Cahokia may sound like a sound made during a sneeze but it is actually a UNESCO World Heritage Site near St. Louis.
I thought today, the autumnal equinox, would provide a great context to write about the mounds near St Louis that are evidence for the importance of seasonal reckoning and measurement to the First Peoples of America. Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site is the location of the largest city north of Mexico until European colonization. Cahokia was a thriving urban center of a Mississippian Culture Chiefdom between AD 850 and 1300. St. Louis, whose skyline is clearly visible from the top of Monk’s Mound, was known as Mound City in the 1800s until all the mounds within the city were erased from the landscape by the 20th Century.
Today, Monday, September 22, 2014, is the first Equinox to occur since I visited Woodhenge this summer. In Tucson, where I live, the celestial equator will be crossed at 7:29 PM MST.
I have driven by the signs for Cahokia every time I have driven between NE Indiana where I grew up and Southern Arizona in the last 25 years. That is quite a few times since I moved to Arizona 25 years ago. I discovered at a fairly late age that I like to drive and enjoy road tripping by myself… but I was often on a fairly tight timeline. The sign for Cahokia Mounds would appear as I drove on the interstate approaching St. Louis, it seemed that every time that I saw it I would need to get a couple more hours of driving done before stopping for the day. So I would drive by without stopping and swear that next time I would plan to stay in the area and spend a day hiking around the site.
I wanted to explore Cahokia with Hubby as we drove back to Tucson on the last half of the 25th anniversary road trip. But I rather reluctantly offered to drive the car and dog back across the country by myself so he could fly back and have a full week to prepare for the new semester, and some unanticipated professional travel the first week of classes. He accepted my offer and said this would allow me to spend more time near where I grew up and visit my brothers in a leisurely fashion than if he was there too and chomping at the bit to get back on the road.
This turned out to be a very fortuitous turn of events for non-archaeological reasons. Spending time on my brother’s land next to the farm where I grew up called up memories Dad’s stories about flaked flint and polished stone, Indian trails, and humorous “re-enactments” of key scenes from Tecumseh’s life and his brother the Prophet. His tales of our family history also included First Americans who were wives to early American fur traders and trappers.
These stories with which I grew up, and the artifacts that I played with as a child, were primarily from Eastern Woodland tribes. The Mississippian groups such as those that lived near Cahokia Mounds were culturally distinct from Woodland Cultures. Dad taught me that most of the tribal groups in Indiana were little groups pushed into the swampy, malarial and wet woodlands between the Iroquois confederacy to the east, the Cherokee to the South, and the Plains Indians to the west.
I grew up hearing my father’s stories of mound builders and handling projectile points, axes, and ceremonial lithic pieces my family found while farming Indiana land over the 19th and 20th Centuries. I heard storied of the “bird people.” In August I made sense of those memories. Having studied anthropology in college and graduate school I had better than average understanding of Woodland and Mississippian cultures. But the artifacts I knew and played with came to life when I saw them in context with entire tool assemblages.
I had not been prepared for, through studies or stories from childhood, the scale of the Cahokia Mounds site and similarities of the cultural complexities with that of other First American cultures. This Mississippian site I walked was as big as the majority of the Mayan Chichen Itza I walked in 2012.
The almost 200 mounds on the site varied in form and function. The sloping banks of Monk’s Mound, the largest mound at Cahokia, can mask the enormity of the mound until you get ready to ascend the contemporary steps that lead to the top.
Public works of this size are evidence of a complex society capable of specialization that allowed some members to specialize in non-subsistence activities.
Solstice and Equinox rituals marked the annual cycles for agricultural purposes though the activities were undoubtedly interwoven with other religious, political and economic activities and the view from the Chieftain’s house atop Monk’s Mound could observe them all.