to Cahokia inhabitants?
artist's rendering of the Cahokia Mounds in 1150 A.D.
Larger than London or Paris in its time, what
is now Americas heartland had a magnificent city between
1030 and 1200 CE. Now known as Cahokia, the city occupied the
wide floodplain where the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers meet,
near present-day St. Louis.
Like traditional capital cities around the world, Cahokia displayed
monumental architecture, making it an awesome theater of power.
In its center was (and still is) a mound larger than the Egyptians
pyramids at Giza, a mound nearly as huge as the Pyramid of the Sun
at Teotihuacan or the Great Pyramid of Cholula, in Mexico. Its flat
top towering 100 feet high covers more than a football field, its
base measures 1,000 feet by 700 feet. In front stretches the Grand
Plaza, which measures 1,000 feet by 1,300 feet, and is made perfectly
flat by filling in gullies and layering special soil over the whole.
At the far end and along the sides rise more mounds, 70 feet high.
All were capped with colored claysblue, white, or black.
center mound at Cahokia is as large as the Pyramid of the
Sun in Teotihuacan. (photo courtesy of Wikipedia)
Beyond the magnificent center were more plazas encircled by
mounds, and beyond the city center were thousands of homes and farmsteads,
as far as the eye could see on both sides of the river. Villages
dotted the uplands, some with their own ritual mounds. At four points
where river narrows with bluffs allowed soldiers to guard entry
to the floodplain, carved thunderbirds with cross-in-circle territory
signs mark in stone the states defended boundaries. Hidden
in plain sight for centuries, today a UNESCO World Heritage site,
Cahokia never was acknowledged in post-contact histories of America.
Cahokia was the only true city north of Mexico before the establishment
of the United States. In its plan of plazas surrounded by elevated
buildings, and in its intensively farmed cornfields, Cahokia resembles
the cities of Mexican empires; it follows their ideal city, Tollan,
in design and in location alongside a marsh rich in foodstuffs.
The dates of Cahokias rapid building and sudden collapse coincide
with the dates for what the Aztecs called the Toltec empire, preceding
the Aztecs movement into central Mexico. Although the Aztecs
told the Spaniards that the Toltec capital was at Tula, northwest
of the Aztecs Tenochtitlan (Mexico City), it may have been
at Cholula to the southeast, the Aztecs bitter enemies.
Cholulas own histories say the city was ruled by the Toltecas,
that in about the ninth century CE it was conquered by armies from
the Gulf Coast region, then re-conquered in 1200 by Toltecas allied
with Chichimec bowmen recruited from northwest Mexico. During the
period of Gulf Coast invaders rule, Cholula hosted the greatest
international markets of Mexico and the principal temple to Quetzalcoatl,
drawing hundreds of thousands of pilgrims. Its market was especially
famous for beautiful feather headdresses and cloaks.
Cahokias rapid buildingand its collapsecoincide
with this Toltec empires dates. So do the dates for Chaco,
the largest town in the American Southwest. Archaeological evidence
proves that Chaco traded turquoise thousands of miles into central
Mexico during the Toltec period, and imported live parrots, for
their brilliant feathers, all the way from southeast Mexico. Cahokia
has no parrot bones or eggshells (at least none discovered, in this
vast site); its only surviving evidence of contact with Mexico,
other than the city plan with mounds around rectangular plazas,
is human teeth filed to points in a fashion very popular in Toltec
Mexico. Except for one filed tooth from Chaco, the 18 known filed
teeth from Cahokia burials are the only filed teeth known north
and Cahokia may have had organized trade with Toltec Mexico.
( photo courtesy UNESCO)
Here we have Cahokia at the hub of transportation
in continental North America, where St. Louis is, the Mississippi
flowing from its docks to the Gulf of Mexico. We know, from De Sotos
chroniclers and other early explorers, that the nations along the
Mississippi had impressively large canoes, as well as slaves. Did
Cahokias rulers or traders ride the river to Mexico, then
take their slaves to Cholula to sell, to be blessed by the Feathered
Serpents priests, and to buy unbelievably luxurious feather
regalia at the market? Perhaps be fashionably beautified by getting
their front teeth filed to sharp points? Besides their slaves, they
could have brought and sold finely tanned deerskinscommodities
produced and sold in quantities in North American native markets
at the time of the first European colonists and pulled into transatlantic
trade by those colonists. Neither slaves nor deerskins would leave
archaeological evidence that they were commodities.
If Cahokia and Chaco had organized trade with Toltec Mexico,
a clue is the match between their and the Toltec empires beginning
and end dates. Wealth from dealing with the aggressively market-oriented
Toltecs, likely actually the Gulf Coast conquerors of Cholula, and
adopting Mexicans corn and agricultural methods, can explain
the rapid building of the two anomalous North American cities, and
collapse of the Toltec trading empire at 1200 explains the collapse
of Cahokia, already beset by enemies fighting against Cahokias
slave raids. What happened to the Cahokians? Todays Osage
Nation believes that their forebears, including those of the related
Ponca, Omaha, Kansa, and Quapaw, were rulers of Cahokia. When their
Mexican markets collapsed and their enemies attacked, the Osage
retreated up the Missouri to a rich and defensible plateau, their
historic homeland. Today, the Osage Nation is beginning to buy back
some of its forebears mounds at the outskirts of Cahokia.
Alice Beck Kehoe is Professor of Anthropology, emeritus, at
Marquette University, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.