The Cahokia Native American tribe and region are one of the most prosperous and extensive pre-Columbian civilizations on the continent. Recent archaeological discoveries have uncovered significant revelations regarding the sheer size of Cahokia and its numerous cultural and anthropological features. For its time, Cahokia was a complex and cosmopolitan city, one of the few Native American ancient population centers.1 However, its history remains mysterious, just as its sudden disappearance without external influence. This report seeks to investigate the known history and culture of the Cahokia city and Native American tribe.
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Geography and Demographics
Cahokia was located in Southern Illinois, in the vicinity of modern-day St. Louis. The city was the largest pre-Columbian urban center north of Mexico and encompassed settlements and populations of the Mississippian culture. The name is given based on the aboriginal Algonquian-speaking Cahokia people who lived in the area in the 17th century. Cahokia is estimated to have been built in around 1000AD and have existed to approximately 1200AD.2 The origin of the city is attributed to a congregation of similar Mississippian tribes and a warm climate which was beneficial to corn and maize agriculture. The city extended for over six square miles, reaching a population of upwards of 20,000. As a low-scale metropolis, Cahokia attracted settlers and tribes from around the region, with 80% of the population consisting of locals and around 20% were immigrants from distant areas.3 The population was a mix of the Natchez, the Pensacola, the Choctaw, and the Ofo tribes of Indians.
Cahokia’s key characteristic was numerous earthen mounds, which was a practice common among local tribes, largely for religious, spiritual, and burial purposes. One of the most fascinating aspects for archeologists is the carefully planned layout of the city, centering around the largest mound, which was placed accurately using site lines and the positions of the sun and moon. The vital placement of strategic, cultural, and civilian buildings suggests one of the earliest examples of urban planning in North America.
Although little is known of the Cahokia culture, it is considered to be sophisticated for its time and highly religious. Religion was central to the culture as it was almost a cult-like hierarchy with the civilization leader worshiped as a deity. Human sacrifices were considered normal as part of religious practices as well as close interrelation with cosmology. In comparison to other Native American settlements and tribes which practiced largely egalitarian social structures, Cahokia followed a hierarchical class-based system. Housing in Cahokia consisted of single-family dwellings built with walls out of wooden poles and woven grass. Roofs were also fetched out of dry grass. Some buildings were larger, built on top of mounds, were most likely government buildings and temples. These square houses and buildings were unique as they did not match other traditional Native American dwellings at the time.4
Cahokia is known for its highly complex artifacts made of tempered clay. The sophisticated pottery and figurines are demonstrative of skilled craftsmanship. The artifacts have a distinct style of red slipped and highly burnished ceramics. Other goods such as arrowheads, shell beads, and copper ornaments are present among findings. Many of the figurines and articles found at Cahokia are considered to have significant symbolism to its religion. In terms of cultural pastime, historians believe that the Cahokia people engaged in religious festivals, with traditional dance and music. Evidence of an ancient game known as Chunkey that has Native American origins was a common pastime and competition for local tribes.5
Activity and Economy
Cahokia was largely an agrarian society, depending on its farming of corn and maize to grow as well as avoid the traditional nomadic lifestyle that many Indian tribes followed at the time and for centuries afterward. Eventually, Cahokians began to cultivate other roots and herbs, greatly developing the city’s agrarian capabilities. As a religious and urban center, the city attracted significant trade and an influx of travelers or immigrants. Archeological evidence demonstrates that various items found in Cahokia originate from materials not found anywhere in the local vicinity, suggesting long-distance trading and migrations to the city. This contributed to the growth of the city as well as potentially securing peace with nearby tribes. Nevertheless, there is also evidence of protectorate structures and potential rebuilding of the city several times which emphasizes that the city did face attacks.6
Overall, the social structure of Cahokia could be broken down into social and religious nobility, artisans, laborers, and farmers. Each group was dedicated to the profession and contributed to the city’s economic output and growth. Governance and urban planning were essential as Cahokia expanded in population to a settlement size not previously seen on the continent. Furthermore, the extensive network of public and religious projects required consistent use of human resources.7
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Cahokia’s key characteristic is its large earth mounds, which are the primary remaining evidence of this civilization. It is a UNESCO world heritage site in the modern-day. The city’s area encompassed 120 of them, in various sizes, with the largest one positioned in what is believed to be the center. The Monks Mound as it is known, is 14 acres and over 100 feet tall, demonstrating extraordinary feats of engineering and sophistication for such an early and not technologically advanced civilization.8 The smaller mounds along with several grand plazas surround the central mound. All this was located in a two-mile palisade made out of over 20,000 wooden posts, highlighting the significant urban scope and planning.
The purpose of the Cahokia mounds is speculated to this day, but there are several evidence-based assertions. Strong religious elements are present in the culture and urban planning of the ancient civilization. A series of large wooden circles were constructed to the West of Monks Mound, labeled “American Woodhenge” as a play on words based on the famous Stonehenge in England. These structures were considered to be used as calendars to track solstices for cultural and religious purposes.9 Therefore, the aspects of cosmology are also evident, which seem to be directly associated with the positioning and size of some of the mounds as the alignment of the various structures indicates calendrical and cosmological references. Some mounds had direct functions, as archaeologists believe the infamous Mound 72 was a place of human sacrifice based on the types of remains found there. Others were utilized for burial purposes, supposedly of nobility.10 However, the limited archaeological and folklore evidence still creates a mystery for scholars on the exact nature of these mounds.
