Back in a time when half of the world was unknown to the other, once city in particular became the largest ever in what is now the United States of America. Before Christopher Columbus started on his voyage to find a new route to Asia, an ancient city like no other was booming on the new northern continent. Cahokia – The City of the Sun.
Down among the trees where the Missouri, Illinois and Mississippi Rivers merge, in what is today the state of Illinois, lie some of the most fertile lands in North America. They were also home to one of the largest civilizations on the continent; The Mississippians. Great mound builders from the Great Lakes to Florida, flourishing in the year AD 1150.
The first, explorers in the area believed that those earth mounds were natural, carved by retreating glaciers. Now we know they were the centerpieces of cities like Cahokia. These cities were busy trading hubs, made of earth and wood which had influences as far as the Gulf of Mexico, the Great Lakes, the Appalachians and the Rocky Mountains.
Contrary to popular belief, Native Americans didn’t all live in tepees; many of them built great cities and lived in big wooden houses. Even though we don’t know what they called themselves or what language they spoke, these Mississippians built the largest city in North America. There is also no clear connection between these people and any other tribes before or after them.
Close to St. Louis, MO, the archaeological site occupied some 5 square miles (13 square km) on the Mississippi River floodplain. It originally had 120 earth mounds, 70 of which still exist today. This city was the largest north of Mexico’s Tenochtitlan (the empire’s capital). They were able to achieve this because of their cultivation of corn (maize) which brought the civilization a surplus of food. Together with the ample fish and other vegetables they were growing, the Mississippians were able to build a huge civilization.
Cahokia was first occupied in 700 AD and flourished for approximately four centuries (c. 950–1350). It reached a peak population of as many as 20,000 individuals. The city was carefully planned, with huge ceremonial plazas of about 40 acres (16 ha.), elite compounds, residential areas and huge earth mound pyramidal structures.
The biggest, Monks Mound, (built between 900 and 1200) is the largest prehistoric earthen structure in the Western Hemisphere is rising to 100 feet (30 metres), covers more than 14 acres (6 hectares), and contains more than 25 million cubic feet (700,000 cubic metres) of earth. Earth which was brought by people in wooden baskets (50 pounds at a time). On top was the seat of the city, housing a building some 100 feet long, nearly 50 feet (15 metres) wide, and 50 feet tall.
Like the peoples of Mesoamerica – the Aztecs and the Mayans- the Mississippians also practiced human sacrifice. They did it to appease the Corn Goddess and bring them a stable crop. Around 1250 however, as the climate started to change, becoming more cooler than before, crops weren’t producing the surplus Cahokia was used to. Together with the soil degradation and the deforestation that took place up the river, made for frequent flooding to take place, destroying the crops even further.
This eventually led to civil unrest and during that period, the inhabitants constructed a series of palisaded wooden fortifications through enormous effort—clear evidence of external threats that previously had not existed. This led to the city to be slowly abandoned as people moved out of it. Nevertheless, Cahokia was the largest city in North America until Philadelphia surpassed it at around the beginning of the 19th century.