My father works at a limestone quarry in Southern Illinois, and when I was a kid we would hunt the surrounding fields for Indian arrowheads and shards of pottery. The tiny stone points were fun to play with but frustratingly elusive. The pottery was comparatively plentiful and easy to find, and so had less appeal. My grandfather had a cigar box full of the stuff at home.
Though I didn’t know it at the time, we were picking over the remains of Cahokia, the largest pre-Columbian city in the United States. The fields we scavenged are long gone, excavated for limestone, but a short drive north, a cluster of some 80 manmade hills bump out of the flat landscape. The largest is 100 feet tall and covers an area larger than the Great Pyramid of Giza.
A staggering amount of manpower must have been necessary to move so much dirt without the aid of machines, horses, or the wheel. Archaeologists estimate that the population of Cahokia during its 13th century peak was around 15,000—equal to or larger than that of medieval London.
The city was built by the Mississippian people, who inhabited a territory encompassing the Midwest and Southeast. It blows my mind to think that such a significant and sophisticated culture occupies so little of the American consciousness, compared to, say, Mexico’s evident pride in the Aztec and Maya.
Cahokia is a World Heritage Site and a National Historic Landmark, but, tellingly, it is owned and operated by the State of Illinois rather than the National Park Service. An active four-lane road runs 50 feet from the base of the biggest mound and Interstate 70 lies only 500 feet away. These violations would be unthinkable at a place such as Mount Vernon. Why are they admissible at Cahokia?
“Instead of imagining the thousands of people who once teemed on the grand plaza here,” Glenn Hodges wrote in National Geographic last year, “I keep returning to the fact that Cahokia Mounds in Illinois is one of only eight cultural World Heritage sites in the United States, and it’s got a billboard for Joe’s Carpet King smack in the middle of it.”
Granted, the mounds aren’t much to look at. They are covered in grass and, except for their abruptness, are fairly indistinguishable from natural topography. But looks aren’t everything. There is a deeper, darker reason why Cahokia isn’t a National Park, familiar to every American schoolchild. The story of Cahokia contradicts the received narrative of American Exceptionalism.
Cahokia was abandoned by the time French explorers arrived in the 17th century, and Hodges says that accounts of the ruins were deliberately underplayed in the early 19th century, during the era of Westward Expansion: “The United States was trying to get Indians out of the way, not appreciate their history.” Moreover, it’s disturbing to ponder the total collapse of a civilization—especially one here in America, where we enjoy a conveniently loose relationship with our past and an intense, some might say blind, faith in progress.