Aerial view of Monk's Mound at Cahokia

Cahokia | City that vanished 1000 yrs ago & the mysterious clay pyramids

Cahokia Lost City

About a millennium before Columbus arrived in the New World, on the land of today’s St. Louis of Missouri, was founded an American settlement that in a very short period of time would become the largest city at the north of the territory we now call Mexico.

In the year 600 of our era, long before Columbus’s people cast the anchor on the shores of the New World, a mysterious indigenous people laid the foundations of one of the greatest and most enigmatic cities of North America. And, besides creating a complex city, it’s not known why, these people built over 120 earth pyramids. These bizarre constructions, as well as the history of the settlement and its inhabitants, remain an enigma today.

A reconstitution of how Cahokia showed | Artist's impression

It is the city of Cahokia, whose period of maximum development was between the 10th and 12th centuries AD. At its peak, the American settlement had an area of over 16 square kilometres, more than most of the big cities in Europe at that time – including London. Cahokia’s population was 10-20,000 inhabitants. There were at least 120 artificial mounds in the city, over which some large buildings were built.

Cahokia, the Largest City in North America

The city of Cahokia, a true metropolis of its time, was built after 500 BC by Mississippians – an American population that occupied a vast territory in the southeastern US, from the Mississippi River to the Atlantic Ocean. Unfortunately, these people did not have a writing system, so we do not know how they now call their town. In the seventeenth century, the ancient city was given the name Cahokia by the French explorers. The name was borrowed from a tribe who lived then in the area where the remains of the old settlement are located. The process of building the settlement is a mystery for historians. Researchers say that everywhere they excavated, they discovered something of value: buildings, monuments, artefacts.

The town was very well organized from the urban point of view | Artist's impression
  • These finds show that the settlement was a huge city that was mysteriously built in a very short time.
  • The city of Cahokia peaked between the 10th and 12th centuries. Then the settlement stretched over 16 square kilometers.
  • For standards today, it was tiny. But at that time, Cahokia was bigger than many European cities, even London.
  • According to historians, Cahokia had a population of about 20,000 people.

At its peak, Cahokia was the largest urban centre located north of the major urban settlements of Mesoamerica. Only the latter exceeded it as dimensions. In fact, at its peak of development, Cahokia was also larger than the urban settlements in the USA until around 1780, when Philadelphia was noted through its large population.

It appears that in ancient times, on the largest of the mounds in the city’s perimeter, there is a building that archaeologists say could have, more than 30 meters long and about 15 meters high. The demographic peak was reached in Cahokia around 1100. Subsequently, the population declined and the city was abandoned around 1350.

The Mysterious “Mud Pyramids”

What is unique to this settlement are the 120 clay pyramids sprinkled across the city. The one who first wrote about pyramids was Henry Brackenridge, a lawyer, and amateur historian.

“I was amazed, as do you stand when you look at the pyramids of Egypt. What monumental buildings! It must have taken tens of years and an incredible workforce to build these mounds of land! “Wrote Brackenridge.

The largest of the pyramids of Cahokia was baptized “Monks Mound”. To get an idea of how impressive this structure is, you should know that it has a larger circumference than the Sun Pyramid at Teotihuacan.

Monks Mound has a height of 30 meters, and to get to the top you must ascend 156 steps.

The construction of such a mound must have been a grueling work since everything was done by manual work: digging, transporting and stacking millions of cubic meters of earth.

Monks Mound – What Distinguishes it From the Others?

Walking through the central market of Cahokia, we are now heading to the Monks Mound. The name of this mound comes from the trap monks, who lived nearby at the beginning of the 19th century and cultivated a garden on it. It is the largest mound in Cahokia and has the shape of a truncated pyramid, with four terraces located at different levels. It was built in 14 stages. It is assumed that the mound was raised between 900 and 1200 BC.

At the base, the mound occupies an area of over 6 hectares, “larger than any of the pyramids in Egypt or Mexico.” It has a height of 30 m and a length of over 300 m, being the largest pre-Columbian earth structure in the western hemisphere. On the southern side of the Monks Mound, there is a long ramp leading to the flat terraces. The excavations revealed that there had been stairs in the past.

Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site - Collinsville IL | Artist's impression

No ordinary man was allowed to climb these stairs. At the top of the mound there is an imposing building, the home of Cahokia’s ruler, a prince called the Great Sun.

