. Tribal groups from across the Midwest and the South had immigrated to Cahokia during its rise and benefited from its success. But when hard times hit, most of them simply headed back to their roots.