Cahokia was bigger than Paris—then it was completely abandoned.
December 21, 2016 10:55 AM   Subscribe

"The more they dug, the more obvious it became that this was no ordinary place. The structures they excavated were full of ritual objects charred by sacred fires. We found the remains of feasts and a rare earthen structure lined with yellow soils. Baires, Baltus, and their team had accidentally stumbled on an archaeological treasure trove linked to the city's demise. The story of this place would take us back to the final decades of a great city whose social structure was undergoing a radical transformation." Annalee Newitz for Ars Technica: Finding North America's lost medieval city posted by amnesia and magnets (31 comments total) 80 users marked this as a favorite
 
Wonderful post, thank you.
posted by Jody Tresidder at 11:20 AM on December 21, 2016 [1 favorite]


The beauties of the small world: I grew up in southern Illinois, with Cahokia (figuratively) in my backyard. Now as I read this story I learn that one of the experts is from Eastern Connecticut State University, which is (literally) in my backyard. I think I will have to reach out.
posted by dlugoczaj at 11:37 AM on December 21, 2016 [4 favorites]


My father-in-law (grew up in Granite City, IL; went to high school in East St. Louis in a building that is now a prison) used to sled down Monk's Mound as a kid.
posted by notsnot at 11:42 AM on December 21, 2016 [5 favorites]


I'm always surprised how many folks from Chicago (or really anywhere in Illinois) haven't even heard of Cahokia, let alone visited.

(It's almost like they didn't grow up downstate with a history-teaching dad who never met a historical site he didn't stop at.)
posted by MCMikeNamara at 11:44 AM on December 21, 2016 [22 favorites]


Haha, as a kid growing up in central Illinois, I certainly recall the field trips to go see Cahokia and other similar sites.
posted by gyc at 11:55 AM on December 21, 2016 [2 favorites]


I had no idea this existed. So cool. Thanks for the post!
posted by mudpuppie at 12:10 PM on December 21, 2016


I'm always surprised how many folks from Chicago (or really anywhere in Illinois) haven't even heard of Cahokia, let alone visited.

Considering that most of us learn about the Aztecs, Incas, and Mayans, is almost like we don't want to admit that there were North American civilizations before the Europeans came.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 12:17 PM on December 21, 2016 [35 favorites]


I have fond memories of going to Dickson Mounds as a kid; i think it's back open now, but they closed it when Gov. Rauner decided that he would rather close all the state museums than work to pass a budget.

You used to be able to look at actual skeletons. I don't remember if you still can.
posted by leahwrenn at 12:40 PM on December 21, 2016 [3 favorites]


I have some of my best conversations with archaeologists in bars.

This is the god's honest truth.

Seriously though, thanks for this. It brought back memories of summers spent in pits searching for a bit of pottery or a slight discoloration in the soil. The Moundbuilders are so awesome and so ubiquitous. If you live near a large river east of the Mississippi, you most like have a mound site somewhere near you.
posted by teleri025 at 12:51 PM on December 21, 2016 [5 favorites]


One of my favorite things about the caving community is where it intersects with archeology. I have learned so much wandering around lost on the woods with archeologists who also happened to be cavers. Caves are often archeological sites around here, so there's a lot of interest in caves from the archeological community, quite a few of whom are very active lifelong cavers as an avocation.

We'll be bumbling along towards a GPS point when someone will reach down, pick up a sliver of chert, glance around & go "Hey! Napping site! & I think that's a burnt-rock midden over there."

Whenever there's new cave discoveries, we're urged to be careful in the entrance/twilight zones for fear of disturbing archeological evidence. I've never seen a burial site, but I have seen metates, pictographs & trash heaps in caves.
posted by Devils Rancher at 12:59 PM on December 21, 2016 [6 favorites]


It's almost like they didn't grow up downstate with a history-teaching dad who never met a historical site he didn't stop at.

I am that dad.