  “Here, his captain and priests practiced religious rituals and dealt with administrative affairs, supervised the field, and welcomed emissaries from surrounding regions,” says Cahokia – City of the Sun.

From this high place, the captain could supervise the various lower communal structures, such as the Council buildings, barges, food stores, saunas, ossuaries, and citizens’ dwellings.

Monks Mound
Monks Mound aerial photo
  • He could also keep an eye on the palisade surrounding the city, as well as its many watchtowers.
  • The palisade, about 3 km long, was rebuilt three times, with every reconstruction cutting about 20,000 trees.
  • Some archeologists believe it was a kind of social barrier. But in all likelihood, it had also been built as a means of defense.
  • However, the identity of the Cahokenius enemies remains a mystery.

The Origins

Many theories have been issued on the origins of Cahokenean civilization, and the specialists have not yet reached a unanimous conclusion on this subject. Francis Jennings, honorary director of the Amerindian History Center near the Newberry Library, claims that the first settlers in the Mesoamerica acclimatized maize and influenced architecture in the Mississippi River valley.

Here is what he writes: “It seems that the trade supremacy that the colonists have gained over indigenous tribes in the Mississippi Valley has taken imperial proportions. They brought from Mesoamerica the practice of building truncated pyramids and building temples and administrative structures on their platforms. “

Still, Jennings admits that many things are left unfulfilled for now.

“Archaeologists have not yet determined whether the Mississippi Valley was or was not made up of settlers from Mexico and could not give a plausible explanation.”

In his book Ancient Pioneers – The First Americans, George E. Stuart states:

“For many archaeologists and art historians, the platform mounds, carefully arranged around markets,” and some pottery pots “clearly demonstrate the influence, perhaps indirect, of the Mesoamerican, as demonstrated by the varieties of corn and beans discovered in the sites. “

From his words, however, there is a doubt: “There is not even a single Mesoamerican object of origin in the Southeast.”

Therefore, the mystery has not yet been elucidated:
  1. Who were the inhabitants of Cahokia influenced?
  2. Did the settlers come from Mesoamerica?

Maybe time and archaeology will answer us one day to this question.

Astronomical Center of the City

Another feature of Cahokia is the series of “perfect circles on which massive pillars were equally spaced.

They were once rising on platforms “(National Geographic magazine, December 1972).

These circles were called wood henges, due to their resemblance to Stonehenge’s ancient stone calendar in England.

Cahokia Woodhenge | Artist's impression
Cahokia Woodhenge | Artist's impression

Such a wood henge has been restored. It has the shape of a circle with a diameter of 125 m, made up of 48 juniper trunks of Virginia. Some believe it served as a solar observer. The pillars are “arranged with the help of the roots of the wind, being arranged in such a way that a forty-ninth pillar, outside the circle, allowed an inner observer to see the sunrise at the equinoxes and solos of 1000 BC”.

Cahokia Mounds Woodhenges
Cahokia Marks Summer Solstice at Woodhenge

An Extinct Civilization

Cahokia: North American Mounds | Artist's impression
Cahokia: North American Mounds | Artist's impression

The population of Cahokia peaked around 1100. After that, they declined and totally disappeared until 1350. Researchers do not know for sure what caused the decline of the city. The factors that contributed to it could have been hunting in excess, environmental degradation, climate change, disease, and war. Floods may also have been the basis for abandoning the settlement. In 2015, sediment analysis from the Horseshoe and Grassy Lakes (located a few kilometres north of Cahokia) showed that between 1100 and 1400, at least two massive floods occurred.

This is also the period in which Cahokia’s population declined. In order to deposit sediments in these lakes, the Mississippi River should have risen 10 meters above its usual level, the researchers say.

  • The reasons for his desertion have long been mysterious for historians.
  • It was said that the settlement would have been left out due to food shortages, climate change, epidemics or wars.
  • One of the most plausible assumptions is that the main reason why Cahokia was left, was flooded.
  • The analysis of the sediments collected in the area shows that between the years 1100 and 1400, there were at least two terrible floods of water.
  • It is even the period in which the population of Cahokia City has entered an accelerated decline, as archaeological excavations have shown.
  • Historians believe that the crops were flooded, and famine hit the population. Eventually, the locals would have left the city, being assimilated by other tribes.
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