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The Forgotten City of Cahokia: America's Best Kept Secret

What if everything you have learned in history classes was untrue?
It is widely known that the territory of the United States of America had only sparsely been populated by nomads, when the first Europeans settlers arrived on the Mayflower at Cape Cod in 1620. Cities where unknown to these lands as were advanced civilisations.
What if all this was untrue? What if there had been developed cultures north of Mexico?. What if there had even been cities with pyramid-like structures? What if everything you have learned in history classes was untrue?
Discovering Cahokia
It was back in year 2009 when I first came across the name Cahokia in a German magazine called GEO EPOCHE.
Like every issue of GEO EPOCHE, also this one was devoted to a specific historical period. In this case it was The World in the Year 1.000 (Die Welt im Jahr 1000). In different chapters, the authors portrayed various advanced civilisations around the world. Among them many well know places, like the Holy Roman Empire, the Mayan city of Chichen Itza, Easter island in the Pacific Ocean, the Byzantine Empire, and China in the Song Dynasty. Another place mentioned I had never herad before: Cahokia, an alleged metropolis in nowadays Illinois.
After reading that article I felt a little bit confused. Cahokia was described as an advanced pre-Columbian Native American city with a population between 20.000 and 40.000 people. Cahokia was said to be the largest and most influential urban settlement of the so-called Mississippian culture. In its heyday, Cahokia covered about 16 km2 and included about 120 manmade earthen mounds. Monks' Mound, the biggest of these pyramid-like structures was described as having a footprint bigger than that of the Pirámide del Sol in Teotihuacán, Mexico. Having become a major population centre around the year 1000, by 1350 Cahokia was largely abandoned by its people. Until today the reason for the city's fall remains a mystery. Neither war, disease, not European conquest drove Cahokia’s residents from their homes.
1. Monks Mound has a footprint bigger than that of the Pirámide del Sol in Teotihuacán
Cahokia during its heyday
Totally fascinated by what I had just read, only one question whirled in my head: why had I never heard of this city? Hungry to get to know more about Cahokia, I started asking my various US-American friends about the ancient city. The feedback left me speechless: none of them had ever learned about it in school or heard about it at all. This would have been comprehensible if the last traces of Cahokia had vanished over the centuries. The remains of US-America's oldest city however still exist. Monks Mound is still standing in the South-West of Illinois and has been enlisted as one of only 23 UNESCO World Heritage sites in the USA since 1982.
Visiting Cahokia
Seven years later, when Inga and I were planning a journey through the United States, I arranged our itinerary in such way, that we would be able to visit Cahokia. We booked a flight to St Louis, Missouri, which is only a 15 minutes car ride away from Cahokia and therefor the perfect starting point to visit the remains of this forgotten and widely ignored city.
As we wanted to get some background information on the excavations and the actual history of Cahokia, we decided to visit the Cahokia Mounds Museum before exploring the actual archaeological site. Later this turned out to have been the right decision.
2. When our taxi driver left us at the State Historic Site of Cahokia Mounds, we found ourselves in the middle of a park with beautiful trees and small hills.
A park with beautiful trees and small hills
3. As we were not sure where to go first, we headed for the only building in the area. We hoped to find there some information about the site.
Cahokia Mounds Museum
3. There was no admission fee for the Cahokia Mounds Museum, but instead a request for donations
Cahokia Mounds Museum
For a better to visualisation of what Cahokia looked like a thousand years agon, the museum curators had put up several miniature models of important buildings.
4. Monks Mound, the biggest of Cahokia's pyramids served as a ceremonial site and had a wooden temple standing on its top. For its construction, 700.000 m³ of soil had to be moved by hand.
A model of Monks Mound with a wooden temple on its top
5. The Cahokia Woodhenge was a series of large timber circles located roughly 850 metres to the west of Monks Mound. The structure is thoughtto be a solar calendar.
A model of Cahokia Woodhenge
This however was only the beginning. Big parts of the museum were made up of life-size replicas which brought Cahokia back to life.
