Friday, 27 March 2015

The Longlist: Cahokia

What's the Longlist? It's the list for all the other great man-made spectacles in the world that haven't quite made my shortlist. I don't feel the need to research them or visit them, but as long as this blog is about the world's best man-made structures, they deserve some kind of mention. Today, Cahokia.

Go to St Louis in Missouri, America and then head out of the city. No, not into the riot hotbed of Ferguson, but in the other direction, across the Mississippi and to the east, not far, just ten miles. You'd be forgiven for thinking you'd found yourself in a pleasant and green patch of the world, with stretches of field dotted with small grassy hills. But stop a moment and look a little closer. These small hills are suspiciously regular in form. The hills are too round, the land is too flat. What's going on? This bucolic scene looks a little, well, unnatural. And that's because it's certainly not natural. You're standing in the middle of a city, one that peaked 800 years ago and was populated by unknown Native Americans with unknown motives who left very little in the way of evidence except for scores of huge mounds of earth.

That was what Danielle and I saw on a fleeting visit last August. We were in St Louis to see its amazing Gateway Arch and were staying in Airbnb accommodation with the lovely Maria. During conversation with Maria, she brought up the subject of Cahokia. I was already familiar with the name as I'd briefly toyed with adding it to my shortlist but had no idea it was right on St Louis's doorstep. Maria very kindly drove us there and we climbed up the largest of its mounds, Monks Mound. To one side, the glass blocks and steel Arch of St Louis shimmered hazily in the distance, and to the other the ancient city of Cahokia hit beneath the veneer of mounds, grass and trees, now carefully groomed. I won't pretend Cahokia is an instant hit in the way the Pyramids of Egypt are, or a Gothic Cathedral or vast temple, it is not a landmark with a visceral thrill. The scene now is a gentle one that requires some attention and imagination to appreciate what's really there. But with that attention and imagination, it doesn't take long to see why Cahokia very justifiably has been given UNESCO World Heritage status, and is one of the greatest pre-Colombian settlements in the Americas.

Cahokia is nothing short of America's first ever city (if we allow for the fact that the USA wasn't exactly the USA back in the 12th Century). Its peak population has been estimated at up to 40,000 people, a population not matched until Philadelphia in the 1780s, and even though this may be a slightly inflated projection, there's no doubt that Cahokia was a teeming metropolis by the standards of the day. It covered around 6 square miles and had something like 120 man-made mounds dotted around its artificially-levelled plains. These days around 80 mounds survive in a 3.5 square mile area, as the rest of St Louis's outskirts surround and eat into it with a depressing grid of broad criss-crossing roads in suburbs built for vehicles not people.

The city appears to have been founded in the 7th Century, but  the craze of mound building didn't get going until the 9th Century. What were they for? The short answer is: lots of things. Each mound seems to have own meaning and function, whether ceremonial, or burial, or a workshop of sorts. Wooden huts and other structures would once had graced them. Thousands of people spent thousands of hours and days carrying mud and clay, probably in woven baskets placed on their heads, and building mounds of varying sizes. This went on for a few centuries. The mounds weren't necessarily built one at a time, they simply grew over time, layer upon layer, until one day the Cahokians shrugged their shoulders and said "You know what? I'm fed up of this whole city-living thing," and gave up and abandoned everything, leaving their city and mounds to nature.

Like many of the cities and civilisations of the Americas, Cahokia seems to have been a victim of its own success. In around 1050, it was still pretty low level, perhaps only 1000 people there. But then it ramped up a notch, and within decades the population had gone up manyfold. Nobody around would have ever seen the likes. Rough and uneven land was flattened, and the mounds kept on coming, more and more, bigger and bigger. But it wasn't sustainable. The Cahokians simply weren't experienced in city building and couldn't get the balance right. Food supply became a major issue, waste disposal likewise. The citizens of Cahokia lived in dirty squalor, where disease was rife.What was the appeal? The same as any big city, be it London or Constantinople. Regardless of the drawbacks, it was a glorious place to live, a hub of civilisation and most likely the home of the ruling elite and a ceremonial centre. The glory was short-lived. Cahokia leaped to greatness from 1050, but less than a century later was on the sharp decline. Over-hunting and deforestation compounded its problems. Perhaps war or unrest contributed, although there's no particular evidence of this. By the 13th Century, it was abandoned. The Cahokians dispersed to the countryside, and vanished from time.

