Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, Illinois
Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site contains the remains of the largest pre-Columbian Native American city, which was the cultural and economic capital of the Mississippian society that stretched from Minnesota to northern Florida to Louisiana, with trading networks extending to Lake Superior, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, and beyond. At it’s height, the city housed up to twenty thousand residents and was visited by tens of thousands of people who came to trade from other Mississippian centers across the east. Settlement at Cahokia began ca. 600 AD in the Late Woodland period, though the mound building and cultural reorganization didn’t commence until around 1050 AD when the existing collection of houses and farms were razed and extensive construction projects commenced that reshaped both the landscape and the way of life for the inhabitants. Though the existing clusters of houses just prior to 1050 AD had been organized into self-governing communities, the evidence shows that only a few settlements had created any larger-scale public works such as shared courtyards, council houses, or ceremonial centers. Thus, the rapid reorganization of culture that prompted the creation of the city of Cahokia was a drastic change from decentralized communities bound by familial ties to an urbanized, stratified society that attracted thousands of immigrants and bound these new residents as well as those people in other villages in a brand new common way of life.
The political and cultural reorganization that enabled mass construction at Cahokia as well as satellite cities was quick and inclusive, adopting useful skills and knowledge from assimilating cultures and creating its own unique rituals that would come to define and bind settlements thousands of miles apart. Such a sudden creation of culture and common identity as well as political and economic affiliation over a large geographical area is something that I find fascinating. The rise of a political state – as defined as a centralized authority that controls the production and stockpiling of food as well as harnessing the labor supply to achieve a goal – is incredibly interesting in and of itself, but the rapidity that is evident at Cahokia is impressive; the simultaneous execution of multiple large-scale projects, coherence of its components, and the delineation of use and access with regards to the newly-created residential, public, and ritual areas stems from absolute control, a unified vision of urban planning, and a stratified class system. This was not a gradual shift from a tribal agricultural society to a centralized civilization that dictates behavior, labor, and ways of life as was seen in the Fertile Crescent beginning in 10,000 BC but one that was relatively instantaneous. Archaeologists posit that an event, possibly the supernova of 1054 AD, legitimized the power of an existing local authority at the largest of the settlements (referred to as “Old Cahokia”) who in turn incorporated common rites and cultural practices from across the Midwest to solidify rule and create a unified society.
At it’s apex in the 13th century, the city was six square miles and contained over 120 ceremonial, burial, and other types of mounds in addition to massive plazas that together required the movement of up to fifty-five million cubic feet of dirt from surrounding areas; the Cahokians did not just inhabit the land but rather sculpted it according to their interpretation of the their place in the world. The largest feature of Cahokia is the hundred foot high, nearly thousand foot long Monks Mound that contained four terraces and overlooked the fifty acre Grand Plaza – which was the largest public space built north of Mexico at that time – as well as several other plazas and tens of earthen mounds in every direction. In addition to the surrounding mounds of various shapes and uses, also seen from atop Monks Mound were thousands of “neighborhoods,” or grouped houses, as well as the 476-foot diameter, 60-post Woodhenge solar calendar to the east. Although the structures have completely decayed and many of the mounds have since been razed, the site is still amazing to behold. The Mississippian culture reached its zenith in the 13th century before Cahokia was gradually depopulated, but in addition to the mounds, remnants of its existence can still be observed in ritual practices, mythologies, and other narratives of hundreds of Native American tribes across the continent, a testament to its influence.