Despite being possibly the greatest city of its era, the North American city of “Cahokia” remains lost in memory. The case of Cahokia not only offers new insight into pre-Colombian culture, but also reveals some of the biases and prejudices of modern academic inquiry. As one of the few great hallmarks of North American civilizations in the pre-Colombian era, the great city of Cahokia challenges both modern reasoning and imagination.
Cahokia refers to a city that was built in the Mississippi Basin around 700 A.D. An estimated 15,000 to 20,000 people are estimated to have lived in Cahokia. While there were other agricultural communities that were also forming around the Mississippi River at around the same time, Cahokia was by far the largest. The city structure is best known for its characteristic mounds, atop which living quarters were built. Great earthen pyramids were also a prominent part of the city landscape. The city boasted a complex division of labor that involved government officials, religious leaders, artisans, and tradesmen. The city was a hub of commerce for civilizations across ancient America.
It is unclear what happened to Cahokia. Researchers from the University of Wisconsin, Madison suggest that perhaps a terrible flood wiped the city out just as it was peaking in power and population. Such a flood would have destroyed the surrounding cropland that was necessary to sustain the city’s large population. Whatever the reason, within 150 years the city was completely abandoned. Pollen samples show that by 1350 agricultural developments in the Cahokia region had ceased. It was not until years later that European settlers chanced across the city ruins and wondered at their past history.
Why have so few people heard of Cahokia? Children grow up learning about the Mayans, Incans, and other pre-Colombian civilization, so why does no one remember the name “Cahokia”, despite it being the greatest North American city of its era? Part of the reason for this is that there simply isn’t much known about the civilization. No written records remain, no songs have been passed down, and there are not even decedents of the Cahokians. In fact the word “Cahokia” is a misnomer. It refers to a sub-group of the Illini Indians who did not reach the area of Cahokia until well after the city had crumbled away.
Secondly, compared to the ancient civilizations of the Mayans, Greeks, and Egyptians, there is comparatively little interest in the Cahokian civilization. The remains of Cahokia mostly consist of the mounds upon which other buildings in the city were constructed These mounds stretch across 4,000 acres, and reach as high as ten stories. While perhaps an impressive and imposing site to behold, they do not offer much interesting information for researchers to glean. If few are interested in studying this civilization, then there will be little information to intrigue others. If no one is intrigued to research it, then there will not be any new and interesting finds. In this way the cycle of unavailable information and disinterest is perpetuated
Finally, one might consider the cultural biases that would make modern academics less disposed to study an ancient civilization in North America. The first European settlers contemplated the huge mounds of earth as the products of ancient Viking or Phoenicians. Mormons have also suggested the mounds as the work of an ancient Israeli civilization. In short, the idea that Native Americans could have built the greatest city of the era runs counter to much of the public’s understanding of North American pre-Colombian cultures. And until more evidence is available to change this opinion, the stigma will likely remain.
By Sarah Takushi