While there were great pre-Columbian cities in Mesoamerica (like the Aztecs and the Maya) and in South America (like the Inca), there weren't the same sort of great cities in what is today the United States. One time when North America did have a large thriving city was 1,000 to 600 years ago called Cahokia.
The history of Cahokia is a mysterious and intriguing one, and everyone should visit. There are many theories for why Cahokia was abandoned, but now research has shown that one of the leading theories is wrong and so its story remains more of a mystery than ever.
What to Know About the Cahokia Mounds
Today the Cahokia Mounds are part of the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site just out of St. Louis but across the river in Illinois. The site contains around 80 mounds and covers around 3.5 square miles. The ancient city was much larger than that though, and it covered around 6 square miles at its peak.
- Date: Cahokia Existed Circa 1050 to 1350 AD
- Apex: Around 1100 AD
- Deserted: Around 1400 AD
- Population: Perhaps 15,000
Cahokia is built on a floodplain called the American Bottom. Its population was perhaps 15,000 in the city itself with around twice that in the surrounding areas. Prior to European contact, it was the most densely populated place in North America (excluding Mesoamerica).
It Wasn't Because of Environmental Degradation
But at least if archeologists don't know what did trigger its decline, they can rule out one thing that didn't. One of the leading suggestions for why Cahokia declined was because of flooding brought on by the over-harvesting of timber in the area. The theory was that this made the region increasingly uninhabitable due to deforestation that led to flooding that led to diminished harvests and the flooding of residential areas.
- Ecocide: The Idea That Society Fail Due To the Degradation of The Environment Is Called "Ecocide"
- Leading Theory: Ecocide Had Been The Dominate Explanation For Cahokia For The Last Half Century
But recently National Geographic reported on a study published in the journal Geoarchaeology by Caitlin Rankin of the University of Illinois. This study concludes that Cahokia was not damaged by environmental degradation. They failed to find any evidence that there was recurrent flooding of the sort predicted by the wood-overuse hypothesis.
The research showed that the soil remained stable over that time and there was no evidence of flood sediments.
While ecocide has been responsible for the death of many Old World civilizations, the people of North America didn't graze animals or intensively plow.
Who The Cahokians Were
The Cahokians cultivated corn and various other crops and were part of what is called the Mississippian culture. Mostly they lived in a Diaspora of agricultural communities throughout the American Southwest. But just why they gathered and formed into a highly concentrated urban now known as Cahokia remains a mystery.
- Existed: Between 800 and 1500 AD
- Where: Across The American Southeast
Why they formed the greatest city in North America is a question remaining to be answered satisfactorily.