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Under The Mounds
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The Great Old City Of Cahokia, Illinois

By James Donahue

Huge earthen mounds and the remnants of what was once an ancient city are about all that is left of Cahokia today. Located along Highway 3, not far from the bank of the Mississippi River and located between St. Louis, Missouri and Collinsville, Illinois, the place is a cherished state historical site encompassing 2,200 acres, all of great interest to archaeologists.

Many people in North America have probably never heard of Cahokia. But the people who lived here a thousand years ago certainly knew of the place. From what has already been unearthed, there is evidence that a thriving city of an estimated 30,000 people once lived there. In fact, Cahokia may have been the first and only major city to exist on North American soil during that early historic time.

There is evidence that Cahokia was a major urban center of what is being called a "Mississippi Culture" that influenced a leadership in areas of religious, commercial and civic behavior throughout the many tribes living in the Midwestern part of the continent.

The location of this city, right near the Mississippi River, suggests that there was commerce both up and down the Mississippi, Ohio and Missouri Rivers, plus all of the smaller tributaries where small boats could travel. That giant mounds are found in Cahokia, with other mounds of similar size and smaller throughout the Midwest, suggests that something, or perhaps someone in Cahokia had a profound influence on the religious beliefs of the people of a vast region.

Was this person a great warrior, or a king, or a charismatic leader capable of spreading his ideas throughout the region?

The discovery of a Birdman Tablet at an excavation site on the east side of the Monks Mound in 1971 suggests perhaps a link to Quetzecoatal, the feathered serpent god of the Mayans in Central America. Carved in this stone is the facial image of a man dressed in the regalia of a bird. On the reverse side of the stone there is cross-hatching, suggesting the skin of a serpent.

Did the influence of the great Mayan culture reach from the Yucatan Peninsula across the Gulf of Mexico and up the Mississippi River to the City of Cahokia? Or was there yet another great leader, perhaps influenced by Quetzecoatal, who built such a city in what is now Illinois?

Other interesting characteristics discovered by archaeologists during their years of digging at Cahokia:

The city offered large communal plazas, monumental public architecture, palisaded villages and flat-topped mounds. Unique to the area were certain religious symbols found on pottery, copper and stone, and specific art found in decorations on the pottery.

There is evidence that there may have been human sacrifice.

The people of Cahokia participated in some kind of game that involved a stone disc rolled over a prepared court.

Cahokia or at least smaller villages patterned after it, may still have been in existence as late as the 1600s or even the 1700s when the first Spanish and French explorers visited the communities along the Mississippi River. The accounts given by these first European visitors told of palisaded villages and a social hierarchy, especially among the Natchez Indians along the river. They also told of watching first-hand the mass sacrifice of humans upon the death of a "Great Sun." Was this an eclipse?

Because the art of writing either did not exist, or did not survive this period, little is known about the leadership, the culture or the philosophy expelled from Cahokia in its heyday.

What we do know is that this was a large and probably profoundly influential city in the heart of North America, long before the European influence arrived. Archaeologists continue to dig for clues as to just what went on there, how the people lived, and what caused such a great city to collapse.