6. Native children playing between their wooden houses.
A life-size model of native American children pleaying between their wooden houses
7. Women of the the Mississippian people preparing a meal.
A life-size model of native American preparing food outside their wooden houses
8. Harvest time in Cahokia
A life-size model of a native American harvesting squash
9. A hunter with his prey.
A life-size model of a native American with a bow in one hand and dad hare in  the other
In addition, there is an extensive collection of archaeological finds that are lucidly and informatively presented in a variety of vitrines.
10. Scratchers, tattoo needles and pigments used for artful body modifications.
A vitirine displaying tatto needles.
11. A beaver effigy bowl and various bone and stone hunting weapons.
A vitrine with a bowl and hunting weapons on display
The exhibition also vividly presents the work of archaeologists in Cahokia. Like this it became clear that the Mounds were not only searched and repatriated, but were subsequently returned to their original state at the time of discovery.
12. A life-size display of archaeologists at work in Cahokia.
Model of archaeologists at work
13. Cross section of a mound.
Cross section of a mound
After one and a half hours in the museum, we had a very good idea about life in Cahokia and how the city must have looked. It was about time to leave the premises to explore the actual site of excavation. Doing so we had one thing in mind we had just learned in the museum: after the archaeologists had finished their work, all the mounds were restored to their original pre-excavation state.
14. First it was hard to imagine the city of Cahokia at all when we left the museum. In front of us lay nothing more than a park with small hills.
Cahokia during its heyday
15. Some of these hills turned out to be much taller when we got closer. Quickly we realised that these were some of the mounds. Some had been used as burial sites, others as platforms for wooden houses and temples.
Cahokia Mounds Museum
16. And then we spotted the impressive Monks Mound, Cahokia's biggest pyramide. With a base of 5.3 hectars, it equals the Great Pyramid of Cheops. Only in height Monks Mound is much smaller than its Egyptian cousin (30 m vs. 146 m). Monks Mound's original height, however, is unclear, as the construction got flattened by erosion over the centuries.
Cahokia during its heyday
17. When we finally approached Monks Mound, I felt a strong upset. Right in front of the pyramide a four-lane gash cut through the historic site.
Cahokia during its heyday
18. We climbed up the ramp to reach the top of the mound. In the past Monks Mound was Cahokia's main ceremonial site. Its terraces were flanked with different political and religious building. The top platform was most probably the location of a wooden temple.
Cahokia during its heyday
19. From the top of Monks Mound we were able to get a good view of the surrounding area.
Cahokia during its heyday
20. With a telephoto lense we are able to zoom on a construction that turned out to be a reconstruction of the ciy's pallisade.
Cahokia during its heyday
21. A couple of hundred meters to the West we could see an industrail are of Fairmont City, and right by its side, the reconstruction of the ancient Woodhenge., Cahokia's solar calendar
Cahokia during its heyday
22.Before leaving Monks Mound and the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site we enjoyed the spectacular view of the city of St. Louis and its Gateway Arch on the opposite sitde of the Mississippi River.
Cahokia during its heyday
Final Thoughts
After visiting Cahokia, I was a bit divided in my opinion. Somehow I had expected more of the historic site. The reason for this was not so much the archaeological site itself, but rather its surroundings. Cahokia is located in a densly populated area, enclosed by cities and industrial areas. Motorways are surrounding the ancient city and even cur right through its heart. These facts make it hard to believe that Cahokia is one of only eight cultural World Heritage sites in the United States.
Cahokia during its heyday
While first I couldn't believe how one of the most significant places in American history could get treated like this, I had to realise how lucky Cahokia was in comaprison to other mounds in the area. When reading about the Mississippi culture, I learned that St. Louis was nicknamed Mound City for its number of pyramids. Today only one mound remains in the Gateway City. It was easier to just dismantle huge piles of earth than acknowledging the fact that it was not the white men who brought civilisation to America. In a country that ignores important parts of its own history, the Cahokia Museum is doing an amazing job in presnting and preserving the remains of the oldest city of the United States. Today's Cahokia might nor be as impressive on first sight as one might imagine, but that does not diminish the experience of visiting the site. Walking among the mounds in combination with an extensive visit of the Cahokia museum brings the histoty of the Mississippi Culture back to life.
Cahokia desevers a greater aknowledgement in US society. It's history should be an integral part of any school curriculum. Monks Mound should be considered to be a landmark and symbol of the United States as much as the Statue of Liberty.

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