BBC – Travel – The US’ lost, ancient megacity
It’s a shame the event planners are tasked with managing Cahokia’s wildest parties. A thousand years ago, the Mississippi settlement – in a location near the modern US city of St. Louis, Missouri – was known for days of beating.
A cosmopolitan hum of language, art and spiritual fermentation
In huge squares, crowds of people crowded around space. Buzzy, caffeinated drinks went from hand to hand. Crowds shouted bets as athletes hurled spears and stones. And the Cahokians celebrated with devotion: archaeologists buried themselves in their old garbage pits and counted 2,000 deer carcasses from a single blowout event. The logistics must have been breathtaking.
It’s quieter these days in Cahokia, a quiet Unesco site. But towering mounds of earth suggest the legacy of the largest pre-Columbian city north of Mexico. Cahokia, a cosmopolitan whirring of language, art, and spiritual fermentation, grew to 30,000 people at its peak in AD 1050, making it larger than Paris at the time.
What Cahokia didn’t have is startling, writes Annalee Newitz in her recent book Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age. The massive city lacked a permanent marketplace, confounding old assumptions that trade is the organizational principle behind all urbanization.
“Cahokia was really more of a cultural center than a trading center. It still puzzles me. I keep wondering where they were trading? Who made money?” Newitz said. “The answer is they weren’t. That’s why they didn’t build the room.”
You may also be interested in:
• The lingering appeal of lost cities
• The worst city on earth
• A mysterious US desert civilization
Newitz is not alone in her surprise. The assumption that trade is key to urban life has long shaped a Western view of the past, explains archaeologist Timothy Pauketat, who has studied Cahokia for decades.
“It’s definitely a trend that influenced previous archaeologists,” he said. While excavating cities in Mesopotamia, the researchers found evidence that trade was the organizing principle of their development, and then turned the same lens on ancient cities around the world. “People thought this must be the foundation for all early cities. It has resulted in generations looking for things like this everywhere,” Pauketat said.
They did not find it in Cahokia, which Pauketat believes was instead intended as a place to bridge the worlds of the living and the dead. For many cultures with roots in ancient Cahokia, “water is that barrier between the world of the living and the world of the dead,” said Pauketat. Spread over a landscape that connects solid earth to swampy areas, Cahokia may have served as a kind of spiritual crossroads.
“It’s a city that was built to span water and dry land,” said Pauketat. Living residents settled in the driest places, while burial mounds rose in more humid places. Lidar scans of the site have uncovered elevated causeways that connect the “neighborhoods” of the living and the dead, physical walkways that literally connected to the rich.
And if life on the threshold of the two worlds sounds rather gloomy, the Cahokians seem to have seen their hometown as a festive place. In Four Lost Cities, Newitz writes that the Cahokia planners created structures and public spaces dedicated exclusively to mass gatherings, places where individuals are carried away with the joy of collective experiences.
The most spectacular was the 50-acre Grand Plaza, where 10,000 or more people could gather for celebrations in a monumental room flanked by earthen pyramids.
“It is difficult to grasp the intensity, the size and the multidimensional nature of such an event,” said Pauketat. For days food and drink were brought into town, where a phalanx of cooks fed the people who arrived for the celebrations. Stocks of game, berries, fruit and vegetables became common festivals. Asleep in makeshift shelters or friends’ homes, visitors went to the square to dance, bless, and attend other events.
In the square, the buzzing energy of the crowd turned into a collective roar as the onlookers bet on chunkey seizures. The game began when a player rolled a stone disk across the smooth surface of the floor. Hundreds of athletes hurled their spears tight and focused, even though the stone was still bouncing and rolling. The winner was the one whose spear was closest to the chunkey stone, like a mighty game of bowls played with lethal projectiles.
Towering poles in the Grand Plaza could have been another show of sporting grace, Pauketat said. He envisions that men may have climbed the poles or tied themselves in mid-air for soaring dances, a ritual still practiced in some Mayan parts of Mesoamerica. “In the Mesoamerican ceremony, you put those big, tall cypress poles and four men who dress up as bird men and fly around those poles,” he said. “We have these poles in Cahokia.”
Shell beads, feathers, and fine leather caught the sunlight as everyone donned their most elaborate costumes for such events, Pauketat explained. Cahokians loved a palette of red, white, and black; People fashioned their hair into elaborate buns, mohawks, and feathers. Tattoos adorned some bodies and faces.
When the parties ended, the Cahokians dumped trash into pits that now serve as reports of what citizens ate and drank together. A decade ago, archaeologists’ analysis of ceramic cups found in Cahokia revealed biomarkers for a species of holly known as yaupon, which is the only caffeinated plant found in North America.
It seems that the Cahokians kept the festivities going in part by causing a stir. And since Yaupon’s native reach is hundreds of kilometers from the city, we know that they go to considerable lengths to preserve it.
This in turn could have consolidated the place of plants in ritual life. “Part of their value lies in the difficulty of acquiring them,” said anthropologist Patricia Crown, who led the analysis of the cups. “You had to have the networks to get the substance, if it was really important to your religious system.
Today, the site of ancient Cahokia is preserved as the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, a UNESCO World Heritage Site where archaeological work is carried out. Seventy of the original hills are protected there, and a long staircase leads to the top of Monks Mound, overlooking the Grand Plaza. With the help of audio guides, visitors walk a 10 km path that winds through grassland, forest and wetlands.
As in ancient times, a constellation of high poles aligns itself with the rising sun to measure the seasons. The on-site interpretation center features recreated life scenes as well as displays of stone tools and pottery sculpted by skilled Cahokian hands.
They fit right in with American history
Modern life is not far away: Cahokia is framed by a Central American spread of interstate highways and suburbs. But it wasn’t modern developments that ended Cahokia’s compelling story.
Ultimately, the Cahokians simply chose to leave their city behind, seemingly driven by a mix of environmental and human factors such as a changing climate that paralyzed agriculture, caused violent violence, or catastrophic flooding. Around 1400 the squares and hills were quiet.
When Europeans first came across the remarkable hills in Cahokia, they saw a lost civilization, Newitz explains in Four Lost Cities. They wondered if some distant people had built Cahokia, then disappeared, taking with them the brilliant culture and sophistication that once thrived in the soil of the Mississippi lowlands, where the earth is enriched by river floods.
But of course the people of Cahokia have not disappeared. They just left, and with them, Cahokia’s influence wandered outward to far-flung places where some of their favorite pastimes are still valued today.
The yaupon they loved to drink is making a mainstream comeback as sustainable local tea that can be harvested from the forest. Chunkey – Cahokia’s favorite game – never went away either. It has attracted a new generation of young athletes in some local communities and is featured in stick Cherokee community games with stickball and blowguns.
But it’s more than that. Cahokians loved sitting back at good barbecues and sporting events, a combination that, according to Newitz, is conspicuously familiar to almost all modern Americans. “We celebrate like this all over the US,” they said. “You fit right in with American history.
Join over three million BBC Travel fans by liking us on Facebook or following us on Twitter and Instagram.
If you enjoyed this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com newsletter entitled “The Essential List”. A handpicked selection of stories from the BBC Future, Culture, Worklife and Travel delivered to your inbox every Friday.