A significant insight that has been determined by recent archeological digs and examinations of the mound burial sites is the role that women played in Cahokia. Previously held beliefs based on inaccurate assumptions of burial patterns and anatomical tests of remains suggested that Cahokia was a male-dominated society in terms of leadership. However, in combination with other anthropological evidence, scholars believe that women held positions of influence and leadership as well. However, the general societal structure which supported a hierarchical, highly centralized organization is still upheld. The presence of women in high-status burials significantly shifts the perspective of Cahokia’s culture, while still a nobility-based society, the aspect of females in leadership is highly important.11
This fits with additional discovered evidence which highlights the respect that the Cahokia people offered to females. Previous assumptions of a male-dominated society also saw warrior symbolism, an attribute of tribes to the Southeast of the region is hundreds of years later, and it was simply projected unto Cahokia without a deeper examination of the culture. However, further analysis of Cahokia temples and burial sites show an extensive number of artifacts that demonstrate symbolism of fertility, agriculture, and renewal of life, all associated with females. Numerous figurines discovered are female, many related to the imagery of the afterlife, further tying this symbolism into religion, an aspect that also emphasizes the importance of women in this society.12
It is also important to consider that women played a role in Cahokia from a bottom-up approach as well. Even with women in nobility and decision-making roles, the societal organization as stated was based on class rather than gender. One of the lowest classes was farmers, which were primarily women. It is their knowledge and understanding of domesticated crops, particularly corn and maize, which allowed Cahokia to prosper. These women indirectly had power over society and were considered to be highly respected. In the various tribes which made up Cahokia, women were supposedly participating in socio-political organizations which provided dominant roles in the farming and spiritual life, despite the presence of what many scholars believe to be “an elite-controlled priestly cult”.13 Nevertheless, it is through their skills and such social structure and organizations that women could potentially move up in the social rank and gain positions of power, which is unprecedented for such ancient societies.
Cahokia having reached its population height by 1100 began to rapidly shrink, becoming virtually abandoned by 1350. Historians and archaeologists remain perplexed regarding the fate of the city and its people. Some suggest that the land’s resources were exhausted while others cite political and social unrest, or potential detrimental climate changes leading to droughts. Nevertheless, common factors which influenced the disappearance of Native American tribes and settlements such as European settlers and disease were not at play here as the first European settlers led by the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto did not reach the area until 1540.14 The only remaining signs of the civilization are the earthen mounds which contain a myriad of artifacts. Cahokia, despite its mystical history, is largely unmentioned in Native American folklore or culture in the region.
Cahokia is one of the most mystical pre-Columbian Native American settlements on the North American continent. However, recent archaeological evidence suggests that the city was one of the largest urban centers for the Mississippian tribes. Demonstrating evidence of advanced urban planning, sophisticated religion, advanced economy, and rich culture, Cahokia remains a wonder for anthropological and historical study. This brief analysis suggests that ancient metropolitan centers were subject to influencing factors outside of European intervention that led to their demise.
Bey, Lee. “Lost Cities #8: Mystery of Cahokia – Why Did North America’s Largest City Vanish?” The Guardian, 2016. Web.
Everding, Gerry. “Women Shaped Cuisine, Culture of Ancient Cahokia.” theSource. 2019. Web.
Pauketat, Timothy R. Cahokia: Ancient America’s Great City on the Mississippi. London: Penguin, 2009.
Ancient Cahokia and the Mississippians. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
“Studies Provide New Insight on Cahokia.” Popular Archaeology. 2016. Web.
- Lee Bey, “Lost Cities #8: Mystery of Cahokia – Why Did North America’s Largest City Vanish?” The Guardian, Web.
- Timothy R. Pauketat, Cahokia: Ancient America’s Great City on the Mississippi (London: Penguin, 2009), 20.
- Timothy R. Pauketat, Ancient Cahokia and the Mississippians (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 173.
- Timothy R. Pauketat, Ancient Cahokia and the Mississippians, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 80.
- Timothy R. Pauketat, Cahokia: Ancient America’s Great City on the Mississippi (London: Penguin, 2009), 37.
- Timothy R. Pauketat, Ancient Cahokia and the Mississippians, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 168.
- Timothy R. Pauketat, Cahokia: Ancient America’s Great City on the Mississippi (London: Penguin, 2009), 53.
- Timothy R. Pauketat, Cahokia: Ancient America’s Great City on the Mississippi (London: Penguin, 2009), 32.
- Timothy R. Pauketat, 53.
- Timothy R. Pauketat, Ancient Cahokia and the Mississippians (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 113.
- “Studies Provide New Insight on Cahokia,” Popular Archaeology, Web.
- “Studies Provide New Insight on Cahokia”.
- Gerry Everding, “Women Shaped Cuisine, Culture of Ancient Cahokia,” theSource, Web.
- Lee Bey, “Lost Cities #8: Mystery of Cahokia – Why Did North America’s Largest City Vanish?” The Guardian, Web.