Last Fall, Carol and I made our first visit to Cahokia Mounds. This one’s been on my Illinois bucket list for several years now, having heard and read many times about the major significance of this site for the native peoples of the pre-Columbian “Americas”. Cahokia is one of the few sites in our nation where we can connect with those who preceded us by nearly a thousand years.
Beginning around 1050 Cahokia became the largest regional urban center across all of the Americas and a center of trade from the Great Lakes to the Gulf Coast. With a population estimated around 40,000, Cahokia rivaled the population of London at that time. The largest city in the newly formed United States would not hit that population mark until 700 years later with Philadelphia.
Complex and sophisticated, the site represents a testament to human engineering at the end of the first millennium. Strategically located at the confluence of the Illinois, Missouri and Mississippi rivers near what is now Collinsville, Cahokia was carefully planned and geographically oriented to the four cardinal compass directions and consisted of a main square surrounded by farms, villages, and towns. Cahokia expanded over 6 square miles and included over 120 earthen mounds of widely varied sizes, shapes and functions. It also included “Woodhenge” –a very large array wood post astronomical calendar similar to Stonehenge.
Cahokia’s primary feature is Monk’s Mound, the largest man-made earthen mound on the North American continent. Monk’s Mound was topped by a large ceremonial structure (presumably) housing Cahokia’s political leader. Consisting of 22 million cubic feet of earth and coming in at 100 feet high and 955 feet long with a base of approximately 14 acres, Monk’s Mound is roughly the same size as the Great Pyramid of Giza at its base, and is larger than the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan. It is about the same height as El Castillo at Mexico’s Chichen Itza.
Between about 1250 and 1300, still 200 years before Columbus first showed up in the “New World”, Cahokia was completely abandoned, with the area never to become settled again by native peoples. It remained abandoned until 1809 when French Trappist Monks built a monastery on the top of what was thereafter to become known as “Monk’s Mound”. They left four years later.
Cahokia is now a state park and was named a National Historic Landmark in 1965, and a United Nations World Heritage Site in 1982, one of only 23 in the US. Today, the site covers about 4,000 acres and includes 70 of the remaining 80 mounds.
As impressive as all this is, our visit left me dispirited. Despite Cahokia’s many recognitions and significant protections, the encroachment of mankind – namely Collinsville – is pervasive. The well-travelled Collinsville Road, with its Fords and Chevys, pickups and Priuses buzzing by, bisects the site from east to west, running just a few hundred feet in front of the base of Monk’s Mound, separating it from most of the other major mounds at the site. And of course, the very name “Monk’s Mound” reflects nothing of the native peoples who constructed it nor inhabited it a thousand years ago. Many of the other 40 of the 120 mounds not inside the 4,000 acre site have since decayed or have been plowed over for agriculture fields.
Just to the east of the Monk’s Mound site sits an abandoned service garage and a few other vacant buildings in easy eye-shot from the mound itself. To the west, just on the other side of a high chain-link fence bordering the reconstructed Woodhenge structure is a quite active rock crushing facility; just to the north of Monk’s Mound runs Interstates 55 and 70 carrying all of its traffic into St. Louis and beyond.
It felt like a desecration to me, but I’m sure it’s only one of many places across the US where the mounds and other sacred sites of native peoples have been pushed aside, ignored, plowed or paved over in the name of ‘progress’. But still, Cahokia – with its major significance for pre-Colombian peoples – seems worse. How could we do this?
Yes, we’ve altered Cahokia to the point that it felt desecrated, but Cahokia itself represents a significant desecration of the natural landscape. A testament to human engineering, Cahokia was a man-made and man-conceived construction project of epic proportions, destroying the land and altering it on a scale far in excess of anything that had previously been done anywhere in the Americas. Arguably, this takes the same kind of chutzpah that it once took to build the Sears Tower, the interstate highway system or Walt Disney World.
We humans are engineers, builders, people who see a natural landscape and set about altering it to make it fit us better, to meet our needs as we see them. We are masters of altering landscapes, from building cities of the greatness of Chicago to draining the swamps of Central Illinois to convert our surrounding landscapes into vast and highly productive agricultural fields.
As engineers of altered landscapes, are we much different from the peoples of Cahokia? Have we advanced much from the peoples of a thousand years ago?
Nature does a mighty fine job at altering herself. A few hours drive down to the southern tip of our state reveals the nature-created “Garden of the Gods”. Where Mother Nature fully imagined and implemented an incredible alteration of the natural landscape back during the Illinoisan glaciation more than 130,000 years ago, long before any of us arrived. The scale and epic proportion of Garden of the Gods certainly puts Cahokia and anything else mankind has created to shame.
So maybe we’re all just doing as nature intended. As one of many natural inhabitants of our planet, altering landscapes is what we do; constantly shaping, changing, re-imagining, and re-engineering our world.
It does feel like as we re-imagine and re-shape things, we all have a responsibility to do it right; to do it intentionally, with purpose. With an eye to the preservation of the past and with the responsibility to preserve as much as we can for future generations.
What will future archeologists say – what will they speculate – about us and our culture in 3019? Will they preserve our sites or pave us over? Will they know anything of who we are, what we did, and why?
I ponder all of this at Cahokia, we see all of this at play at Cahokia, and I pause, thanking all who worked so hard to preserve the site for what it was. And I thank the native peoples who imagined and engineered it, never knowing that a thousand years hence, people would visit their fair city, and on seeing how much of it remains despite the encroachments, feel a very real sense of human connection across a thousand years.
Appeared as Rivers and Roads, Mahomet Citizen, by Scott Hays, February 21, 2019