An artist's rendering of ancient Cahokia
hat's the oldest city in America? Jamestown, Virginia, founded in 1607? The chamber of commerce of St. Augustine, Florida, would beg to differ, claiming that city was settled 42 years earlier, in 1565. Well, they're both wrong. The very question has a terrible presumption built into it: that our continent was a virgin wilderness populated by wandering noble savages, and that there were somehow no "cities" in America when the Europeans came. But there were. The gleaming city of Tenochtitlán, now Mexico City, is the most famous example. At the time of its conquest in 1521, the Aztecs' capital was probably the world's fourth-largest city.
But on the eastern floodplain of the Mississippi river, near present day St. Louis, once sat a far more ancient and mysterious metropolis. We call it "Cahokia" after an unrelated tribe that settled there centuries later. That's because we really have no idea what the builders called their city. They left behind pottery, ceremonial art, games and weapons. Their trade network was vast, stretching from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. But their most enduring legacy is a series of gigantic earthen mounds. The largest is over ten stories high.
Cahokia was first settled sometime around 600 AD. The practice of mound-building, however, dates back much further. The oldest mound in North America, near Monroe, Louisiana, is a thousand years older than Egypt's pyramids. When Europeans first settled the Ohio valley, they counted over 10,000 mounds. Some were in the form of serpents, bears and birds. Others were burial mounds. Yet no one, including the local tribes, seemed to know who built them. Colonial Americans fantasized that they were built by Romans, or Phoenicians, or the lost tribes of Israel. But the answer was too obvious to acknowledge. These mounds were built by the natives who had once lived there, whom we now call the Mississippians.
Cahokia seems to have been a center for religious observances. At the summit of the massive Monk's Mound, there are remains of a 5,000 square foot structure, possibly a temple. In other mounds there is evidence of human sacrifice. These mounds required astonishing labor to construct: an estimated 55 million cubic feet of earth, all moved by hand — well, and feet — in woven baskets. A two-mile-long wooden stockade surrounded the center of the city, with guard towers every seventy feet. A circle of posts west of Monk's Mound has been dubbed "Woodhenge," because the posts clearly mark solstices and equinoxes. Surrounding the city were rows of residential thatched houses, flanked by fields of corn and other crops. Cahokia's population seems to have peaked around 1200 AD, at perhaps 20,000 souls. If that number seems small, remember, at the time of the American Revolution, none of our cities were any larger.
The remains of Cahokia today
Cahokia was suddenly abandoned around the year 1400. No one knows why. Perhaps Cahokia's greatest mystery is why later tribes appeared to have no collective memory of it. Unique to North America, Cahokia seems to have been a rigidly stratified society, with a chiefly ruler in direct lineage to the gods, and various classes of underlings. It's been speculated that this hierarchy created a backlash, and that later tribes deliberately suppressed all memory of their repressive past. Eventually, they themselves wondered about who built the giant mounds. The Mississippian tribes would revert to the semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers that Europeans encountered centuries later. And we would cultivate our "virgin wilderness" and "noble savage" myths for centuries as well, until the man-made mountains staring at us finally gave away their secrets.
But Cahokia died before the European invaders came. So it brings to light another matter that we've been skirting. It's a matter we really need to address head on. It is, how do cities die? Well, let's give that ball back to John Lienhard and see where he goes with it.