Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Tuesday Forgotten American Blogging--The Cahokia Peoples

One of the more interesting aspects of my trip to St. Louis the other week was a visit to Cahokia. Today, Cahokia is a large group of mounds just east of St. Louis, in Illinois. Virtually no one is familiar with Cahokia today, something I find most unfortunate.

Cahokia was the largest Indian city in the United States before the arrival of Columbus. Long gone by 1492, at its height Cahokia held around 20,000 residents and built huge earthen mounds. The largest of these mounds, Monk's Mound, takes up about 15 acres and is about 100 feet tall. An impressive monument to this mostly unknown civilization. They also had "woodhenges" where logs were placed to mark a calendar, showing significant knowledge of the world. Cahokia was the centerpiece of the wide-ranging Mississippian peoples, who built these characteristic mounds as far away as Oklahoma, Wisconsin, and Florida.

As we might imagine, Cahokia was hardly a paradise. It seems to have been ruled as a theocracy, though if it was anything like most Native American cultures, authority was likely fairly decentralized and based more on respect than hard and fast lines. Cahokia was built in a planned way (unlike St. Louis), in a diamond shape with Monk's Mound at its center and with a stockade at the heart of the city. Settled in around 650, significant mound building began around 1050, with abandonment sometime around 1300. A short civilization one might think, but one significantly longer than the United States.

Why did Cahokia disappear? It's hard to know for sure but more than likely resource depletion was a leading cause. Cahokia built its dwellings out of wood, a semi-renewable resource. It is believed that the city deforested the landscape for many miles around, until building became untenable. There were climate changes as well during this period, though I find this less likely--Illinois is not New Mexico and climate changes that would crush desert cultures would likely have a somewhat less destructive impact upon more temperate climates. In any case, the centuries after Cahokia's fall saw a general depopulation of southern Illinois and Indiana. Archaeologists don't know why this happened but the Mississippian cultures held on in more outlying regions.

Today, Cahokia has been named a World Heritage Site. However, its preservation and interpretation is more reminiscent of a poorly funded developing nation than what one would expect in the United States. Run by the state of Illinois rather than the National Park Service, the grounds are kept pretty nice but interpretative signs are few and poorly made and the visitor center is more of a mishmash of various Indian stereotypes from around the United States than any particularly interesting discussion of the Cahokia people. To make it worse, the state of Illinois has celebrated their most interesting piece of pre-Columbian cultural heritage by running a 2 lane highway just south of Monk's Mound, between the mound and the visitor center. Not only does the visitor have to cross this road to visit the mound, but the highway intersects what was the southern plaza surrounding the mound. Just to the north of the mound, runs Interstate 64. Rerouting the freeway seems a bit unrealistic, but moving the highway is something that could be done. But that would take some actual respect from the American people for its pre-Columbian cultures, something that I don't see happening anytime soon.