In the peaceful farming community of Cahokia, located on the Illinois side of the Mississippi, the night had been calm. Before dawn, the villagers moved about, rekindling the cooking fires and getting ready to start their day. But what happened next would forever change the course of the old heart. It was July 4, 1054 AD. We only know this date because the Chinese recorded the event.
Suddenly and without warning, next to a crescent moon, there was a silent burst of light. Six times larger than the light of the planet Venus, it was the brightest object in the sky. The village erupted with a combination of fear and wonder, much like those who would see it around the world. Tearing through our Milky Way galaxy from 6,500 light-years away, it was light from a supernova explosion that would form the Crab Nebula. Visible for 23 days and nights and then for two years in the night sky, its appearance changed the course of civilizations.
It must have been interpreted as a good omen for many cultures and a motivation of epic proportions by those who experienced it. Archaeologists had long understood that there was an event at this time in Cahokia that initiated ongoing public works projects for hundreds of years, including a total demolition of existing structures and rebuilding into a mighty metropolis. Like the Cahokians, the Anasazi of Chaco Canyon, 1,200 miles away in New Mexico, recorded the event on pictographs (paintings on cliff faces) and had the same aggressive building phenomenon.
Over the next 300 years, Cahokia would become the capital of Mississippian culture. The largest Native American city north of the Rio Grande, its population is said to reach around 30,000 and many more in the suburbs. It would be the largest population of any city in North America until Philadelphia in 1780.
At the heart of the city is Monks Mound, a 100-foot-tall rammed-earth platform pyramid and the 50-acre Grand Plaza. The original 6 square miles of urban housing, city streets, parks, and plazas stretched on both sides of the Mississippi River. This included the 120 original temple burial mounds and burial mounds, 80 of which survive.
We are just beginning to understand the influence and impact of Cahokia as a metropolitan experience. This had never been seen before in North America. It attracted natives from all over, and I guess it could be described as a Native American tourist destination.
Cahokia has also become a sports town and has helped preserve at least one ancient game of skill. Almost certainly tribes and cultures across the “Big Muddy” came to play and play and Chunkey was apparently the game of choice.
Chunkey was played on a packed clay surface. A Chunkey stone (a small discoid stone) was unrolled and two people threw spears in anticipation of where the stone would land. It sounds simple and you wonder why they would be so crazy about the game, but I feel the same way about bowling.
After 1300 AD, Cahokia was in decline. Maybe the soil or other resources were running out or the drought was overwhelming the city. We just don’t know for sure. Within a hundred years from this date 1300, the city was abandoned.
Today, Cahokia is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are approximately 2000 acres of the original town. From the massive Monks Mound (the size rivals any pyramid in Mesoamerica), you can see the modern St. Louis skyline, including the St. Louis Arch. This experience of seeing the modern city while standing atop a massive ancient monument is worth the trip alone. The Cahokia Museum is also something you will want to visit. After seeing the vast collection of artifacts on display, it’s hard to imagine that only 1% of Cahokia has been excavated.