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CAHOKIA: Ancient America’s greatest city

PHOTO PROVIDED An artist's rendition of Cahokia, and ancient Native American city located in present-day Illinois.

In the sleepy farming community of Cahokia, situated on the Illinois side of the Mississippi it had been a quiet night. In the predawn, villagers were moving about, rekindling cooking fires and preparing to begin their day. But what would happen next would change the course of the ancient heartland forever. It was July 4, 1054 AD. We know this date only because the Chinese recorded the event.

Suddenly and without warning, next to a crescent moon, there was a silent explosion of light. Six times greater than the light from the planet Venus, it was the brightest object in the sky. The village erupted with a combination of fear and wonder as did those that would see it worldwide. Ripping through our Milky Way galaxy from 6,500 light years out, this was the light from a supernova blast that would form the Crab Nebula. Visible for 23 days and nights and thereafter for two years in the night sky, its appearance changed the course of civilizations.

It must have been interpreted as a good omen for many cultures and a motivation of epic proportions by those experiencing it. Archaeologists had long understood that there was an event around that time in Cahokia that launched continuous public works projects lasting hundreds of years including a total demolition of existing structures and the rebuilding into a mighty metropolis. Like the Cahokians, the Anasazi in Chaco Canyon, 1,200 miles away in New Mexico, recorded the event on pictographs (paintings on cliff walls) and had the same aggressive building phenomenon.

Over the next 300 years, Cahokia would evolve into the capital of the Mississippian culture. The largest Native American city north of the Rio Grande, its population would swell to an estimated 30,000 people with many more in the suburbs. It would be the largest population of any city in North America until Philadelphia in 1780.

At the heart of the city is Monks Mound, a 100-foot-tall, packed earth platform pyramid and the 50-acre Grand Plaza. The original 6 square miles of urban housing, city streets, parks and plazas were sprawled out over both sides of the Mississippi River. This included the original 120 burial and temple mounds, of which 80 survive.

PHOTO PROVIDED Round, flat stones were used in that time to play Chunkey, a popular game.

We are just beginning to understand the influence and impact of Cahokia as a metropolitan experience. This had never been seen before in North America. It drew Native people from all over, and I suppose it could be described as a Native American tourist destination.

Cahokia also became a sports town and helped preserve at least one ancient game of skill. Almost certainly tribes and cultures from up and down the “Big Muddy” came to play and gamble and Chunkey was apparently the game of choice.

Chunkey was played on a packed clay surface. A Chunkey stone (a small discoidal) was rolled out and two people would throw spears in anticipation of where the stone would stop. It sounds simple and you’d wonder why they would be so crazy about the game, but then, I feel the same about bowling.

After 1300 AD, Cahokia was in decline. Maybe soil or other resources were becoming depleted or drought overcame the city. We just don’t know for sure. Within a hundred years or so of that 1300 date, the city was abandoned.

Today, Cahokia is a UNESCO World Heritage site. There are about 2000 acres of the original city. From the massive Monks Mound (the sheer size rivals any pyramid in Mesoamerica) you can see the modern St. Louis skyline including the St. Louis Arch. That experience of seeing the modern city while standing on top of a massive ancient monument is worth the trip alone. The Cahokia Museum is also something you will want to visit. After seeing the vast collection of artifacts displayed it is hard to imagine that only 1% of Cahokia has been excavated.

PHOTO PROVIDED The mounds that still exist from the remains of Cahokia

BAIRD

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