I am working on the 'history-teaching' part as I write this.
posted by dfm500 at 1:05 PM on December 21, 2016 [11 favorites]


The land around St. Louis has been urban for a very long time

oh this this this!! i'm super interested in how we construct this (quite artificial) idea of the "natural" or "untouched" landscape... it happens here in the uk, too, as though we can't quite envision that cities are impermanent, transient things.

i was also so excited and interested to read about the proposed cahokian politics system/systems. it seems particularly relevant now, as we're seeing a lot of the heavily centralised top-down systems come under heavy attack and resistance.

what a wonderful post—thank you so much!
posted by the north sea at 1:57 PM on December 21, 2016 [7 favorites]


Thank you, amnesia and magnets. This is a fascinating post!
posted by Silverstone at 2:15 PM on December 21, 2016


I have fond memories of going to Dickson Mounds as a kid; i think it's back open now, but they closed it when Gov. Rauner decided that he would rather close all the state museums than work to pass a budget.

You used to be able to look at actual skeletons. I don't remember if you still can.


You can't. They closed that part of the park due to (in my opinion right) complaints from the Native American community (though I did see them before they did as a kid); here's a Tribune article from 1992 when it happened (warning: full of a lot of 'gotta hear both sides' pissed off white people).

It's almost like they didn't grow up downstate with a history-teaching dad who never met a historical site he didn't stop at.

I am that dad.


I'm not on my way to be a teacher and I'll probably never have kids, but basically, I have turned into my dad in every other way related to historical sites. (If I'm taking a road trip, I basically have to plan an extra day or two if I'm going a new route.)
posted by MCMikeNamara at 2:30 PM on December 21, 2016 [1 favorite]


We visited Cahokia as part of an American Indian history course in undergrad. Having grown up in Virginia, I had never heard of the place and was in awe when I finally learned about North America's mound building legacy. It's worth the visit, if only to stand atop Monk's Mound and step back into history. If it had been built of stone, I expect Americans would be much more knowledgeable and curious about it in the same way we are about the pyramids of Egypt and Central/South America.

Incidentally, a housing development across the street from where I live was temporarily held up because it was discovered a mound was on the property. It predates the Osage Tribe, whom were the last to occupy the area, so its history is somewhat lost. The developer has sworn they will make it part of the green space of the neighborhood.

The early settled history of North America is incredible and I wish our history courses reflected this so much better than they do. Likewise, it's incredible depressing when one reads that the vast majority of American Indian mounds were likely plowed under by American settlers moving westward. Argh.
posted by Atreides at 2:52 PM on December 21, 2016 [4 favorites]


Still mad I didn't stop at Cahokia when I was in STL a couple years ago, but I went to a meetup instead. Also, it was July and open plains did not seem like a good plan.
posted by maryr at 3:09 PM on December 21, 2016


I've recently moved back to STL and have thought at least once that we should go visit Cahokia again. Now I'll make a point of it.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 3:17 PM on December 21, 2016 [2 favorites]


Thank you for this post! Great article. I noted the part where it was assumed that both the individuals in the elaborate cape and beads burial were men (cuz duh, important people are always male amirite?) but when the skeletons were analyzed, one was male and one was female. I think it's so important to make sure women are included in the history of the powerful, and not to assume all societies are patriarchal because ours is.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 3:43 PM on December 21, 2016 [7 favorites]


Baires and Watts revealed their secret to staying cool: bring a bottle of completely frozen water in the morning, and it will have melted to chilled perfection by mid-day. It’s excellent for pressing against sweaty foreheads as it defrosts, too. Even though the pits were shaded with canvas roofs, we took frequent breaks to guzzle water and reapply sunblock. Everyone wore hats with varying degrees of sartorial cunning. Ultimately it didn't matter how dorky you looked, as long as you didn't go home with a burned neck or or face.

That's like a word-for-word description of a Shakespeare in the Park rehearsal.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 3:47 PM on December 21, 2016 [4 favorites]


I have never heard of this before! Wow.
posted by apricot at 3:49 PM on December 21, 2016


I do remember reading about the Black Drink as a kid, though. We used to wrap leaves around our Coke cans and pretend that's what we were drinking.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 3:51 PM on December 21, 2016 [5 favorites]


> Considering that most of us learn about the Aztecs, Incas, and Mayans, is almost like we don't want to admit that there were North American civilizations before the Europeans came.

There are good reasons that Cahokia and other Native American civilizations in the continental U.S. are less well known than Aztecs and Maya.

First of all, the Aztecs and Maya were extant when European colonizers arrived on the continent. Thus, they are known to Western history. Cahokia was long gone by the time Europeans arrived. That means that learning about Cahokia is mostly a matter of architectural discovery, and that archeological discovery is relatively recent.

