Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Cahokia Mounds, the City of the Sun

Monks Mound from Afar
I recently visited the Cahokia Mounds in Illinois; and, although I'd been aware there were once mound-builders in the Americas, I had no idea how colossal these mounds really are. Cahokia was THE major city of the native Mississippian culture, which stretched all the way from Michigan down to Louisiana. There were many smaller mound communities, but Cahokia was what we might think of as the "capital city." It was the perfect place: at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers and their many tributaries, so there was plenty of fishing and game nearby in the woodlands, and there was lots of land available to grow corn, or maize--so much so, in fact, that they were able to store surplus grain for the winter months and for times of drought or a scanty harvest. It's estimated that at the zenith of the culture, there were as many people at Cahokia as 20,000, which may not sound like much today, but this was around 1000 CE, so Cahokia was actually larger than London, England, at the time. It was truly a City of the Sun.

But I think the thing that struck me the most, while walking the grounds, was how similar to the ancient Egyptians this culture was, at least under Pharoah Ahkenaten, who rejected all the gods of the Egyptian pantheon and worshiped only the Aten, or sun disk, not itself as a god but as the symbol of the Divine Presence. Otherwise, the various versions of the Sun God named RA were always highly esteemed. And as we know, the Egyptians built pyramids. Kings or people of high standing were buried with grave goods. And the Pharoah was seen as the son of the gods Osiris and Isis, the son named Horus. Pharoah was considered the literal incarnation of Horus. Finally, that the Egyptians understood the heavens and the solstices and equinoxes is well known. Many of the Temples were sun temples, always facing east, to the light, and Abu Simbel's Temple of Ramses the Great fabulously shows this when, twice a year, the sun, precisely on 60 days before and 60 days after the solstices, rises, its rays entering the temple and lighting up the inner sanctuary by shining directly upon the statues of the gods inhabiting that room, one of whom is Ramses II himself.

Flat-topped Mound
Well, the Cahokians didn't have stone to build pyramids in the way the Egyptians and Incas and Mayans did, so they used what was available: dirt. With dirt they built mounds of various types, but most were round (or domed), which were often burial sites; others were flat-topped, used for building temples or other administrative buildings upon, or even the house of an important person; and some were wedge shaped, the purpose of which is yet to be determined, but archaeologists and historians surmise they were boundary markers of some kind.

First flight up stairs for Monks Mound
By far the most impressive mound is the tiered flat-topped mound named Monks Mound, which originally had four levels (or platforms, much like a step pyramid), and the chief of all the Cahokians had his house on top of this earthen pyramid. You think dirt, big deal. Well, it was a big deal: it took a LOT of work to build these! They dug up the earth and the workers would carry 50-pound basketfuls of earth to the mound and pile it on. Not so bad at the beginning, but as the mound grew larger, this was back-breaking work. They also had to figure out systems of draining to prevent the mounds from collapsing (partially successful) or turning into mudslides. Consider building a ten-story pile of dirt with four different platforms, each one smaller than the other, which is what Monks Mound is, and that the base circumference of this mound is actually larger than that of the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan near Mexico City. Now consider that at least 120 mounds have been found at Cahokia alone, and you can begin to appreciate the amount of work that went into constructing this city.
Second flight of stairs leading up Monks Mound

The Cahokians worshiped the Sun God as a symbol of the Divine Presence, and the chief was considered the son of, or brother to, the Sun God. This chief ruled over all: Cahokia, the nearby mound communities (St. Louis itself was built over some 29 mounds and East St. Louis over 40), and all the mound communities up and down the Mississippi and nearby--a vast territory. They traded with each other and with other Indian communities as far away as Florida, and they highly valued seashells for ornaments. From the north they traded for copper and bronze. Cahokia itself was much like a modern city today: there was the chief, and under him the various elders of clans, who also had elevated homes (but never higher than the chief's), and the hunters and gatherers and farmers and then people who specialized in various tasks, such as priests and artisans. Cahokia was a thriving center of trade.

The inner city of Cahokia contained a grand court that was surrounded by a wooden palisade that was two miles long. Within were the temples and homes of the important personages and also a court for the sport of chunkey. It involved throwing or rolling a stone "puck" and then the players would throw their spears at the ground at the place they guessed the puck would come to a stop. Apparently this was a serious sport to many, and gambling was common; and some burials have been uncovered with chunkeys buried with the body. This land of the grand court had all been completely leveled to be perfectly flat, as well.

St. Louis from top of Monks Mound. At ten stories, it's higher than you might think!


The fact that the Cahokians understood the heavens and the movements of the sun can be seen in their construction of a circle of wooden poles with a center pole in what is now called "the American Woodhenge." It's like Stonehenge, only with poles of red cedar. Certain poles were marked with two stripes of white paint and one with one stripe that aligned with Monks Mound, and from the center pole the two striped poles marked the solstices and equinoxes. Hence they knew when it was time to plant and time to sow. The center pole also worked much like a sun dial, casting a shadow that indicated the time of day.

A better look at part of the circle itself

The only thing the Cahokians didn't have was writing--at least, not as far as we know. It could be that stories were just passed down through oral tradition, but as vast as it all was, surely some sort of record-keeping was done. We just haven't found it yet; or, it's staring us straight in the face and nobody has recognized it yet. But no matter how you slice it, the Cahokians were an impressive people. After Hernando de Soto arrived in Central America, conquering its peoples, and then moved on to North America, cutting a grand swath of destruction from Florida all across the Southern and Midwestern states and finally over to the Mississippi, Cahokia is where his army was stopped. Arrows and spears aren't that effective against guns and armored men on horseback, but the sheer organization and doggedness of this people was enough to defeat de Soto's army, and the army made haste to get away, building boats that sent them packing south down the Mississippi to the Gulf. The Cahokian (or Mississippian) people harassed them from the shores the entire way. And this was after the Cahokians had passed their zenith and had entered the period of decline.

No one really knows for sure why the culture ultimately failed. The Mayans, archaeologists say, eventually failed because of the massive deforestation of the lands surrounding their cities and the overcultivation of the land. There was no more food to be had. Something similar may be at play here, along with a change in the climate. In any case, Cahokia was abandoned some time between 1200-1400 CE, although some small related communities survived for a time, such as the Illini.

And then came the white settlers. Some Trappist monks who had been expelled from France settled at Cahokia, taking up residence on one of the flat-topped mounds, and they used Monks Mound for terraced farming (hence the name Monks Mound).

There is a 15-minute video HERE that gives much more detail about the site. By all means if you're in the St. Louis area, it's worth a visit as it is only about a 20-minute drive away. There's also a museum and theater and Interpretive Center with a gift shop with Indian-made items, and I picked up some of the decorative arrow points dug out of Mound 72. (That Mound, which contained burials, and some of them appear to be people who were human sacrifices, is another whole story in itself.) For sure the entire complex at Cahokia has not been excavated, for excavation is also destructive, so archaeologists are picking their sites carefully--because, of course, the entire site is sacred. Eventually the park wants to buy up the property surrounding the site (there are some houses and even a trailer park nearby) and expand the site to its original measurements. But it's already vast and takes several hours to walk through, going at a nice, slow pace to read everything on the various markers.

So if your picture of American Indians is limited to the Last of the Mohicans or to Sioux or Apache wars with cowboys and US cavalry, learning more about this civilization is eye-opening to say the least.


Gail Lynn Miller said...

I love reading your blog page. Always very well written and interesting! What a shame that this sacred ground has a trailer park on it, and that St. Louis was built over many of those mounds.

Joyce said...

Well, in truth, much of the US is built over land that was originally sacred native land.... eg, the entire Black Hills ;-)