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After directing the construction of what would have been the highest geographic feature in the square-mile floodplain, a chief or high priest would have had a bird's-eye view of the land under his sway. Of course, that scenario presumes we know that Cahokia had such a single leader, which we don't. We don't even know what this place was called—the name Cahokia is borrowed from a tribe that lived nearby in the s—or what the people who lived here called themselves.

Cahokia Mounds, Collinsville

With no written language, they left behind the same scattering of meager clues that makes understanding prehistoric societies everywhere so challenging. Pottery's fine and everything, but how much would a foreign culture really learn about us by looking at our dishes? If deciphering the story of history is contentious, try coming to agreement on the story of prehistory. He's not exaggerating much. Even when Cahokia scholars agree, they tend to frame their positions so it seems like they're disagreeing—but there are points of general consensus. Everyone agrees that Cahokia developed quickly a couple centuries after corn became an important part of the local diet, that it drew together people from the American Bottom, and that it dwarfed other Mississippian communities in size and scope.

Cahokia was born with a bang and died of unknown causes.

The battle lines tend to form along the questions of how populous it was, how centralized its political authority and economic organization were, and the nature and extent of its reach and influence. Placid in the morning mist, the plazas surrounding Monks Mound teemed with thousands during construction, which required 15 million baskets of soil. A large temple or palace was built on top, perhaps serving as center stage for religious ceremonies.

At one extreme you have descriptions of Cahokia as a "theater of power," a hegemonic empire sustained by force that reached deep into the Mississippian world and perhaps connected to Mesoamerican civilizations such as the Maya or Toltec. At the other extreme you have characterizations of Cahokia as little more than an especially large Mississippian town whose residents had a talent for making big piles of dirt.

But as usual, most of the action happens in the middle area between those poles. When I meet Pauketat at Cahokia to see the site through his eyes, he's more interested in showing me what he's found in the uplands several miles to the east: signs that Cahokians held sway over outlying laborer communities that supplied food to the city and its elites—evidence, Pauketat argues, that Cahokia's political economy was centralized and broad reaching.

This is a controversial theory, because the research supporting it hasn't been published yet, and because it goes to the heart of the argument about just what kind of society Cahokia was. Gayle Fritz at Washington University in St.

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Louis says that if Cahokia was a city, it wasn't the kind we usually think of, but one full of farmers growing their own food in nearby fields. Otherwise there would be more signs of storage facilities. It's this sort of practical limit on the size of a subsistence-based agricultural community that leads minimalists like Penn State's George Milner to argue that population estimates for Cahokia—currently ranging between 10, and 15, for the city proper and another 20, to 30, in the surrounding areas—are inflated by a factor of two or more and that characterizations of Cahokia as something like a protostate are way off base.

But with less than one percent of Cahokia excavated, speculation by every camp remains in higher supply than evidence. Washington University's John Kelly, a longtime stalwart of Cahokian archaeology, sums up the present understanding of Cahokia nicely: "People aren't really sure what it is. Nor do people know what happened to it.

Cahokia was a ghost town by the time Columbus landed in the New World, and the American Bottom and substantial parts of the Mississippi and Ohio River Valleys were so depopulated they are referred to as the Vacant Quarter. Cahokia's demise is perhaps an even greater mystery than its emergence, but there are a few clues. The city grew to prominence during an especially favorable climate phase and began shrinking around the time the climate became cooler, drier, and less predictable.

For an agricultural community dependent on regular crop yields, the changing conditions could have been anything from stressful to catastrophic. The fact that between and Cahokia's inhabitants built—and rebuilt, several times—a stockade encircling the main part of the city suggests that conflict or the threat of conflict had become a standard feature of life in the region, perhaps because there were fewer resources.

In Search Of History - Cahokia: The Mound Builders (History Channel Documentary)

Furthermore, dense populations create environmental problems as a matter of course—deforestation, erosion, pollution, disease—that can be difficult to counter and that have been the downfall of many a society. That Cahokia lasted for only some years, and was at the peak of its power for half that at most, should not come as a surprise. Emerson is currently heading a huge excavation in East St. Louis of Cahokia's next-door neighbor, a site that had thousands of residents of its own sort of like Fort Worth to Cahokia's Dallas.

And again, road construction is paying the tab: A new bridge across the Mississippi is giving Emerson's team a crack at 36 acres that had been lost to earlier progress, if you can call the twisted path of human history something as simple as "progress. Louis's own decline from a vibrant city to a collection of vacant lots and boarded-up buildings. This is history's march in our own midst: fleet of foot and easy to miss. When I drive to St. Louis to see if anything still memorializes the big mound named, with an appropriate lack of imagination, Big Mound that was destroyed there by , I'm surprised to see that the exact spot where it was located is where the new bridge from East St.

Louis will land. I ask around and learn that archaeologists excavated this lot too before construction started. But they didn't find a trace of Big Mound, only remnants of the 19th-century factories that had taken its place. That is now the accessible history of this site. The rest is gone. After a failed first attempt, I do finally locate a marker for Big Mound. It's a little cobblestone memorial a half block down Broadway from Mound Street, with a missing plaque and grass growing between its rocks.

As luck would have it, I find it just as a man arrives to spray it with weed killer. I ask him if he works for the city, and he says no. His name is Gary Zigrang, and he owns a building down the block.

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He's called the city about the marker's disrepair, and they haven't done anything, so he's taking matters into his own hands. And as he sprays the weeds on the forgotten memorial for the forgotten mound of the forgotten people who once lived here, he says, "What a shame. There's history here, and it needs to be taken care of. America's Forgotten City Cahokia was born with a bang and died of unknown causes.

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By Glenn Hodges. Photographs by Don Burmeister and Ira Block. This story appears in the January issue of National Geographic magazine. Artifacts from Cahokia and elsewhere reveal a broad network of trade in goods and raw materials, including copper from the Great Lakes region, and shells from the Gulf of Mexico bottom, far left.

Chunkey, a popular sport using rolling stones top, left , was played throughout the Mississippian region. The last Indian mound in St. The homes surrounded the ceremonial sites, and at its peak the settlement may have expanded out into a primitive metropolitan area that served as residence to tens of thousands of Native Americans. But as a city Cahokia lacked the density of Mayan or European settlements; instead it appears to have organized itself more along the lines of "modern American urban sprawl," Lawler writes.

While settlement at Cahokia was short-lived, its cultural impact appears to have been widespread. Researchers working as far away as Wisconsin have found evidence of Cahokia-style pottery and housing. Why exactly the city disappeared it still a matter of conjecture. The leading assumptions point to political problems, a changing climate, or a combination of both. Geological Survey presented climate-related evidence that "a series of persistent droughts occurred in the Cahokian area" which may have contributed to the city's abandonment:.

Cahokia Mounds – Collinsville, Illinois - Atlas Obscura

At about the same time, a 20,log palisade was erected around Monks Mound and the Grand Plaza, indicating increased social unrest. During this time, people began exiting Cahokia and, by the end of the Stirling phase A. It's fitting that the construction of a new bridge has led to additional revelations about the lost city.

As Glenn Hodges reported in National Geographic in early , it was the implementation of the Interstate Highway System that led to a surge of new interest in the settlement, by providing funds for excavation near highway sites. Louis now bisects what was Cahokia's north plaza, Hodges writes. The president just signed an executive order calling for states and cities to pursue zoning reform. With their invite-only policies and coworking spaces, high-end urban gyms aspire to be fitness studio, social club, and office rolled into one.

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