Place  /  Longread

Monuments Upon the Tumultuous Earth

For thousands of years, Indigenous societies were building hundred-foot pyramids along the Mississippi River.

When the story of the mounds is told, it often centers on a site called Cahokia. A thousand years ago, along a creek in the low floodplain of the Mississippi River, just downstream of the mouth of the Missouri, an unprecedented project commenced: an old village was burned; thousands of new homes were built in quick succession—dozens of neighborhoods in total, each centered around one or several earthen mounds. Eventually, more than 120 pyramids rose atop the floodplain. The greatest pyramid lay at the city’s center and eventually stood a hundred feet above its fourteen-acre base. The top was level, wide enough to contain storage huts and sleeping houses, council chambers and temples. According to archaeologists’ calculations, a speaker standing at the top could project his voice across the fifty-acre plaza below. Four smaller mound-and-plaza sites surrounded this central pyramid, one in each of the cardinal directions, creating what archaeologists call a “cosmogram.” The entire city was carefully laid five degrees off the meridian—aligned with the site where, once every nineteen years, the moon rises at its southernmost point on the horizon. This was, in other words, a feat of engineering and astronomy both.

Cahokia was a massive city, home to at least ten thousand people, many of them immigrants newly arrived from distant regions. Another twenty thousand people, perhaps more, lived in the surrounding farming hinterlands. This would have made the city one of the largest in the United States at the dawn of the nineteenth century.

Cahokia, despite its grandeur—and in some ways because of it—is often depicted as a dark place. This is thanks to the revelations of the archaeologists who, in the 1960s, uncovered a series of mass graves hidden beneath a low mound just south of the great plaza. Dozens of bodies had been cast into pits, many decapitated. Nearby, other bodies were carefully honored, wrapped in beaded capes, laid atop animal pelts.

Archaeologists had recently developed a taxonomy of societal evolution. Cultures, they supposed, matured over time, growing from small “bands” to “tribes” to “chiefdoms” to top-down “states.” The kingly bodies at Cahokia lent credence to a corollary theory: that simple bands of hunters and gatherers were too disorganized to build anything as impressive as these riverside complexes, that mounds required a central authority. Cahokia was seen as the moment when Native America climbed the final rung on the ladder of social evolution. And the brutalized bodies suggested how the climb happened. Archaeologists figured the city’s elite must have amassed influence by invoking ancient stories, portraying themselves as associated with the forces of life and death. I can’t help but notice that the discoveries at Cahokia affirm our own broken politics: they seem to suggest that a capacity for avarice, a desire for control, is simply what it takes for a society to reach its peak.