Who were the Cahokians? We don't know. We don't even know what they called themselves. The city was named after a tribe that 17th Century explorers stumbled upon, who lived in the areas but don't appear to have any connection to the lost city. The original Cahokians didn't leave behind any written record. We don't know who they were, where they came from, where they went, how they ruled. Their mounds are pretty much all that we know of them.

When Europeans first arrived on the scene, they entirely failed to recognise Cahokia. The first person to really get excited about it was a man called Henry Brackenridge in 1813. He was the only one. The problem was that at the time Cahokia didn't really fit into the narrative of the USA as an emerging nation - nobody wanted to hear that these uncivilised Red Indians once built a city bigger than Washington D.C. then was. Even later in the century, when others poked around, they preferred to believe that Cahokia had been built by Vikings, or Phoenecians, or even a lost tribe of Israel - anyone but the Indians. American archaeologists flocked in their droves to Mexico to excavate lost cities but completely ignored the one on their doorstep.

It was bad news for the area around St Louis. During the 19th Century, as St Louis grew, loads of non-Cahokian mounds were totally destroyed. In 1931, Cahokia's second biggest mound was wiped out by horseradish farmers - it was an easy source of earth. The site has since been used as a gambling house, an airfield, and a porno drive-in. Fortunately, most of the rest of Cahokia survived and, finally, in the 1960s a proper excavation began. Why? Because a highway was due to be built through it, and for the first time funds were made available for archaeologists to see what was there before it was lost. It was a lot more impressive than expected - Cahokia is now the largest archaeological site in America. The highway was mercifully re-routed.

It's Monks Mound that gets the most attention, and that was the one Danielle, Maria, and I visited on a pleasant August late afternoon. Really, it seems just like a hill at first, until you look a little closer. It's big - 30 metres high might not seem too impressive, but it takes up an area of 14 acres. A comparison to the Great Pyramid is a good way to get a picture. Monks Mound's sides are 290 metres by 255 metres - the Great Pyramid is 230 metres on each side. The volume of Monks Mound - that is, the total amount of material shifted and amassed by man - is 1.6 million cubic metres. The Great Pyramid - one of mankind's biggest ever creations - is 2.5 million cubic metres. A huge wooden structure once graced the top, now long gone. When Henry Brackenridge first saw and admired Monks Mound, it had a Trappist Monastery there, thus lending its name to the mound. These days, it's just an open space, a broad hilltop with wonderful views.

Monks Mound was very likely a ceremonial mound. Another one, named simply Mound 72, was for burial, with what appears to be one of Cahokia's rulers buried within it. Another 250-plus skeletons were buried with him - over 150 appear to have been sacrificed. Dirty, disease-ridden, shortages of food, and now mass murder - Cahokia maybe wasn't a city of dreams.

Cahokia is an incredible part of American history that the majority of Americans have never even heard of. Unlike the stone temples of the many central American civilisations, it was made of mud and wood and so was only ever going to be impermanent, but the city planning and scale indicate a society that was thinking big. The Cahokia we see today is very understated and undervalued, looking somewhere between an archaeological site and a lovely spot to have a picnic, and isn't a spectacle of immediate grandeur. Nonetheless, should you find yourself in St Louis - and I recommend it, it's a great city - it is absolutely worth a visit, if you can make the time between St Louis's other star attractions, visiting the Gateway Arch and going on a riot. 


  1. "A lost tribe of Israel". Classic Americans there.

    Never heard of this place but have always been struck by how little recognition how advanced & city-y Native American culture was.

    1. That lost tribe of Israel have seemingly been responsible for quite a lot of ancient American civilisations.

      America likes to portray itself as a new country, and all that old stuff from the wiped-out natives really doesn't sit well with the image. Mesa Verde is another amazing example that flies completely under the radar.


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