A new idea has seeped slowly into the mainstream in the past few decades, namely, that civilizations, immense for their time, existed in North America prior to European arrival. Many popular or traditional depictions of the pre-European era only suggest small scattered groups of native people hunting and living off the land. Though certainly true for many groups, especially at the time of European contact, this picture obscures the existence of vast civilizations, complete with urban centers, that earlier dominated the land now known as the United States. They left their mark with often enormous mounds of clay and dirt that demarcated city boundaries, contained the deceased, or provided raised foundations for important structures. The vast majority of these often ancient structures, some claim up to 90%, fell to the plow, steam-shovel or the elements, leaving an enormous and probably irreparable gap in our knowledge of these civilizations. Luckily, remains of one of the great pre- European cities survived into the era of historic preservation and protection. People can still visit and walk in this ancient city today, now known as Cahokia, located just outside of St. Louis. In fact, from the top of its tallest mound, the tallest one remaining in North America, one can clearly see the St. Louis skyline on a clear day.
This amazing site has not received the attention it deserves. For one, it contains America's only known ancient pyramid, though made of clay and dirt. Sadly, almost nothing is known about what happened at this site estimated to have once contained 10,000 to 20,000 people. Its structures have survived, but its history vaporized. So uncovering the mysteries of Cahokia remains the work of archeologists. To help fill the rest of us in, William Iseminger, who has worked at Cahokia since at least 1971, penned a book covering the archeological highlights of this largely unexplored site. Towards the end of the book he claims that researchers have examined less than 1% of Cahokia, which is even more remarkable considering the astounding things they have already uncovered.
The book remains accessible to the general public throughout, though a few unexplained technical terms crop up now and then. Though the very short book "Cahokia: City of the Sun" may still serve as the best, and shortest, general introduction to Cahokia for many people, Iseminger's book, "Cahokia: America's First City," goes into far more detail about the actual discoveries at the site. After a general history of the American bottom and the stages leading up to population concentration at Cahokia, each chapter details one of the site's most salient features and discoveries. Monk's Mound, the largest mound, justifiably receives an entire chapter. Another chapter covers the fascinating and sometimes macabre discoveries within Mound 72, which include a man buried prominently on a bed of some 20,000 shells surrounded by various belongings and a group of four skeletons with arms intertwined but also with severed hands and heads. Overall, that single mound contained some 270 bodies in widely varying positions and conditions. Accurately interpreting such a find remains a strenuous if not impossible task, but some see evidence of human sacrifice, though Iseminger doesn't dwell on that topic.
Cahokia also included grand plazas of human construction, as digs show, and other structures so numerous, including over 100 extant mounds, that Iseminger had to purposely limit his scope for this short book. But he covers what he considered some of the more interesting features. Another chapter looks at Cahokia's other most famous site: Woodhenge, which appears to have required a sophisticated mathematical construction to allow tracking of solstices and equinoxes. A fully reconstructed Woodhenge stands in Cahokia today. During Cahokia's decline a stockade enclosed the inner parts of the city, including Monk's Mound. Early aerial photographs "discovered" this, which led to excavations in areas of discolored soil. Apparently Cahokia faced external threats, as evidence shows the stockade was rebuilt four times.
A final chapter briefly explores the perennial question lingering over Cahokia: what happened? By the mid 14th century the once bustling city was completely abandoned. This means that 16th century European exploration in the area completely missed the existence of the continent's greatest city. But just what happened remains a mystery, though the usual theories of collapse get applied here, too: overuse of resources, disease, war and political strife probably all played a role as the ancient metropolis fell to the ages. Ultimately, we know next to nothing about this incredible city except that it rose, thrived for a time and collapsed. This theme seems to recur almost endemically throughout human civilization.
Given such a dearth of historical information, this book contains mostly archeological descriptions of excavations and existing land structures. A cultural interpretation occurs once in a while, but with understandable reservations given the lack of historical information. But most investigators do surmise a highly hierarchical society with an elite class who likely ruled from the most impressive mounds. But who knows how much evidence lies underground that would either support or refute these interpretations?
