Cahokia Site's Significance Long Ignored (Parte 01)

Photographs by Don Burmeister and Ira Block

By Glenn Hodges

If they ever build a Wal-Mart at Machu Picchu, I will think of Collinsville Road.

I'm standing at the center of what was once the greatest civilization between the deserts of Mexico and the North American Arctic—America's first city and arguably American Indians' finest achievement—and I just can't get past the four-lane gash that cuts through this historic site. Instead of imagining the thousands of people who once teemed on the grand plaza here, I keep returning to the fact that Cahokia Mounds in Illinois is one of only eight cultural World Heritage sites in the United States, and it's got a billboard for Joe's Carpet King smack in the middle of it.

But I suppose Cahokia is lucky. Less than ten miles to the west, the ancient Indian mounds that gave St. Louis the nickname Mound City in the 1800s were almost completely leveled by the turn of the century. Today only one survives, along with some photographs and a little dogleg road named Mound Street. The relentless development of the 20th century took its own toll on Cahokia: Horseradish farmers razed its second biggest mound for fill in 1931, and the site has variously been home to a gambling hall, a housing subdivision, an airfield, and (adding insult to injury) a pornographic drive-in. But most of its central features survived, and nearly all of those survivors are now protected. Cahokia Mounds may not be aesthetically pristine, but at 4,000 acres (2,200 of which are preserved as a state historic site), it is the largest archaeological site in the United States, and it has changed our picture of what Indian life was like on this continent before Europeans arrived.

Cahokia was the apogee, and perhaps the origin, of what anthropologists call Mississippian culture—a collection of agricultural communities that reached across the American Midwest and Southeast starting before A.D. 1000 and peaking around the 13th century. The idea that American Indians could have built something resembling a city was so foreign to European settlers, that when they encountered the mounds of Cahokia—the largest of which is a ten-story earthen colossus composed of more than 22 million cubic feet of soil—they commonly thought they must have been the work of a foreign civilization: Phoenicians or Vikings or perhaps a lost tribe of Israel. Even now, the idea of an Indian city runs so contrary to American notions of Indian life that we can't seem to absorb it, and perhaps it's this cognitive dissonance that has led us to collectively ignore Cahokia's very existence. Have you ever heard of Cahokia? In casual conversation, I've found almost no one outside the St. Louis area who has.

Our ignorance has deep roots. The first person to write a detailed account of Cahokia's mounds was Henry Brackenridge, a lawyer and amateur historian who came upon the site and its massive central mound while exploring the surrounding prairie in 1811. "I was struck with a degree of astonishment, not unlike that which is experienced in contemplating the Egyptian pyramids," he wrote. "What a stupendous pile of earth! To heap up such a mass must have required years, and the labors of thousands." But newspaper accounts of his discovery were widely ignored. He complained of this in a letter to his friend former President Thomas Jefferson, and with friends in such high places, word of Cahokia did eventually get around.

Unfortunately it was not word most Americans, including subsequent Presidents, were very interested in hearing. The United States was trying to get Indians out of the way, not appreciate their history. Andrew Jackson's Indian Removal Act of 1830, which ordered the relocation of eastern Indians to land west of the Mississippi, was premised on the idea that Indians were nomadic savages who couldn't make good use of land anyway. Evidence of an ancient Indian city—one that rivaled the size of Washington, D.C., at the time—would have mucked up the story line.

Even American universities took scant notice of Cahokia and other homegrown sites before the second half of the 20th century. They preferred sending their archaeologists to Greece and Mexico and Egypt, where the stories of ancient civilizations were comfortably distant and romantic. The few people who championed Cahokia and its neighboring mound centers at East St. Louis and St. Louis fought a mostly losing battle against development and neglect for the better part of a century. The latter two sites—among the largest Mississippian communities in their own right—were destroyed and paved over. And though Monks Mound, named for French monks who once lived in its shadow, became a tiny state park in 1925, it was used for sledding and Easter egg hunts. The rest of Cahokia was largely ignored—built on and only sporadically studied—until the 1960s.

And that's when history demonstrated its fine sense of irony, because the biggest construction project to tear into Cahokia would also put it on the map. President Dwight Eisenhower's interstate highway program, though a massive undertaking that changed America's landscape as dramatically as the railroads once did, contained provisions for the study of archaeological sites in its path. This meant more money for excavations than had ever been available, as well as a clear agenda for where to dig, when, and how fast. With two highways slated to skewer the ancient city—I-55/70 now bisects Cahokia's north plaza, creating a road sandwich with Collinsville Road, a quarter mile to the south—archaeologists began to systematically study the site. What they found was nothing less than revelatory.

It became apparent that Cahokia was more than just a stupendous pile of earth or a cere-monial site where scattered tribes congregated once in a while. Nearly everywhere they dug, archaeologists found homes—indicating that thousands of people had once lived in the community—and many of these homes had been built within a very brief span of time. In fact, the whole city seemed to spring to life almost overnight around 1050, a phenomenon now referred to as a "big bang." People streamed in from surrounding areas, built houses, and quickly constructed the infrastructure of a new city—including several mounds with buildings on top and a grand plaza the size of 45 football fields, used for everything from sporting events to communal feasts to religious celebrations.

Making the story even more interesting was the clear evidence of ritual human sacrifice. Archaeologists excavating Mound 72, as they labeled it, found the remains of 53 women and one very high status man, as well as the decapitated remains of four men who may have been on the wrong side of some sort of authority. The discovery belied the common belief that American Indians lived in egalitarian communities without the sorts of often brutally maintained hierarchies that defined many other civilizations. Was Cahokia an empire, like the Mesoamerican civilizations to the south? It was too soon to tell, but something spectacular had happened here, and it became clear this was a mystery worth trying to solve.

If you want to understand Cahokia, the first thing you've got to do is climb the 156 steps to the top of Monks Mound. From the flat top of this colossus—with a footprint of 14 acres, it is larger at its base than the Great Pyramid of Khufu, Egypt's largest—you not only get a sense of how much labor went into its construction, but you can also understand why it might have been built in the first place. From here you can survey Cahokia's domain: the vast floodplain known as the American Bottom, stretching from St. Louis to a long line of bluffs three miles east of Cahokia and as far to the north and south as the eye can see. After directing the construction of what would have been the highest geographic feature in the 175-square-mile floodplain, a chief or high priest would have had a bird's-eye view of the land under his sway.

Fonte: (janeiro/2011)


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