Cahokia: North America's massive, ancient city

It was a sprawling civilization.

  • Near modern-day St. Louis, Missouri, you can find towering mounds of earth that were once the product of a vast North American culture.
  • Cahokia was the largest city built by this Native American civilization.
  • Because the ancient people who built Cahokia didn't have a writing system, little is known of their culture. Archaeological evidence, however, hints at a fascinating society.

Mesopotamia had Ur, a wealthy city from 2100 BCE and a towering ziggurat. Egypt had Memphis and Alexandria, with their great pyramids and library, respectively. The Toltecs or Totonacs, who resided in modern-day Mexico, had Teotihuacan, which hosted over 125,000 people in its monolithic architecture.

Ancient cities seem to have sprung up all over the world, each of which must have been magnificent sights in their day. But it seems like a handful of these cities hog all the limelight. Though Teotihuacan may be known, for instance, few are familiar with North America's other great ancient city, Cahokia.

Mysterious mounds near St. Louis 

Monks Mound, the largest remaining mound in Cahokia. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

About 10 miles east of St. Louis, Missouri, 80 mounds of earth dot 2,200 acres of land, the largest of which covers 13.8 acres and rises 100 feet high. These 80 mounds are the remainders of 120 mounds built 1,000 years before Columbus reached North America by a forgotten people called the Mississippians, named after the great river they lived near. All told, the mounds would have required the excavation of about 55 million cubic feet of earth.

The Mississippian civilization is poorly understood; they had no writing system, and by the time Europeans bothered to seriously document their culture, they had been scattered, wiped out by European diseases they had no immunities to.

Instead, much of our understanding of the Mississippians has come from archaeology, and the city of Cahokia represents the greatest trove of archaeological evidence. The city was named after the Cahokia tribe that lived in the area when the French first arrived, though they were not its original inhabitants. In fact, by that time in the 17th century, Cahokia was abandoned.

Though the Mississippians had no writing system, Cahokia was clearly the product of some kind of centralized planning. Its many great mounds are a testament to that, as well as the 50-acre leveled plain of the city named the Grand Plaza; the remains of a copper workshop; a palisade that surrounded its central, ceremonial district; and large henges made of wood.

When Cahokia was at its greatest between 1050 and 1200 CE, it hosted an estimated 40,000 Mississippians, more than the city of London at the time. The bulk of these people flocked to the city between 1050 and 1100, where they built homes, established the Grand Plaza, and built more mounds that raised important buildings over the thousands of other homes in Cahokia.

Life in Cahokia

A statuette recovered from Cahokia depicting a chunkey player. The figure holds a chunkey stone in its hand. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

We can glean some other features of Cahokian life from the fragments they left behind. We've found carved discs throughout Cahokia that were used in a game called "chunkey" that was played on the large flat field of the Grand Plaza. Participants rolled the chunkey stone across the field and threw spears toward where they thought the stone would come to rest. Huge audiences watched chunkey players, and players often gambled on the outcome.

But life in Cahokia wasn't entirely fun and games. There is also evidence that the Cahokians engaged in human sacrifice. At one mound in particular, dubbed Mound 72, researchers found the remains of 272 people. In one instance of sacrifice, 39 people were lined up in front of a pit and clubbed one by one, falling into a mass grave. Two dozen different mass graves populate Mound 72, all of which contain the remains of people who had been strangled, clubbed, and even buried alive.

But there's also a more reverent grave at Mound 72: a man buried on 20,000 beads made from seashells, which were status symbols and luxury items in Mississippian culture. These beads were arranged in the shape of a falcon. The falcon was an important symbol in Mississippian culture, typically associated with great warriors and chunkey players.

The city's decline

By the time Columbus and other Europeans arrived in America, Cahokia was abandoned and had been since approximately 1300. What drove the Mississippians away from the vast city is unclear. It's possible there had been some kind of conflict with another people — the palisade that encircled part of the city speaks to that.

Or, it could be that the unique density of Cahokia led to its downfall. Few other places in North America had tens of thousands of humans living in close proximity with one another. It could be that disease wiped out the Cahokians or that the area was overhunted, overfished, and overfarmed. Some evidence also suggests that the area was severely flooded twice: once between 1100 and 1260 and again between 1340 and 1460. Possibly a combination of these factors led the mound-builders to abandon Cahokia.

Today, Cahokia is preserved as a historic site that anyone can visit. However, Cahokia only gained its protective status in the 1960s. Prior to that, it was the site of heavy development — some of its mounds had been leveled for farming, airfields, housing, and highways. Fortunately, much of the site still remains, and it represents one of the few ancient cities left to visit in North America.

Update Saturday, February 23, 2019: An earlier version of this story alluded that Teotihuacan was not located in North America. It is.

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Want to forge stronger social bonds? Bring beer.

