Cahokia

Zach – Welcome back to Minimum Wage Historian. We’ve been away for a while, but we’re back now.

Anna – Zach was in indentured servitude.

Zach – Well, the job was a bit heavy on the hours and I had to write a novel and a short story for an upcoming anthology. I’ve been busy.

Anna – You should never be too busy for history. Well, as the only real historian here, I’m Anna Komnene, Byzantine princess and first woman historian. My co-host is Zach. With us today we have Pine Leaf Woman a Crow warrior woman, Scipio Africanus a Roman general and…. really? I thought we agreed he wouldn’t be here.

Gaspar – You forgot to introduce me.

Anna – And Gaspar Correia, the worst historian ever.

Gaspar – Wait….are you talking about me?

Zach – During my travels around the world, I stopped by a place called Cahokia. I never learned of it in school or after. It seems completely forgotten, like most actual Native American history. So, today I’m going to correct this.

Pine Leaf – Most people seem to think that Native American history was a bunch of hippies running around the forest communing with nature and thinking about peace. That’s not quite accurate. It turns out our history is a bit more complex than that. A good example of this is Cahokia, the largest city in North of Mexico until Philadelphia surpassed it in the 1800’s.

I know what you’re thinking. “Wait.  Say whaaat? A large Indian city in North America?” Yeah, you heard me. It was a large walled city with suburbs, monumental architecture, a complex society and specialty artisans.

Scipio – Walled cities? That meant warfare and warfare means civilization.

Pine Leaf – Barbarian.

Zach – The city of Cahokia was located in the Mississippi valley.

Located along the main highway of the Mississippi river.

Located along the main highway of the Mississippi river.

With a population as large as 20,000 it lasted from 600 to 1400 AD.  This was no mere trading post. They had vast farm fields, workshops including blacksmiths and artisans and other cities surrounding it. The government was a stratified system of ruling elite families with a priest-king at the top. He was known as the Sun King.

But what was life like for these people?

Anna – They harvest corn, squash and pumpkins.

Gaspar – Did that mean they had pumpkin pie?

The different neighborhoods were organized by large clans. Rich people had their large houses on mounds. Other mounds served other purposes. (More on that later.)

The different neighborhoods were organized by large clans. Rich people had their large houses on mounds. Other mounds served other purposes. (More on that later.)

Anna – They also had extensive trading routes and had stuff from all over the continent. The copper they used in their blacksmith shops came from the Great Lakes area. But let’s talk about the mounds. They’re the largest and most impressive feats that are left. The largest mound in Cahokia is Monk’s Mound, named after some monks that made a little church on top. It had been abandoned by the time the Monks came alone. During Cahokia’s time, Monk’s Mound was a flat top pyramid with four terraces.  During the hundreds of years of Cahokia’s life, the mound was enlarged again and again. At the very top was the house of the chief priest.  The king-priest’s house was over 5,000 square feet. And I can attest that the view was amazing.

Here's Zach's picture from the top of Monk's Mound. You can see St. Louis in the distance. Look close and you can see the arch. The mound is surprisingly tall.

Here’s Zach’s picture from the top of Monk’s Mound. You can see St. Louis in the distance. Look close and you can see the arch. The mound is surprisingly tall.

Here's a view of the mounds from the first terrace of Monk's Mound. The city would have spread out in all directions from this view.

Here’s a view of the mounds from the first terrace of Monk’s Mound. The city would have spread out in all directions from this view.

Gaspar – Okay, that’s all good and well, but what did these people do for fun?

Pine Leaf – Now that is actually a question we have a specific answer for. They played a game called Chunkey. Think of soccer and baseball’s popularity all rolled into one. Chiefs and other important people were buried with the instruments of the game. It’s a game where they rolled a stone disk and threw spears to mark the place they thought the disk would stop.

Those little stone disks have been found everywhere along the Mississippi.  It would be like finding golf balls all over the ruins of a modern city.

Those little stone disks have been found everywhere along the Mississippi. It would be like finding golf balls all over the ruins of a modern city.

Scipio – Yes, yes. That’s all good. But enough with squash and games. What about the warfare? There were walls to the city, that meant there was a need for the walls. Cahokia had enemies and that means war.

Zach – Yes, indeed. There were extensive walls around the city center. There’s no evidence of warfare at Cahokia, such as burnt houses or skeletons with wounds of wars. However, it’s almost certain that Cahokia had enemies. No center of trade, religion and power goes without enemies.

The walls had towers placed along its length and during the years they changed shape.

