A Medieval Metropolis Existed In What’s Now St. Louis, Then Mysteriously Disappeared in the 14th Century

In our cur­rent epoch of human his­to­ry, when pop­u­la­tions of major cities swell into the tens of mil­lions, an urban cen­ter of 30,000 peo­ple doesn’t seem very impres­sive. 1,000 years ago, a city that size was larg­er than Lon­don or Paris, and sat atop what is now East St. Louis. At its height in 1050, Annalee Newitz writes at Ars Tech­ni­ca, “it was the largest pre-Colom­bian city in what became the Unit­ed States…. Its col­or­ful wood­en homes and mon­u­ments rose along the east­ern side of the Mis­sis­sip­pi, even­tu­al­ly spread­ing across the riv­er to St. Louis.”

It is called Cahokia, but that name comes from lat­er inhab­i­tants who them­selves didn’t know who built the ancient metrop­o­lis, Roger Kaza explains, “We real­ly have no idea what the builders called their city.” Also, no one, includ­ing the peo­ple who set­tled there not long after­ward, knows what hap­pened to the city’s inhab­i­tants. Archae­ol­o­gists call these lost indige­nous soci­eties the Mis­sis­sip­pi­ans.

They occu­pied a ter­ri­to­ry along the riv­er of near­ly 1,600 hectares dur­ing what is called the Mis­sis­sip­pi­an peri­od, rough­ly between 800 and 1400 A.D. The soci­ety built mounds, “some 120,” notes UNESCO, who have des­ig­nat­ed Cahokia a world her­itage site. (See an intro­duc­to­ry video below from the Cahokia Mounds Muse­um Soci­ety and two artist recre­ations else­where on this page.) The largest of these mounds, Monk’s Mound, stands 30 meters high.

Cahokia is “a strik­ing exam­ple of a com­plex chief­dom soci­ety, with many satel­lite mound cen­tres and numer­ous out­ly­ing ham­let and vil­lages.” Size esti­mates vary. UNESCO’s is more con­ser­v­a­tive “This agri­cul­tur­al soci­ety may have had a pop­u­la­tion of 10–20,000 at its peak between 1050 and 1150,” they write—still, at any rate, a major city at the time. The Mis­sis­sip­pi­an civ­i­liza­tion left behind “pot­tery, cer­e­mo­ni­al art, games and weapons,” Kaza notes. “Their trade net­work was vast, stretch­ing from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mex­i­co.”

The mounds were a sym­bol of both earth­ly and reli­gious pow­er, and the city appears to have been a pil­grim­age site of some kind, with remains of what may have been a 5,000 square foot tem­ple at the top of Monk’s Mound and evi­dence of human sac­ri­fice on oth­er mounds. “A cir­cle of posts west of Monk’s Mound has been dubbed ‘Wood­henge,’ because the posts clear­ly mark sol­stices and equinox­es,” writes Kaza.

But the true strength of Cahokia, as in all great metrop­o­lis­es, was eco­nom­ic pow­er. As archae­ol­o­gist Tim­o­thy Pauke­tat of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois notes, “it just so hap­pens that some of the rich­est agri­cul­tur­al soils in the mid­con­ti­nent are right up against that area of Cahokia.” Corn grew plen­ti­ful­ly, pro­duced sur­plus­es, and the soci­ety grew rich. Then, seem­ing­ly inex­plic­a­bly, it col­lapsed. “By the time Euro­pean col­o­niz­ers set foot on Amer­i­can soil in the 15th cen­tu­ry, these cities were already emp­ty,”

One recent study sug­gests two nat­ur­al cli­mate change events sev­er­al hun­dred years apart explain both Cahokia’s rise and fall: “an unusu­al­ly warm peri­od called the Medieval Cli­mat­ic Anom­aly” gave rise to the region’s abun­dance, and an abrupt cool­ing peri­od called “the Lit­tle Ice Age” brought on its end. Cli­ma­tol­o­gists have found evi­dence show­ing how a drought in 1350 caused the pre-Columbian Mis­sis­sip­pi­an corn indus­try to implode.

Pauke­tat finds this expla­na­tion per­sua­sive, but insuf­fi­cient. Pol­i­tics and cul­ture played a role. It’s pos­si­ble, says arche­ol­o­gist Jere­my Wil­son, who coau­thored the recent cli­mate paper, that “the cli­mate change we have doc­u­ment­ed may have exac­er­bat­ed what was an already dete­ri­o­rat­ing sociopo­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion.”

Evi­dence sug­gests mount­ing con­flict and vio­lence as food grew scarcer. Cli­ma­tol­o­gist Brox­ton Bird argues that the Mis­sis­sip­pi­ans left their cities and “migrat­ed to places far­ther south and east like present-day Geor­gia,” Angus Chen writes at NPR, “where con­di­tions were less extreme. Before the end of the 14th cen­tu­ry, the archae­o­log­i­cal record sug­gests Cahokia and oth­er city-states were com­plete­ly aban­doned.”

