Who built Cahokia?
Sophisticated archaeological studies of Cahokia Mounds National Historic Landmark in southern Illinois have greatly broadened the understanding of the great town’s development, but also raised several unanswered questions. A six decade old orthodoxy of American archeologists was irrefutably shattered by these studies.
No one yet knows the real name of this massive town that probably reached a peak population of around 20,000. Cahokia was the anglicized name of newly arrived Native American tribe that lived in the region during the 1700s. In many aspects, Cahokia was super-sized. At least 120 mounds have been identified in the archaeological zone. It spawned many other large towns near the confluence of the Mississippi, Ohio and Missouri Rivers. Cahokia’s influence spread up and down these rivers. It contains the largest known temple mound north of Mexico, Monks Mound.
Around 1300 AD the population of Cahokia and Moundville in Alabama began collapsing rapidly. There was a catastrophic drought in western and central North American during that period. East of a longitudinal line running roughly through Nashville and Birmingham, however, precipitation was normal. Eventually, the Middle Mississippian River Valley became almost uninhabited.
After 130 years of archaeological excavations, no one knows the ethnic identity of the group of newcomers, who settled the Cahokia site or the identity of more newcomers, who began radically expanding their town around 1050 AD. Also, no one knows for certain what became of its survivors.
The 1947 Conference at Harvard University
The year is 1947. Archaeologists, who specialized in the study of the indigenous peoples of eastern North America, convened at Harvard University to create a comprehensive description of the indigenous peoples of eastern North American. They thought that they knew everything that they needed to know. Thinking that one knows everything there is to know, is a dangerous attitude for researchers. That certainly was the case at this conference.
The attendees at Harvard determined that it was a fact that the earliest humans in North America were Clovis big-game hunters from Siberia, who crossed a land bridge over the Bering Strait around 10,000 years ago. They determined that it was a fact that the earliest mounds and pottery were created near Chillicothe, Ohio then spread southward. It was called the Woodland Period. They decided that it was a fact that the earliest agriculture and advanced American Indian culture originated in the vicinity of St. Louis, It was called the Mississippian Period, named for the Mississippi River that flowed past St. Louis and Cahokia
From the beginning there were major flaws in the known facts. No one had an explanation of how corn, beans and squash seeds in Mexico jumped 1200 miles away to suddenly sprout in Illinois, which has a much colder climate than Mexico. Of course, the obvious answer is Mexican Jumping Beans!
Even then, some anthropologists knew that there were many similarities between the cultures of the Creek, Seminole, Miccosukee and Chitimacha Indians in the Southeast and the Maya Commoners in Mesoamerica. The obvious solution was to ostracize any archaeologist, who publicly discussed explanations for corn, beans, squash or the cultural connection between the Mayas and Muskogean cultures in the Southeast. Members of other professions that discussed such subjects were sarcastically labeled “pseudo-archaeologists.”
The timing of the Harvard University conference couldn’t have been worse, if the reader excuses that pun. Willard Libby won a Nobel Prize for the invention of radiocarbon dating in 1949. As the science of radiocarbon dating steadily improved, radiocarbon dates taken at large mounds in the Southeastern United States often predated Cahokia by hundreds of years.
Soon after practical application of radiocarbon dating began, an approximate date of around 800 AD was obtained from charcoal at Cahokia. For the next 55 years American students were taught the unchallengeable fact that the Mississippian Culture began in 800 AD at Cahokia. It was presumed that enlightened Midwestern Indians then spread the gospel of corn, beans, squash and mounds throughout the Southeast. Whoever wrote the Wikipedia article on Cahokia exaggerated the situation a bit more. Just because somebody was living in the vicinity of Cahokia around 600 AD, the article labels them the first “Mississippians” and promotes the myth that all advanced cultural traits originated at Cahokia.
For several decades now, Southeastern archaeologists have known that sophisticated indigenous towns in Alabama, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina were not founded by missionaries from Cahokia. However, apparently this myth is still taught in some anthropology programs, north of the Mason-Dixon Line. A president of the Society of Georgia Archaeology, only recently arrived from another region, stated publically that “Everyone knows that Ocmulgee was originally settled by Indians from the north.” In 2006 an archaeologist employed by the State of Tennessee wrote a report that stated, “The mound builder towns in the Southeast were colonies founded by Native Americans from Cahokia.”
Radiocarbon Dating Spoils the Party
In 1969, initial construction of a modest pyramidal mound at a permanent village (Site 9FU14) near Atlanta was dated by Dr. Arthur Kelly of the University of Georgia at 200 BC. Two decades later, initial construction of the massive mound at the Leake Site, two miles away from the much better known Etowah Mounds site in northwest Georgia, was dated to around 0 to 100 AD. In eastern Georgia, what is probably the earliest pottery in the Western Hemisphere was dated to 2500 BC. At several locations in the Southern Highlands domestication of indigenous crops that is surprisingly now known to include yellow squash, was dated by forensic botanists to 3500 BC or earlier.
