Why did early North America’s largest city vanish?

The Cahokia site covered an area of nine square miles. Illustration: William R Iseminger

The Cahokia site covered an area of nine square miles. Illustration: William R Iseminger

Long before Columbus reached the Americas, Cahokia was the biggest, most cosmopolitan city north of Mexico. Yet by 1350 it had been deserted by its native inhabitants the Mississippians – and no one is sure why.

The story of Cahokia’s decline and eventual end is a mystery. After reaching its population height in about 1100, the population shrinks and then vanishes by 1350. Perhaps they had exhausted the land’s resources, as some scholars theorise, or were the victims of political and social unrest, climate change, or extended droughts. Whatever, the Mississippians simply walked away and Cahokia gradually was abandoned.

Tales of Cahokia don’t even show up in Native American folklore and oral histories, Emerson says. “Apparently what happened in Cahokia left a bad taste in people’s minds.” The earth and the mounds provide the only narrative.

Monk’s Mound, centrepiece of the Cahokia world heritage site in southern Illinois. Photograph: Alamy

Monk’s Mound, centrepiece of the Cahokia world heritage site in southern Illinois. Photograph: Alamy

 

As archaeological studies here continue, Monk’s Mound is now the centrepiece of the 3.5 square-mile Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site (a Unesco World Heritage Site since 1982), which includes 2,200 acres of land, 72 surviving mounds, and a museum. The US National Park Service is considering whether to take the area and nearby surviving mounds under its wing.

Federal designation could bring Cahokia additional recognition and tourism. Currently about 250,000 people visit the site every year; by comparison, the rather more modern, Eero Saarinen-designed Gateway Arch in St Louis attracts four million visitors annually.

“Cahokia is definitely an underplayed story,” Brown says. “You’d have to go to the valley of Mexico to see anything comparable to this place. It’s a total orphan – a lost city in every sense.”

Read the complete article on The Guardian newspaper web site.

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