As of this writing, Iseminger's book provides the most up to date information on Cahokian archeology, with the possible exception of the Cahokia Mounds website. It definitely excels in its task of introducing the mystery and intrigue of the site and it will likely inspire even more detailed readings or, best of all, a visit to the site itself. Unfortunately, it does not include an index, so fervent readers should take notes on topics and memorable passages that beg revisiting. But thankfully it does include photographs and diagrams throughout, though none in color. Those looking for a very short and very high-level introduction to Cahokia should read "Cahokia: City of the Sun." But those looking for more details, or those who have already read that shorter book, should look to this somewhat longer but by no means long book for more substantial information. Plus, it's great to have the perspective of someone who has spent most of their life working directly at Cahokia. And this book definitely has that in droves.
Library at Cahokia Mounds, a wonderful site and a wonderful visitors center near Saint Louis.
I visited Cahokia first in 1963 on a trip to visit friends in Saint Louis (and also to see Stan Musial in one of his last appearances -- a thrilling moment with the crowd roaring their approval as he pinch hit a single -- awe inspiring.)
Cahokia wasn't very inspiring on that trip, frankly, mounds of course but not much explanation. No real visitors center, no books, just some rather rudimentary brochures. I wandered (and wondered) for several hours, but couldn't make heads or tails of the place.
In 2012 a year after my wife died, I drove a truck full of furniture from Santa Fe to New Jersey, and arrived at Cahokia a little after dawn. It was a revelation and truly awe inspiring. I had planned to stay for two hours; a day and a half later I finally and reluctantly hit the road east again.
The visitor's center is superb, the grounds immaculate, the signage educational and inspiring. This great book is a superb introduction to the wonders here. And this recent article describes some of the results of the research that continues here:
Cities and human lives have long been linked with water. Rivers provide water, a means of sustenance and access to other communities. Civilisations around the world have underpinned their existence on rivers, occasionally with disastrous consequences.
At Cahokia, the largest prehistoric settlement in the Americas north of Mexico, new evidence suggests that the Mississippi River was inextricably linked to the rise and fall of the settlement. New research by University of Wisconsin-Madison academics has revealed Cahokia’s complex history.
By taking sediment cores from two lakes in the Mississippi floodplain, Samuel Munoz and Jack Williams have shown that major flood events in the central Mississippi River valley could explain the rise and fall of Cahokia as a cultural centre. Dating back nearly 2,000 years, these cores have revealed at least eight major floods in the area, near modern St. Louis.
Cahokia rose to be a powerful centre during a relatively flood-free period of stability between 600 and 1200 CE. Munoz and Williams found that a major flood hit the area after the year 1200 and Cahokia, suffering from political instability and a declining population, was completely abandoned by the year 1400 CE.
Drought has traditionally been viewed as one of the factors which led to the decline of many early agricultural societies. This new study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, presents new ideas to explore.
“We are not arguing against the role of drought in Cahokia’s decline but this presents another piece of information,” says Samuel Munoz, currently writing his Ph.D. in geography and the study’s lead author.
The research also provides new information about the history of the Mississippi River, a waterway known to flood regularly, which may be useful now. “By understanding the river better, we can hopefully offer new information to those concerned about the exposure of current populations to floods”, explains Williams, a professor of geography.
By using radiocarbon dating techniques of plant remains and charcoal within the core samples, Munoz and Williams have established ‘fingerprints’ of major flood events from the last 2,000 years. Following a 300-year-period of numerous floods, the centuries after 600 CE witnessed an increasingly arid climate. Archaeological evidence from this period reveals that human activity increased in the floodplain as people moved into the area and farmed more intensively.
Around 1200, however, population began to decline. “There are shifts in craft production, house size and shape, and other signals in material production that indicate political, social and economic changes that may be associated with social unrest,” explained Sissel Schroeder, a UW-Madison professor of anthropology who aided Munoz and Williams.
Cahokia fractured and the population began to migrate away from the floodplain. By 1400, the site was deserted.
Many factors obviously contributed to Cahokia’s rise and eventual decline. A period of gradual aridification followed by increased flood activity provides a means of understanding how past societies, as well as modern ones, are dependent on the climate. Sudden shifts in environmental conditions can prove disastrous for communities, as happened at Cahokia.
By: Adam Steedman Thake on .newhistorian.com/cahokia-brought-down-by-floods/3700/
If you can't visit, buy this book and be amazed.
Robert C. Ross