Things then went from bad to worse for the Harvard Orthodoxy. Archaeologists working at a circular mound complex in northern Louisiana called Watkins Brake, dated its construction to around 3400 BC. Then they dated Poverty Point, a large permanent town with massive earthworks that included one of the United States’ largest mounds to 1600 BC. Florida archaeologists, working at the Ortona site near Lake Okeechobee, dated earthworks and mounds with all the Mississippian cultural traits at 500 AD to 700 AD. A few years later, primitive maize (Indian corn) pollen in Southern Alabama was dated at around 1200 BC.
At recent excavations in Cahokia, archaeologists were shocked to discover that significant mound building did not occur until after 1050 AD. That is at least 150 years after newcomers with “fully developed Mississippian cultural traits” began building large pyramidal mounds at Ocmulgee National Monument in Georgia. Despite what Wikipedia tells you, there may have been no mounds at Cahokia until that era. If mounds were built, they were small earthworks, whose cousins may be found throughout the Southeast and Midwest; nothing special. What the official Cahokia web site now says is that during the 900s and early 1000s Cahokia was evolving toward a Mississippian society.
It is now known that around 1050 AD, new styles of pottery, art and arrowheads arrived in Cahokia. A new elite demolished much of the existing village, then constructed a massive plaza and fringed it with large earthen pyramids on an adjacent site. Most of the “Mississippian” trappings of Cahokia, such as post ditch houses and construction of large pyramidal mounds, did not arrive at Cahokia until at least 150-250 years after they appeared at several town sites in the Lower Southeast.
The newest thing coming out of archaeologists associated with Cahokia is that all of the copper and shell art found in Muskogean town sites was actually made in Cahokia and then exported to the Southeast. I found this one out in one of the few blogs written by archaeologists that actually acknowledged after-the-fact of the History Channel broadcast, America Unearthed, the Maya Georgia Connection. The blogger stated that it was now known that the copper plate excavated in Ocmulgee and examined by Mexican archaeologists, was actually made in Cahokia. He gave to scientific proof of his statement and I doubt that there is one.
There is also a serious problem with regional communication in the anthropology profession. Archaeology students outside of the Southeast know little about the early advanced cultures in Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia, Florida and South Carolina. Most of the books written by archeologists on the Southeastern Indians since 1996 either do not mention Ocmulgee or barely mention it.
Architectural analysis of Cahokia
The king is dead, but a new explanation of Cahokia’s origins has not been formulated. There is much, seemingly conflicting, evidence.
Architectural analysis of Cahokia would seem to be a way of identifying cultural influences, but Cahokia’s architecture represents a pot pourri of architectural traditions. This suggests that the residents of Cahokia were not necessarily descended from a single ethnic group. Below are some of the key architectural elements that characterized Cahokia.
Woodhenge: A Woodhenge was a ring of tree trunks planted in the ground for astronomical and ceremonial purposes. A Woodhenge excavated at Kolomoki Mounds in SW Georgia that was about 700 years older than the one at Cahokia. Many Woodhenges were encountered by European explorers of eastern North America. John White painted one near the Roanoke Colony in 1587. It is quite likely that the erection of Woodhenges was an ancient cultural tradition throughout much of North America.
Keyhole houses: Keyhole houses are round, partially recessed houses whose entrance tunnel gives them a keyhole shaped floor plan. Cahokia’s archaeologists label the sudden appearance of keyhole houses in southern Illinois as the arrival of Cahokia’s “proto-Mississippian” population. However, archaeologist Thomas Pluckhaun found an entire neighborhood of keyhole houses at Kolomoki Mounds. They contained Swift Creek pottery that predated the keyhole houses in southern Illinois by at least 500 years and keyhole houses at the Toltec Mounds site in central Arkansas by at least 400 years. There is something interesting, though. Plunkhaun stated in his book that keyhole houses were rarely found in Georgia outside of the immediate vicinity of Kolomoki. Were Kolomoki’s residents from northwestern Mexico where such structures are seen?
Pre-fabricated, post ditch houses: This sophisticated form of house construction originated among the Totonacs and Itza Mayas along the Gulf Coast of Mexico. Both there and among the Creeks in Georgia, this type of house was called a chiki. For unknown reasons, the professions of anthropology and linguistics were completely unaware that this was one of the many words shared by Mesoamerican and Creek languages until I pointed this out in 2006 when the People of One Fire was just getting started.
Under the Harvard Conference orthodoxy, the post-ditch house was a key element of authentic Mississippian Culture. That has become a big problem for Cahokia-first advocates. Chiki’s first appeared in Georgia shortly after the Itza Maya Highlands were devastated by a massive volcanic eruption around 800 AD. They did not appear in Cahokia for another 250 years.
