9/15/10 - cahokia

In today's excerpt - Cahokia, the largest settlement in North America until Philadelphia, which stood in Illinois near modern day St. Louis, and in which stood Monks Mound, a structure larger than the Great Pyramid of Giza. Part of a four-thousand-year-old Native American tradition of mound-building, it was built by people who came to be known as Mississippians:

"There was one remarkable community north of the Rio Grande, a city that by 1150 CE had become the largest urban center north of Mexico, a record that would stand until Philadelphia surpassed it in the late 1700s. It is difficult to imagine a city covering more than six square miles flourishing in the Mississippi Valley some 350 years before Columbus reached the New World, a city, which at its zenith in about 1150 contained a population estimated by some experts to have been as high as thirty thousand, more inhabitants than any contemporary European city, including London. Its people constructed enormous pyramid-shaped earthen mounds (the largest, Monks Mound, has a base larger than that of the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt), designed and built solar observatories, and carried out a far-flung trade. Its name was Cahokia. ...

"The city of Cahokia was physically dominated by the Monks Mound, named for French Trappist monks who lived in a monastery nearby in the early 1800s and gardened on the mound. Cahokia was built in a dozen or more phases beginning in about 900 CE, a time described by archeologists as the 'Big Bang,' a period in which, for still unknown reasons, thousands of Native Americans from surrounding regions poured into Cahokia and the city experienced as much as a tenfold increase in its population.

"Covering an area of fourteen acres, making it larger than the Great Pyramid of Giza, the clay stab that serves as the base of Monks Mound is about 954 feet long and 774 feet wide. The enormous structure stretches 100 feet from its base to its top. ...

"Most archaeologists who have worked the site are in agreement that the temple or palace atop Monks Mound was the focal point from which Cahokia's rulers carried out various political and religious rituals, including prayers for favorable weather to nurture the acres of maize that stretched out from the city as far as the eye could see. Excavations have also revealed that at some point in the mound's various phases of construction a low platform was extended out from one of its sides, creating a stage from which priests could perform ceremonies in full view of the public.

"What is perhaps most intriguing of all is the question of how Monks Mound was constructed. Archaeologists calculate that the structure contains twenty-two million cubic feet of earth, which was dug with stone tools and carried out in baskets on people's backs to the ever-growing mound.

"Sally A. Kitt Chappell provided a graphic calculation of the enormous effort that went into building Monks Mound:

This pharaonic enterprise required carrying 14,666,666 baskets, each filled with 1.5 cubic feet, of dirt weighing about fifty-five pounds each, for a total of 22 million cubic feet. For comparison, an average pickup truck holds 96 cubic feet, so it would take 229,166 pickup loads to bring the dirt to the site. If thirty people each carried eight baskets of earth a day, the job would take 167 years. ...

"[The complexity implies] the presence of individuals with specialized knowledge of soils and earthen construction. Despite the instability of the materials they had on hand and the fact that they built their enormous structure on a floodplain, these ancient engineers achieved nothing less than the largest prehistoric construction in the Americas, and there it has stood for more than one thousand years."


Martin W. Sandler


Lost to Time: Unforgettable Stories that History Forgot


Sterling Publishing Co., Inc.


Copyright 2010 by Martin W. Sandler


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