The walls had towers placed along its length and during the years they changed shape.

The walls were covered in stucco, probably to prevent weathering and fire damage. And probably to make them look cooler.

The walls were covered in stucco, probably to prevent weathering and fire damage. And probably to make them look cooler.

Gaspar – Well, this is why you have me around. You all forgot the most important part of Cahokia’s history.

Anna – And moving on, we’ll talk about –

Gaspar – The great Stone Ogre War. The Ogres of the Stone Tribe allied with the water serpents that lived deep within the earth. They emerged from the river and invaded the outskirts. The brave warriors held them at the walls as the ogres hurled boulders. If it wasn’t for the Thunder Birds coming in to attack their ogre enemies the city would have been lost.

The water serpents were eternal enemies of all that was good.

The water serpents were eternal enemies of all that was good.

Anna – And now I’m stupider for having heard that.

Scipio – Good thing the ogres didn’t have elephants. I remember one time during the Carthaginian campaign…

Anna – Enough with the fake war stories.

Scipio – Mine was actually real.

Gaspar – So was mine.

Pine Leaf – Oh my word. I’ll move on. We mentioned that Cahokia was a religious center. What was the religion like?  Well, we know they worshiped a deity or spirit we call the Bird Man. The Priest King wielded earthly and spiritual power. He led the noble families and the clan leaders. When a priest was buried he was often buried with members of his family. The burial mounds often contain the bodies of people who had been ritually killed to help the leader in the afterlife.

We don't know much about their religion, only what was left in carvings and the traditions of nearby tribes.

We don’t know much about their religion, only what was left in carvings and the traditions of nearby tribes.

They also built a giant calendar, called Woodhenge, like Stonehenge in England. Posts marked the travel of the sun and important holidays and festivals.

Aside from seasonal parties, they also needed to know when to plant and harvest.  Good thing there weren't any Scottish there, they'd just toss their woodhenge around for fun.

Aside from seasonal parties, they also needed to know when to plant and harvest. Good thing there weren’t any Scottish there, they’d just toss their woodhenge around for fun.

Zach – I had the opportunity to travel back in time to the village just to give you all a glimpse of what it was like.

Anna - Umm...you went to the cultural center at Cahokia. That's a model village. A great one, but not real.

Anna – Umm…you went to the cultural center at Cahokia. That’s a model village. A great one, but not real.

Zach – I don’t know what you’re talking about. But there were tool makers, blacksmiths, carvers, bow makers and other specialists that smaller communities couldn’t support. The different clan neighborhoods had their own community centers where they gathered for meetings, ceremonies and also had food storage areas. Despite the metropolitan vibe of the place, there is evidence of starvation, probably due to too many people and not enough food storage during the winters. There’s also evidence of disease due to waste and so many people living close together. Another bad habit Cahokia had was deforestation of the local area. As they cut down the trees for buildings and fuel, their hunting grounds grew smaller and smaller. Let’s just say that they weren’t exactly at one with nature.

Here's how their society was stratified. Their city was also organized along these lines.

Here’s how their society was stratified. Their city was also organized along these lines.

Gaspar – And you too can visit this amazing place. You can walk where thousands of Natives lived and worked. Here’s the official interwebz zone…or whatever its called. http://cahokiamounds.org/

Zach – And you can check out my latest novel, The Lost Promise,  a fantasy adventure featuring a strong female character…as in, physically strong. As in, punches trolls to death.     http://www.amazon.com/Lost-Promise-Path-Light-Book-ebook/dp/B00ZQF3C1I/ref=sr_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1445481834&sr=1-4&keywords=the+lost+promise

 

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4 comments on “Cahokia

  1. Jason says:

    Great to see you back blogging. What caused this civilizations city to die out? It seems to have had an advanced agrarian culture based on maize. Were they not able to feed themselves, or did the location leave them too open to warfare? Was there any relation between Mississippian culture and Pueblo of the southwest?

    • That’s one of the mysteries. We don’t know why the city faded away. We suspect it was sickness, bad harvests, or a combination of several things. There’s no evidence of warfare though. As Cahokia shrank, other sites grew. Maybe it just fell out of style?

  2. I visited Cahokia in 1993 while out there for a wedding. I was amazed such a place existed yet I had never heard of it.

    As far as where did they go, disease appears the most likely culprit.

    http://www.cracked.com/article_19864_6-ridiculous-lies-you-believe-about-founding-america.html

  3. Come back Zack and leave us another blog post…

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