Stone box graves: Stone box graves are sub-grade sepulchers formed by stone slabs. They are endemic in north-central Tennessee and also found in several regions of the Southern Highlands. Stone box graves were also in the bases of some mounds at Cahokia. Stone box graves were typically built by Maya Commoners, but not the Maya elite. They are rare in the remainder of Mexico.
Human sacrifice foundations: Archaeologists working at Cahokia have uncovered several examples where sacrificial victims were buried beneath the construction of new temple mounds. This was a common practice throughout Polynesia, but has not been identified east of the Mississippi River Basin. Both the Southeastern mound builders and the Mayas often constructed pyramids over the burials of important persons, but that is not the same as human sacrifice. One just does not see groups of human sacrifices around the burials of elite figures in Muskogean town sites. That is found in Cahokia.
Placing sacrificed humans in the bases of temples was also a common practice of the Aztecs. However, the Aztec Civilization in central Mexico did not begin to rise in Central Mexico until the time period when Cahokia was in rapid decline. It is chronologically impossible that people from the Aztec civilization could have founded Cahokia. Cahokia appeared much earlier. This leads to the theoretical possibility that the same ethnic group in northern Mexico that later became the Aztecs also furnished the elite of Cahokia.
Great plaza flanked by Pyramids: The center of Cahokia was a massive rectangular plaza flanked by pyramidal mounds. The plaza could have contained the town’s entire population in a festival. This is definitely not a Maya architectural tradition, nor a feature seen in many Mesoamerican towns. The first appearance of a plaza of similar shape and scale occurred in the construction around 900 AD of Tollan, the capital of the Toltecs in central Mexico. Tollan was abandoned around 1150 AD; about the same time as construction ceased at the acropolis at Ocmulgee in Georgia. Another great plaza of similar shape and scale was constructed in the heart of Tenochtitlan, capital of the Aztecs. However, the Aztecs arrived in the Valley of Mexico about the same time that Cahokia’s population began collapsing. By 1390 with the Great Plaza of Tenochtitlan was constructed, Cahokia had been abandoned.
Pyramidal Mounds: Almost all the mounds at Cahokia are similar to those found in the Southeast and Lower Mississippi Basin. The one exception is Monks Mound, the largest pyramidal mound north of central Mexico. Not only does it dwarf other Southeastern mounds, but its shape is different. Monks Mound’s form closely resembles that of the Great Pyramid of Cholula near the city of Puebla, Mexico. The Cholula Pyramid is about 80 feet taller than Monks Mound. Could some of the leaders or architects of Cahokia have earlier seen the Pyramid of Cholula? That is a possibility.
What the architecture of Cahokia tells us is that the great town was not so much a singular source of enlightenment, but a cosmopolitan town that absorbed peoples and ideas from places, near and far, then blended them into its own unique pattern. There is obviously much more work to be done at Cahokia before it is ever fully understood.
What happened to the people of Metropolitan Cahokia?
There is a strange paradox in the published literature about Cahokia. While recently published books and Wikipedia articles are awash with the long discounted myth that the Southeastern towns were colonies of Cahokia, their explanation of its population’s fate goes in the opposite direction. Various Plains Indian tribes are described as the descendants of Cahokia. That may be true, but forensic botanists and geologists have developed conflicting evidence that seems to go unnoticed in many universities.
By analyzing tree rings and alluvial soils, botanists and geologists have identified a horrific period of multiple droughts during the period between 1150 and 1300 AD.
Inexplicably, though, the first abandonments occurred almost simultaneously around 1150 AD at the Toltec capital of Tollan (northeast of Mexico City,) the acropolis at Ocmulgee in middle Georgia and the cluster of towns south of Lake Okeechobee, FL. One sees the chronologically progressive abandonment of the advanced cultures in the Southwestern Desert, Central Mexico, the Middle Mississippi River Basin and then northwestern Alabama and central Tennessee. The locations of the town abandonments after 1150 AD coincide with the eastward expansion of the drought zone. Eastern Tennessee, eastern Alabama, Georgia and the Southern Highlands were never in the drought zone.
The Western Plains would have been a very inhospitable place for Cahokia survivors to go. On the other hand, the large Natchez mounds date from after the abandonment of Cahokia. The Natchez have a tradition that their elite were originally an advanced people, who came from elsewhere and built fortified towns in their midst. Perhaps those newcomers were from Cahokia.
There was an influx of people and new cultures into the Southern Highlands between 1300 and 1400 AD. The best documented is the arrival of the Kusa in northwest Georgia and the Tanasa at Hiwassee Island, TN around 1300 AD. Architectural similarities suggest that the Kusa came from Moundville and the Tanasa came from the Mississippi River Basin. None of the towns of either people are similar to Cahokia.
It all remains an unsolved mystery.
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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history.Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.
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