The Central American civilizations built in stone and left monumental architecture that's impossible to miss. In the continental U.S., buildings were largely made of wood, which doesn't preserve as well. There are some very interesting archeological sites near where I live in Oregon, but they're off limits to the public and often the locations are secret, to prevent damage and save from looters. It's no surprise that this stuff is less well known given that's only available to academics.

There are attempts being made to correct the record. I visited the Field Museum in Chicago this year and I felt that they did an excellent job of telling the story of Pre-Columbian civilization in a holistic way that included the Central American civilizations along with the people who lived on the rest of the North American continent.
posted by chrchr at 6:47 PM on December 21, 2016 [12 favorites]


A society built on energy drinks, awe inspiring technology and economic inequality. First Americans indeed.
posted by humanfont at 7:10 PM on December 21, 2016 [12 favorites]


. It’s possible that an enterprising group of religious or political leaders took the supernova as a sign that it was time to found a new kind of civilization. Pauketat suggests that Cahokia’s earliest residents were immigrants from all over the area, possibly even from as far away as Mexico’s mound-building Toltec civilization. Perhaps the exploding star inspired a new set of beliefs that united previously disparate groups in a common purpose.

...are they saying that they think Cahokia was a medieval megachurch???
posted by moonlight on vermont at 7:16 PM on December 21, 2016 [4 favorites]


Cahokia was 40,000 people at its largest. Paris was 210,000 in 1328 according to the source cited in the ArsTechnica piece linked in the post above (writer is not an archaeologist.)
posted by Ideefixe at 7:56 PM on December 21, 2016 [2 favorites]


My grade school history books spoke briefly of pre-columbian mound builders, but we skipped past those chapters. To my recollection it stated they were there, they built mounds, and we're not entirely sure why other than some that were homes and others for burial.
posted by tilde at 8:27 PM on December 21, 2016


Does this remind anyone else of Daniel Quinn? People invent a large-scale hierarchical power structure, see that it is not workable over the longer term... abandon it. The big question for us (the civilization of takers) is whether it is a dead-end or a particularly narrow bottleneck.
posted by holist at 1:05 AM on December 22, 2016


Cahokia was 40,000 people at its largest. Paris was 210,000 in 1328 according to the source cited in the ArsTechnica piece linked in the post above (writer is not an archaeologist.)

From the article:
At the city's apex in 1050, the population exploded to as many as 30 thousand people.
From the source:
(Which may have grown from 25,000 in 1200...)
If the population of Paris was smaller in 1200, it was presumably even smaller in 1050.
posted by Elementary Penguin at 3:58 AM on December 22, 2016 [2 favorites]


If the population of Paris was smaller in 1200, it was presumably even smaller in 1050.

Yep. The source also notes that by 1050, Paris would have just started recovering from decades of Viking attacks and wars of succession, including at least one major siege. Even the generous estimate given at Wikipedia puts the population in 1000 at around 20,000.
posted by zombieflanders at 4:22 AM on December 22, 2016 [1 favorite]


One reason Cahokia is so big right now is that since 2000 there have been a bunch of major papers published on the newer discoveries, and I think two books for the intelligent layperson have come out in the last few years synthesizing and explaining a bunch of those academic papers. The newer work is starting to filter down into college and high schools.

(But yeah, for a very long time archaeologists and historians just didn't know what to make of any of it, since they built with wood and earth, and it's not clear who, if anyone, is a descendant of the Cahokians, so which stories or rituals might apply to help make sense of what there was.)

One of the charming things about visiting Cahokia is that there's always a bunch of enthusiastic young archaeological students from Europe who come from places like Rome and leapt at the chance to come dig in the ass end of Illinois because it's so much more romantic and exotic than, you know, ROME. The archaeological grass is greener!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:25 AM on December 22, 2016 [17 favorites]


The archaeological grass is greener!
Heehee!

But I wonder how much of it has to do with that the more accessible European sites have already been combed over and essentially exhausted/protected for discovery with future tech.

I also wonder if they'll leave certain portions of this site unexcavated so that more precise techniques/equipment available in the future have something to work with, like with some of the Egyptian pyramids that have been held in trust and are now slowly being opened up to new techniques.
posted by porpoise at 9:19 PM on December 22, 2016 [1 favorite]


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