The Forgotten City of Cahokia: America's Best Kept Secret
Posted on Feb 26, 2018 by Floh
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
This however was only the beginning. Big parts of the museum were made up of life-size replicas which brought Cahokia back to life.
In addition, there is an extensive collection of archaeological finds that are lucidly and informatively presented in a variety of vitrines.
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.
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.
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.
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.