Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Mystery of Cahokia Mounds

Illinois’ Cahokia Mounds still hold their mysteries

COLLINSVILLE, Ill. – In the Summer of 2005 my wife, Carla and I made our second visit to Cahokia Mounds, the remains of the largest and most advanced prehistoric Indian civilization north of Mexico. Located just outside of St. Louis in Illinois near the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, the 2,200-acre site has been designated as a United Nations World Heritage Site, putting it in an elite group that includes the Egyptian Pyramids and the Great Wall of China.
         The afternoon walking tour of the mounds was canceled because of the heat that day, but the magnificent visitors’ center was cool and comfortable.
         We started our visit with a 20-minute movie that gives as much of the history of the site that is known. It left us with the unanswered question of how a series of highly successful communities that had flourished for several hundred years and included at times 20,000 inhabitants could have disappeared around A.D.1400.
         In the movie, large paintings captured the lifestyle of the people and gave us the background information we needed to appreciate the work that went into constructing the 65 mounds that remain of the original 120 in the surrounding area. The Indians moved more than 50-million cubic feet of earth to build the original mounds.
         At the movies’ end, the curtain went slowly up, showing us a village with Native Americans going about their daily business. The small single-family houses were covered with mats and the roofs with bundles of prairie grass. We walked through the village, which had text explaining what each of the individuals was doing.
          The mannequins are unusually well done, and their naturalness gives an air of reality to the village. One man is chipping arrowheads, another is gutting a deer, women are preparing food, and some men are sitting in a sweat hut as a young boy prepares the hot stones, while other children are playing. It is a successful reconstruction of how a moment of time would have looked to these long-vanished people.
There are three kinds of mounds. The large ones with flat tops held ceremonial buildings or the homes of important people. The other two, with conical or ridged tops, marked important locations or burial sites.
The one that had most emotional impact for me was mound 72. This mound had the bodies of nearly 300 people, mostly young women who had been sacrificed so they could serve a male leader in the next life. That he was considered important was shown by the 20,000 marine shell beads that had been imported from the coast 800 miles away to provide a bed for him.
         The guided tour, which we had taken on a previous visit, takes visitors to Monks Mound, on top of which the principal ruler lived. With a base of 14 acres and 100 feet tall, it is the largest prehistoric earth construction in the Americas. To make the mound, the natives dug 22-million cubic feet of earth, put it into baskets and carried it on their backs up the slope before dropping it. A two-level staircase lets the visitor view the area from the top.
         Archaeologists have excavated evidence of five Woodhenges, or circular sun calendars made of red cedar posts, probably used to mark the changing seasons and important ceremonies related to the raising of crops such as corn, squash and pumpkin. Cahokia has sometimes been called "the City of the Sun" because of the calendars and the sun symbols on some of the recovered artifacts.
In the visitors center we were able to immerse ourselves in the history of the area through a range of presentations. A film on archeology explains the procedures that were used for working this area, and several simulations of digs demonstrate the procedures. A visit is like taking a short course in American prehistory.
The displays include topics such as microscopic botanical analysis, bone analysis, excavating a mound, different kinds of arrowheads, the foods of the people, Mississippian culture games and the impact of agriculture.
         Visitors with a particularly strong interest in how a lost culture is rediscovered will enjoy visiting one of the three excavations that are in progress. Two of them involve work on the wooden walls that defended the community, and the third is the excavation of a ceremonial complex.
There are dozens of other mounds throughout the eastern United States, but this is the major site from which many of the others were ruled. The center is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily and is only closed on a few special holidays. There is no charge, and experts are available to discuss the different aspects of the displays. For more information, visit the Web site at http://www.cahokiamounds.com/. http://akayola.com/author-pages/wayne-anderson

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