We should be care­ful of see­ing in this con­tem­po­rary lan­guage any close par­al­lels to the sit­u­a­tion major cities face in the 21st cen­tu­ry. Just one link in the glob­al sup­ply chain that dri­ves cli­mate change today can employ 10,000–20,000 peo­ple. But per­haps it’s pos­si­ble to see, in the dis­tant indige­nous past of North Amer­i­ca, the not-so-future vision of a migra­to­ry future for the inhab­i­tants of many cities around the world.

via Art Tech­ni­ca and Messy Nessy

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Native Lands: An Inter­ac­tive Map Reveals the Indige­nous Lands on Which Mod­ern Nations Were Built

Inter­ac­tive Map Shows the Seizure of Over 1.5 Bil­lion Acres of Native Amer­i­can Land Between 1776 and 1887

Two Ani­mat­ed Maps Show the Expan­sion of the U.S. from the Dif­fer­ent Per­spec­tives of Set­tlers & Native Peo­ples

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (11) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (11)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Suse Sternkopf says:

    Your head­line reads: “A Medieval Metrop­o­lis Exist­ed In What’s Now St. Louis, Then Mys­te­ri­ous­ly Dis­ap­peared in the 14th Cen­tu­ry”

    This should be cor­rect­ed. The “medieval metrop­o­lis” exist­ed in what is now Collinsville, Illi­nois. St. Louis is in Missouri–on the *west* side of the Mis­sis­sip­pi; Cahokia Mounds (not be be con­fused with Cahokia, IL, which is a prop­er mod­ern city in the same gen­er­al area) is in ILLINOIS, on the *east* side of the riv­er.

    It’s real­ly not that com­pli­cat­ed. Please amend at your ear­li­est con­ve­nience.

    Suse Sternkopf

  • Tom Petty says:

    Hi Suse,

    I regret to inform you that you are wrong. If the world were just, you’d be strick­en with polio such that your fin­gers could nev­er again tar­nish anoth­er page with such a fool­ish com­ment.

    All the best,
    Tom Pet­ty

  • Lafcadio Hearn says:

    They won’t, because they just repub­lish things.

    Also, the arti­cle is click­bait from the title. The author uses “medieval” so loose­ly it means noth­ing.

    “Medieval” Europe this is not, that’s for sure.

  • Scott A Silvey says:

    I lived in Mt. Carmel, IL in 1967–1968 (about 150 miles to the East of St. Louis) and vis­it­ed the “Cahokia Indi­an Mounds” on occa­sion with my par­ents. I am very both­ered by some­thing that has been removed from the record entire­ly. I recall vis­it­ing a muse­um there, where they (pre­sum­ably archae­ol­o­gists) had unearthed the remains of appar­ent chief­tans from the bur­ial mounds. These fair­ly well pre­served remains were housed in glass cas­es and were ful­ly 7′ plus tall with flam­ing red hair. there was no expla­na­tion giv­en as to who these peo­ple were, much like the knowl­edge today. We do not know who these peo­ple were.

    The fact that this has been entire­ly removed from the his­tor­i­cal record is very sur­pris­ing. I have even cor­re­spond­ed with a cur­rent archae­ol­o­gist work­ing at the dig site there, and she com­plete­ly dis­missed my account as fan­ta­sy.

    I am not sug­gest­ing a con­spir­a­cy here, but what is it about extreme­ly tall, par­tic­u­lar­ly red haired humans from our past that is hid­den?!

  • Audrey Andujar says:

    I find this arti­cle fas­ci­nat­ing. I think back to how shock­ing it may have seemed to me a few years ago with a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive. The exis­tance of oth­er cul­tures does not negate my Bib­li­cal beliefs.

  • Sharon Cohen says:

    A Girl Scout camp exist­ed on top of a Indi­an Buriel Mound!
    I went to Camp there in Grafton, Illi­nois in the 1940’s. I’m assum­ing the Girl Scouts did not know this his­to­ry.
    After a hard rain on day we dis­cov­ered what we thought was a rock, was indeed a skull!

  • Caille Culbertson says:

    But, it would be extreme­ly inter­est­ing to ascer­tain why they were wiped out. What kind of dis­ease?

  • Marie Scarth says:

    It means the 1400s you must have an open mind
    Did you put the skull back leave alone respect it…you woul­nt like your remains tam­pered with would you

  • Sharon Cohen says:

    A Nat­u­ral­ist took the skull to a muse­um I pre­sume. I was around 8–10 years old. The Girl Scouts did respect our find.
    It’s hard to recall since that was around 1948- 1950. The rock was by the door of our cab­in.

  • Jim Foster says:

    I used to work on the farms adja­cent to Momks. And used to sled on it In the ear­ly 60’s

  • Suse Sternkopf says:

    Hey Tom–

    Don’t take my word for it–look at a map.

    As for your boor­ish and abu­sive com­ment “If the world were just, you’d be strick­en with polio such that your fin­gers could nev­er again tar­nish anoth­er page with such a fool­ish com­ment.”

    Poor lit­tle boy…little, lit­tle boy.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.