Uncovering The Vibrant City Life Of Ancient Cahokia

From towering earthen pyramids to bustling ceremonial centers, this Native American city was once the largest urban center in North America.

The following is an excerpt from Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age by Annalee Newitz.

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Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age


Joining The Movement

By the reckoning of the Roman calendar, people started erecting Cahokia’s first monuments in the late 900s. At the time, European civilization was mired in the superstitions and brutal monarchies of the Middle Ages. But in North America, there was no entrenched medieval aristocracy, nor ancient Latin texts hinting at a lost great civilization. Instead, there were powerful but ever-changing social movements that temporarily united tribes and nations, and whose closest modern analogues might be political revolutions or religious revivals. And these unfolded against a backdrop of living urban history in the Americas, embodied in massive earthworks and stone monuments, whose origins went back thousands of years.

Based on what we know from indigenous oral histories and observations by Europeans in the 18th and 19th centuries, it’s likely that Cahokia was founded by leaders—or maybe one charismatic leader—who promised a spiritual and cultural rebirth. Some call Cahokia a city built on religion, but its origins were more complicated than that. Perhaps the best way to put it would be to say the city was spawned by a social movement that swept across the US south and Midwest, along the shores of the Mississippi River.

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The Cahokians left no writing behind, so we can’t say for sure what this movement was. But it was inspired by the founders’ knowledge of North American history. Mound cities are an ancient tradition in this part of the continent, going back millennia before Cahokia. North America’s first known earthworks are in Louisiana. The oldest, called Watson Brake, dates back 5,500 years—centuries before the first Egyptian pyramids were built. Another is at Poverty Point, built 3,400 years ago near the Mississippi in northern Louisiana. Today you can still see Poverty Point’s crescent-shaped mounds towering like huge nested parentheses on a bluff overlooking a now-dry riverbed. A thousand years after Poverty Point was abandoned, people from the Hopewell culture built even more astounding mound cities in Ohio and throughout the northeast. The Cahokians would have known about these mounds from ancestral histories—and could have seen them along the Mississippi—but they might also have been influenced by contemporary pyramids in the Mayan and Toltec metropolises farther south.

The builders of Cahokia probably intended to build a city in the image of these previous civilizations. They also built it extremely fast, as if spurred on by enthusiastic belief. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign archaeologist Tim Pauketat has studied Cahokia for most of his career. He says that its mounds appear so abruptly in the archaeological record that it’s as if they were built directly on top of a constellation of small towns that belonged to people known today as the Eastern Woodlands tribes. As the city grew, so too did its farms, and the cultivated fields spread outward from Cahokia into the Illinois uplands. We find traces of Mississippian culture all along the river, where towns and small cities built mounds and shared some of the rituals of Cahokia. It’s likely the city was something like Angkor, whose architectural styles and bureaucratic influence at some points reached thousands of kilometers beyond the city itself.

Cahokia was like Angkor in other ways, too. It had the urban design of a tropical city, with big stretches of farmland between neighborhoods, and earthen mounds that became city centers. Early residents of Cahokia spread to both sides of the Mississippi, reshaping the land with crops and earthworks. The city footprint was enormous, and archaeologists sometimes say the metropolis had “precincts”: the densely populated center around Monks Mound, as well as another center identified in East St. Louis, yet another where the city of St. Louis stands today. It’s likely these weren’t separate cities; they were more like downtown neighborhoods separated by farms.

North America’s first known earthworks are in Louisiana. The oldest, called Watson Brake, dates back 5,500 years—centuries before the first Egyptian pyramids were built.

Cahokia was built entirely with human labor. Workers used stone tools to quarry clay in deep trenches that later became borrow pits, and carried woven baskets of it to the growing bulk of the mounds. When the clay was dumped out, they packed it down until the mounds were as solid and substantial as mountains. Centuries later, archaeologists digging into the sides of Monks Mound could still discern circular clumps of clay, each a slightly different color, marking the spots where basket loads were emptied. Cahokians’ backbreaking work on these monuments may have been ritualistic. Perhaps they dug and carried merely to enhance the city’s greatness and power. Or perhaps they were debt slaves, like the khñum of Angkor.

Unlike Pompeii, Cahokia didn’t have streets lined with shops. What archaeologists know of its urban plan includes no permanent marketplace, nor merchant halls. And yet early 20th-century anthropologists had a hard time believing such a major city wasn’t centered around commerce or mercantilism. Partly they were inspired by Gordon V. Childe, inventor of the “Neolithic Revolution,” who believed that cities by definition had to have money, a taxation system, and long-distance trade. And, like early European explorers at Angkor, they also assumed that every ancient city in the world was built with a central marketplace and walls around it. But in the past few decades, archaeologists like Pauketat have argued that the city was a spiritual center rather than a trade center. As evidence, he points to the kinds of objects that people took home with them from Cahokia.

