The Magic of Cahokia

The Cahokia complex of mounds and structures on the Mississippi River opposite St. Louis, Missouri, is representative of the Mississippian Culture, which is believed to have flourished during the period A.D 1050 to A.D 1375. Some of the most beautiful artifacts and cultural material in all of the North America are associated with Cahokia.

It is believed that Cahokia represented one of the most complex and elaborate social and political structures of prehistoric North America. The Cahokia complex is located in a region rich in resources, known as the American Bottom, a portion of Mississippi River riparian land some 25 miles long (north to south) and 11 miles wide at its widest expanse.

Cahokia has provided extensive archeological clues from a large conglomeration of mound works, which has often been compared to similar works in Mexico and Mesoamerica. Some factors supporting a possible link or influence with Mexican and Mesoamerican cultures include similar corn hybrids; similar designs on pottery vessels, including the feathered serpent motif; and the fact that flat top mounds and open plazas are common.

Noted Cahokia archaeologist Thomas E. Emerson concludes, “With the Late Woodland Emergent Mississippian peoples so thoroughly setting the stage for the entrance of the Mississippian culture, it is now clear that there can no longer be any serious consideration of large population movement of outside groups into the American Bottom to explain Mississippian origins. The origins of Cahokia are tied to a wider development of complex societies throughout the Mississippi River Valley and the Southeast at this time. In general, the factors that can be linked to the emergence of Cahokia are the presence of a substantial population density supported by indigenous crops and maize within an environmentally diverse area, concurrent with the development of political, social, and economic complexity.”

There are four smaller settlements covering some 124 acres near Cahokia, with more than 40 smaller hamlets and farmsteads throughout the American Bottom. There appears to have been an obsession with death, and possibly with human sacrifice and elaborate burial customs. Archaeological studies of burial subjects and accompanying paraphernalia indicate that rulers, the rich and powerful aristocracies, were accompanied to their graves by their sacrificed servants.

It is believed that Cahokia was a major center of trade, largely because of its easy accessibility via waters of many rivers, including the now extinct meander channel of the Mississippi; the Missouri, and the Illinois to the north; and the Kaskaskia, Meramec, and Ohio to the south. Some of the trade goods likely exchanged at Cahokia were marine shells, pottery, large well-made flint hoes which replaced digging sticks, and large quantities of food grains and vegetables.

The decline of Cahokia occurred around A.D. 1250 to A.D. 1300. There is no single widely accepted reason or popular consensus for the decline. Various theories offer the following possible causes: overexploitation of surrounding resources, internal social and political unrest, and lack of sanitation and resultant diseases from conditions created by such large populations.

Cahokia had been long abandoned when Europeans first arrived in the St. Louis area in the seventeenth century. The artifacts and cultural material of Cahokia have preserved as perhaps the most beautiful and artistic to have ever been created by prehistoric peoples in North America.