The Cahokia mound located in Illinois was most likely home to the North American continent’s first real city. The land area of the Cahokia city is estimated to have been approximately 4000 acres, 2000 of which are protected as a national historic site today, making it the largest archaeological site in the U.S. (Hodges, 2011). Although it has been ravaged by time and human activity in the years since it was an active city, Cahokia is believed to be the heart and start of the Mississippian culture which started sometime before AD 1000 and peaked sometime in the 13th century. To learn more about the Cahokia culture that created this city, it is helpful to look deeper into their trade, agriculture, and the causes of their demise.
Because they didn’t have a written language system and so much of the culture has been lost elsewhere due to population extinction during the colonial periods and population expansion in more recent times, it is difficult for historians to know anything specific regarding the Cahokia trade network. As Hodges (2011) points out, we don’t even know for sure what the natives called the place, the term Cahokia comes from what the people who lived near the area called themselves in the 1600s. Trade of excess food production for copper, pottery, and sea shells is evident and experts have determined trade routes extended from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, from the Atlantic to the Ozarks (Keller, Young, & Kronk, 2015). It is likely that the various locations throughout the region where mounds were built were linked in some way to Cahokia.
New developments in agriculture were essential to the growth of Cahokia. Hodges (2011) discusses how the city seemed to spring up overnight around 1050 AD, just after the cultivation of corn became a staple of the local diet. However, we know that squash, sunflowers, and other seed bearing crops were important for them as well (Keller, Young & Kronk, 2015). What is unknown for certain is to what degree the city was a collection of farmers raising their own home crops as opposed to what percentage of the city was mostly elites and craftsman allowing farmers from satellite centers to provide the necessary food to support such a large population. Evidence of enough cropland in the city area suggests as many of 20,000 could have been supported with plenty of surplus for trade (Keller, Young, & Kronk, 2015).
As with the lack of verifiable trade and agricultural data, very little is known about what caused the end of the Cahokia dream. “Cahokia was a ghost town by the time Columbus landed in the New World, and the American Bottom and substantial parts of the Mississippi and Ohio River Valleys were so depopulated they are referred to as the Vacant Quarter” (Hodges, 2011). It started to decline over the late 13th/early 14th century. Growth in disease was becoming a problem, and challenges from different social groups may have contributed to the decline (Keller, Young, & Kronk, 2015). Another potential cause could have been a slight change in the climate that could have had stressful to catastrophic effect on the people of Cahokia. Evidence of a stockade maintained for about a century also suggests warfare from outside forces might have been an issue (Hodges, 2011). It may have been that once the powerful rulers fell, the city could no longer be managed or the religious leaders determined Cahokia to be an unhealthy place to stay. More study is needed to discover new clues that might provide greater insight into this mystery.
- Hodges, G. (January 2011). “Cahokia: America’s Forgotten City.” National Geograhpic. Available October 20, 2015 from http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2011/01/cahokia/hodges-text
- Keller, K.; Young, E.; & Kronk, G. (2015). Cahokia Mounds Satte Historic Site. Collinsville, IL. Available October 20, 2015 from http://cahokiamounds.org/