Cahokians came together to participate in a cultural worldview, and they bonded over a shared sense of public purpose.

One of the most common items that people took away from the city was a distinctive form of ceremonial pottery, called Ramey, that was made exclusively at Cahokia. Ramey pots were aesthetically beautiful and technically complex. The clay was tempered with ground mussel shells, which kept its perfectly thin walls from developing cracks during firing. Incised with complicated designs representing the underworld, some Ramey pots also have delicate animal heads for handles and are painted in vivid, abstract spirals of red and white. They’re found throughout Mississippian settlements, and are further evidence that people brought back symbolic items from Cahokia, rather than functional items like amphorae of wine or specialized tools.

Archaeologists have discovered other small souvenirs from Cahokia—figurines, decorative projectile points, and ceremonial beakers—as far away as Wisconsin and Louisiana. These findings suggest that Cahokia traded in ideas and spiritual tenets rather than practical commodities like food, tools, or textiles. No doubt people bartered with each other on a small scale, but this wasn’t a culture built around commerce like at Pompeii. Cahokians came together to participate in a cultural worldview, and they bonded over a shared sense of public purpose. We can partly reconstruct that purpose by paying attention to the layout of the city.

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Mississippian Public Life

Though it was massive, Cahokia’s Grand Plaza was kept mostly empty, as if part of its function was to suggest all the ways that people might be joined together. Wooden screens and ceremonial poles could be set up for various activities, but there were no permanent structures like shops or temples.

Some days, the Grand Plaza was cleared so that people could play a game with pucks and spears called Chunkey. Pauketat describes what he thinks it would have been like:

The chief standing at the summit of the black, packed-earth pyramid raises his arms. In the grand plaza below, a deafening shout erupts from 1,000 gathered souls. Then the crowd divides in two, and both groups run across the plaza, shrieking wildly. Hundreds of spears fly through the air toward a small rolling stone disk. Throngs of cheering spectators gather along the sidelines and root for the two teams.

Cahokian artisans made figurines of popular Chunkey players, and one shows a man kneeling to roll a puck, his hair drawn back into an elaborate bun and his earlobes stretched with decorative plugs. Based on figurines like this, and accounts from Europeans witnessing versions of Chunkey played elsewhere, we know the game was as much about gambling as it was about athletic prowess. Chunkey players would roll their pucks into an arena, simultaneously throwing their spears. The winner was the player whose spear hit closest to where the puck came to rest.

But perhaps the real winners were all the people who bet on that player, and took home whatever prizes were on offer. Apparently the game was rather slow and involved a lot of gambling and audience participation. That made it a perfect sport for bringing people together who wanted an excuse to socialize. The game was so beloved that even the Chunkey pucks themselves became art, and people who journeyed to Cahokia often returned to their villages with one of the city’s finely shaped and polished pucks.

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Cahokia was also a city that loved to party. Festivals at Cahokia were mostly centered around group meals where people feasted on barbeques of deer, bison, squirrels, and even swans. Centuries later, archaeologists found huge party trash pits full of fire-cracked bones and broken dishes. Revelers passed around beautiful festival dishes full of fruits and breads, and used special ceremonial beakers to down a few swallows of “Black Drink,” a caffeinated hallucinogen used during ceremonies to induce visions and vomiting.

It’s likely the city’s population doubled during these festivals because people came to Cahokia from cities all along the Mississippi. One sure indicator of this is that the Black Drink is made from holly trees that grow hundreds of miles away from Cahokia, so people had to bring it with them. Visitors brought their other valuables from home to share, too. Tools and pottery in non-Cahokian styles found their way into Cahokian trash heaps and sacrificial fires. When I visited the Illinois Archaeological Survey offices, I saw a projectile point that was carved in a southern style from the Texas area, but made from locally quarried Cahokia chert. This suggests an immigrant making weapons with hometown methods, using the same stone that Cahokians preferred for their projectile points. It was the stone tool equivalent of a modern-day Korean taco, whose delightful existence is thanks entirely to a history of cultural mixing.

Cahokia was also a city that loved to party.

But the revelry in the city wasn’t always about sports, barbeque, and projectile-point style fusion. Giant festivals can also whip people into a frenzy of ecstatic belief in shamans or politicians or both. Public figures stood at the top of Monks Mound and addressed crowds in the plaza. And then there were the shows. A cross between theater and ritual, these spectacles focused on stories of fertility and renewal, as well as tales of heroes and gods. We can’t be sure if people attending them were experiencing something that medieval Europeans would have called church, or something that contemporary Americans would call a Star Wars movie. Most likely, it was a bit of both, depending on the circumstances.

