Prehistoric Moon Cult: The Lost City of Cahokia
Few people know about America’s greatest ancient city
Fortunately, some of the ancient city of Cahokia still exists. Now part of the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site near Collinsville, Illinois, just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, Cahokia hasn’t looked better in centuries, appearing these days like a well-kept city park, where you can climb atop high earthen mounds and enjoy the view for hundreds of miles.
But during the late 1600s and early 1700s, when the first Europeans arrived at Cahokia, much of the site was damaged by farmers, developers and souvenir hunters. Of course, if they’d known that Cahokia was once the greatest city north of pre-Columbian Mexico, they may have treated it better.
At any rate, recent evidence seems to indicate that Cahokia had many notable astronomical alignments and that it may have been the location of a thriving moon cult. So let’s learn more about this ancient metropolis of Cahokia, which, 800 years ago, rivaled London, England in population (from 30,000 to 40,000 people). As for cities in America, it wasn’t until the 1780s that Philadelphia surpassed Cahokia in population.
Please keep reading!
Early History of Cahokia
The Cahokian culture began about A.D. 600, although earlier occupation at the site could have taken place as long ago as 1200 B.C.E. Since no written records exist for Cahokia, it’s hard to tell exactly how old Cahokia is, and who lived there and when, though archaeological evidence from recent decades is abundant. The mound-building aspect of Cahokia's culture arose around A.D. 900, about the same time as start of the Mississippian culture, of which Cahokia would become its greatest city.
From A.D. 900 until the middle 1200s, Cahokia became a grand city of earthen mounds, of which some 80 mounds still exist; but at one time as many as 200 could have covered an area of about 2,200 acres or 3.5 square miles. It’s often assumed that the native people of northeastern and southeastern America built Cahokia, but some think they may have come from much father away. At any rate, when the French arrived in the 1600s, the native Illiniwek people populated the area, though few of them lived anywhere near Cahokia.
Cahokia flourished during the so-called Medieval Warming Period, which took place from A.D. 950 to 1250, when temperatures rose somewhat in the North Atlantic, though not near as much as the current warming during the twenty-first century. The warming in the Middle Ages took place at about the same time as the emergence of the contemporaneous Anasazi culture at Chaco Canyon, near modern Four Corners. (A prolonged drought in the American Southwest during the 1200s may have ended the culture of the cliff-dwelling Anasazi.) Interestingly, the decline of Cahokia coincided with the little ice age, which happened from 1350 to 1850.
The largest mound in Cahokia is Monk’s Mound. Towering over 100 feet in height and covering an area of more than 13 acres, Monk’s Mound is the largest earthen mound north of Mexico; in fact, the size of its base rivals that of the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt. Interestingly, Monk’s mound was the home of Cahokia’s paramount chief. Recent excavations show that a 50-foot building atop the mound may have been the chief’s residence and/or a major temple of some kind.
Monk’s Mound, named for some Trappist monks who resided in the area after the Europeans arrived, can be seen from a great distance and must have been an impressive sight in ancient times!
The Grand Plaza
Located near Monk’s Mound, a large plaza, covering some 50 acres, was used for ceremonial purposes and official gatherings. Ritual games such as chunkey may have been played there too. Chunkey involved the rolling of disc-shaped stones. Contestants tried to throw spears as close as possible to the spot where these stones stopped rolling, thereby scoring points or whatever.
A short distance west of Monk’s Mound, archaeologists discovered the postholes of a timber circle, the alignments of which could have been used to calculate solstices and equinoxes, thereby aiding in the planting of crops and other dating purposes. Similar in structure and usage to England’s Stonehenge and Woodhenge, Cahokia’s Woodhenge was rebuilt a number of times. Woodhenge III was 410 feet in diameter and had 48 wooden posts.
Astonishingly, another woodhenge was discovered near Mound 72, the tumulus of a Cahokian ruler known as the Birdman. Birdman was interred with over 250 other people, most of whom sacrificial victims, and evidence suggests that some of these may have been buried alive. Radiocarbon dating of wood found in Mound 72 yielded a date between A.D. 950 and 1000.
Production of Copper Artworks
Near Mound 34, some 400 meters from Monk’s Mound, archaeologists from 2002 to 2010 found the remains of a copper workshop, the only one of which ever discovered at a Mississippian site. At this place where stone anvils were used, artisans produced intricate artworks of copper, particularly long-nosed god maskettes, some of which found at other Mississippian sites. These copper artifacts seem to have been produced during the 1200s.
Moon Cult Religion at Cahokia
According to the article “City of the Moon,” printed in the March/April 2015 issue of Archaeology magazine, scientists theorize that Emerald Mound, located near Lebanon, Illinois, on the fringes of Cahokia, was the site of a lunar cult. Every 18.6 years the full moon rises at its most northerly position, which lines up perfectly with Emerald Mound, a flat-topped earthen pyramid, as well as three adjacent parallel rows of small circular mounds. Fascinatingly, eight temples located across the top of Emerald Mound, constitute a kind of ancient acropolis.
Also, beneath the soil in the area around Emerald Mound, archaeologists found the remains of a young woman who was buried around A.D. 1100. Archaeologists surmise this may have been a ritual burial for Cahokia’s moon cult.
“We have evidence – in the form of foreign pottery – that people came along a great road to Emerald and other nearby sites en route to Cahokia,” says University of Illinois archaeologist Timothy Pauketat. “Religious temples and mounds aligned to these rare moonrises lead us to suspect that thousands of people came here to venerate the moon and other deities at great ceremonial gatherings.”
Midwestern Big Bang
Pauketat also says that Cahokia started a new way of life across the country, creating a kind of “big bang” of North American prehistory. “Cahokia was a unique place with a unique history that altered the histories of other Midwestern peoples,” he says.
Pauketat also says that the leaders and priests at Cahokia may have been on a “mission” to spread the practices of the moon cult to other areas. He points out that platform mounds found near Trempealeau, Wisconsin, show lunar-aligned architecture and artifacts that reflect the influence of Cahokia’s moon-based religion.
University of Illinois anthropologist, Susan Alt, summaries the significance of Cahokia’s lunar religion: “Our point really is that religion created Cahokia, and it was intimately part of everything everyone did and thought, enmeshed and entangled so completely in daily living that everything was religion. This Mississippian religion that began at Emerald and Cahokia was a new way of life.”
Abandonment of Cahokia
Like numerous other ancient cities, lost or otherwise, in the Americas and elsewhere, Cahokia was eventually abandoned. Believed to have happened beginning in the middle 1200s, Cahokia had such a large population, perhaps as many as 40,000 people, that many problems were bound to arise. Feeding tens of thousands of people would have been a great task, leading to over-hunting and deforestation in the area, and waste disposal must have caused problems as well, since archaeologists have found no evidence that Cahokia had a sewer system. Disease in such heavily populated areas can spread very quickly too, leading to epidemics. At some point, Cahokia may have become a very difficult and unhealthy place to live.
Furthermore, since Cahokia was located near the confluence of the Mississippi, Missouri and Illinois Rivers, flooding was almost certainly a problem. In 2013, scientists discovered the alluvial remnants of a large flood that struck Cahokia around 1200, when the Cahokian civilization was at its apex. Also about this time, Cahokia’s administrative core was gutted by a single massive fire, and was not rebuilt thereafter. Political strife and war could have presented challenges as well. Perhaps a number of pressing issues or calamities led to the demise of Cahokia. At any rate, by 1400 Cahokia was completely abandoned to the creeping trees, bushes and ghosts.
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© 2015 Kelley Marks