Move over Machu Picchu, stand aside Angkor Wat – the lost city of Cahokia in Illinois has archaeologists spellbound. The towering earthen pyramid known as ‘Monk’s Mound’ rises up out of a series of grassy mounds in the Mississippi flood plains, just outside St Louis. It’s the largest man-made earthen structure north of Mexico, and it was once the centrepiece of a thriving medieval city called Cahokia, which had boomed to a population of 30,000 people by the year 1050. It was the largest city in what became the United States and it was even bigger than London or Paris at that time.
But by around 1400 it had been completely deserted. Why? Some of the clues could lie in what many archaeologists believe to have been Cahokia’s true purpose: spirituality. Archaeologists have dug up evidence of elaborate burial rituals, the burning of sacred effigies and even human sacrifice. They also made a horrifying discovery: beneath the innocuously-named 'Mound 72' they found hundreds of bodies, believed to have been “fertility and renewal” offerings.
Evidence of the human sacrifices uncovered at Mound 72. Photography: Jim Anderson; Source: arstechnica
Ars Technica editor Annalee Newitz writes about her time working with archaeologists on the Cahokia dig site in this fascinating article. One theory is that the people of Cohokia made a mass exodus because of intensifying resentment toward the murderous priests in their lofty pyramid.
Despite being abandoned by the Mississippians, ploughed over by modern farmers, and built on with an adult movie theatre in the ’50s, the mysterious earthen mounds remain. And they aren’t giving up all their secrets – yet.
Artist’s recreation of downtown Cahokia from The Cahokia Chronicles: Finding North America’s Lost Medieval City