Cahokians built large earthen platforms like stages, where people dressed as mythic figures acted out stories to mark important times of year like the harvest. Some of these pageants included human sacrifices. These sacrifices could take many forms—I’ll discuss them in detail later—but human life was not the only offering that Cahokians made to the gods during these performances. Archaeologists have found the bodies of sacrificial victims surrounded by many offerings, including the disinterred bones of ancestors that people brought to rebury with the newly dead. What happened next is reminiscent of the Death Pit at Domuztepe in Turkey. After the stage was heaped with bodies, bones, and riches, it was covered over with earth, and tamped down to form a peaked top like the one on Rattlesnake Mound. These peak-top mounds resembled the deeply peaked roofs on typical Cahokian homes. Often, people erected these stage/mounds at the edges of Cahokia’s downtown plaza area, and some archaeologists speculate that they served as a special kind of boundary marker between our world and the world of the dead.

Human sacrifices were no more out of the ordinary to Cahokians than the grisly executions of infidels were to their contemporaries in Europe. In both Europe and the Americas at this time, sacrifice was a public spectacle, used to solidify social norms and hierarchies. In European countries, executions in the town square were a way for rulers to show their power and purge their enemies. Centuries after the Cahokians stopped engaging in human sacrifice, England’s King Henry VIII was famous for publicly executing his advisers as well as two of his wives. Early European settlers in the Americas also lovingly recorded their public executions of infidels at colonies in Plymouth and Salem. Like these European executions, human sacrifices at Cahokia may have served to reinforce a social hierarchy whose rulers stood on the top of Monks Mound.

Cahokians designed their city to reflect a fascination with astronomy. People at Cahokia tracked the movements of the stars, moon, and sun, often orienting their homes to the positions of these cosmic bodies in the sky. During the city’s biggest population expansion, its street grid was aligned to be exactly 5 degrees off the north-south axis. Pauketat and his colleagues believe it is oriented toward an astronomical phenomenon called the lunar standstill, during which the moon’s altitude in the night sky rises and falls dramatically during a two-week period.

The city’s boom years may have been jump-started by an even more astounding astronomical event. In 1054, just as the city was growing, a supernova lit up the sky for almost a month. It was so bright that it would have been visible during the day and as luminous as the full moon at night. We have records of this event across the world, from scrolls authored in China, to paintings on the walls of Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, where another indigenous urban civilization was booming. Pauketat believes it’s possible that an enterprising group of religious or political leaders took the supernova as a sign that it was time to spread word about their burgeoning civilization. Perhaps the exploding star lent credence to a new set of beliefs that united previously disparate groups in a common purpose, laying the groundwork for what became Mississippian culture.

Whatever Cahokia’s leaders did, they were incredibly successful at attracting a broad audience. Over a third of Cahokia’s population were immigrants who had been born and raised far from the city. We know this because scientists use a process called stable isotope analysis that reveals where a person grew up. By studying the ­chemical composition of tooth enamel from human remains at Cahokia, scientists can discern the specific isotopic signatures left behind by the food and water that people ingested as children. The process is often used in forensics, where it can help detectives figure out where a body has come from. In the hands of archaeologists, it reveals immigration patterns. If a person was buried at Cahokia, but grew up consuming food and water from a distant location, then that person was almost certainly an immigrant.

Cahokia may have drawn people in with its political power, but the city was also a place where humans did extremely mundane things, like farm, hunt, maintain infrastructure, and raise families. When archaeologists excavate here, they mostly find objects that come from those kinds of human activities: broken hoes tossed aside, gnawed deer bones from dinner, broken clay pots, and the telltale deep post holes that mark the edges of somebody’s old wooden house. Still, the Cahokians created these everyday objects on a scale that was extraordinary for North America at the time. The city’s farmlands, which produced several kinds of fatty seed grains, as well as fruits, squash, beans, and corn, fed more than 30,000 people at the city’s height between 1050 and 1250. It would have been possible to walk roughly 19 kilometers from Monks Mound to the Mississippi River, take a canoe across, and continue walking for another several kilometers, without ever really leaving the city and its farms.

Excerpted from Four Lost Cities. Copyright © 2021 by Annalee Newitz. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

Meet the Writer

About Annalee Newitz

Annalee Newitz is a science journalist and author based in San Francisco, California. They are author of Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age andThe Future of Another Timeline, and co-host of the podcast Our Opinions Are Correct.

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