New research shows that a healthy supply of locally-sourced beer helped maintain Wari civilization for 500 years.

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  • A new analysis of an ancient Wari brewery suggests chicha helped maintain the civilization's social capital for hundreds of years.
  • Civilizations throughout the ancient world used alcoholic drinks to signify kinship, hospitality, and social cohesion.
  • The researchers hope their findings will remind us of the importance in reaffirming social institutions and sharing cultural practices — even if over coffee or tea.

Beer is history's happiest accident. Though the discovery probably happened much earlier, our earliest evidence for beer dates back roughly 13,000 years ago. Around this time, the people of the Fertile Crescent had begun to gather grains as a food source and learned that if they moistened them, they could release their sweetness to create a gruel much tastier than the grains themselves.

One day a curious — or perhaps tightfisted — hunter-gatherer hid his gruel away for a safekeeping. When he returned, he found the bowl giving off a tangy odor. Not one to waste a meal, he ate it anyway and enjoyed an unexpected, though not unpleasant, sensation of ease. By pure happenstance, this ancestor stumbled upon brewing.

That's one possible origin story, but we know that our ancestors learned to control the process, and beer took a central role in Fertile Crescent civilizations — so central that Professor Patrick McGovern, a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that beer, not bread, incentivized hunter-gatherers to relinquish their nomadic ways.

Beer may also be proof of a God who wants us to be happy (Dionysus?), because the beverage* would be independently rediscovered by peoples across the ancient world, including those in China and South America.

One such peoples, the pre-Inca Wari Civilization, made beer, specifically chicha de molle, a critical component in their religious and cultural ceremonies. In fact, a study published in Sustainability in April argues that the role was so important that beer helped keep Wari civilization intact for 500 years.

Brewing social capital

Twenty years ago, a team of archaeologists with the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, discovered a brewery in Cerro Baúl, a mesa in southern Peru that served as an ancient Wari outpost. The brewery contained original equipment, clay storage vessels, and compartments for milling, boiling, and fermentation.

The team recently analyzed these on-site vessels to uncover the secrets of the Wari brewing process. Removing tiny amounts of material found in the spaces between the clay, they were able to reconstruct the molecules of the thousand-year-old drink. They then worked alongside Peruvian brewers to recreate the original brewing process.**

Their molecular analysis revealed several key features of the beer: The clay used to make the vessels came from a nearby site; many of the beer's ingredients, such as molle berries, are drought resistant; and though alcoholic, the beer only kept for about a week.

These details suggest that Cerro Baúl maintained a steady supply of chicha, limited by neither trade nor fair weather, and became a central hub for anyone wishing to partake. The Wari would likely make such trips during times of festivals and religious ceremonies. Social elites would consume chicha in vessels shaped like Wari gods and leaders as part of rituals attesting to social norms and a shared cultural mythology and heritage.

"People would have come into this site, in these festive moments, in order to recreate and reaffirm their affiliation with these Wari lords and maybe bring tribute and pledge loyalty to the Wari state," Ryan Williams, lead author and head of anthropology at the Field Museum, said in a release. "We think these institutions of brewing and then serving the beer really formed a unity among these populations. It kept people together."

The Wari civilization was spread over a vast area of rain forests and highlands. In a time when news traveled at the speed of a llama, such distinct and distant geography could easily have fractured the Wari civilization into competing locales.

Instead, the researchers argue, these festive gatherings (aided by the promise of beer) strengthened social capital enough to maintain a healthy national unity. This helped the Wari civilization last from 600 to 1100 CE, an impressive run for a historic civilization.

Bringing people together (since 10,000 BCE)

A Mesopotamian cylinder seal shows people drinking beer through long reed straws. Image source: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Of course, the Wari weren't the first civilization to use beer to reaffirm bonds and maintain their social fabric. Returning to the Fertile Crescent, Sumerians regarded beer as a hallmark of their civilization.

The Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh tells of the adventures of the titular hero and his friend Enkidu. Enkidu beings as a savage living in the wilderness, but a young woman introduces him to the ways of civilization. That orientation begins with food and beer:

"They placed food in front of him,
They placed beer in front of him,
Enkidu knew nothing about eating bread for food,
And of drinking beer he had not been taught.
The young woman spoke Enkidu, saying:
"Eat the food, Enkidu, it is the way one lives.
Drink the beer, as is the custom of the land."
Enkidu ate the food until he was sated,
He drank the beer — seven jugs! — and became expansive
and sang with joy.
He was elated and his face glowed.
He splashed his shaggy body with water
and rubbed himself with oil, and turned into a human
."

Tom Standage, who recounts this scene in his History of the World in 6 Glasses, writes: "The Mesopotamians regarded the consumption of bread and beer as one of the things that distinguished them from savages and made them fully human." Such civilized staples not only demarcated their orderly life from that of hunter-gatherers, they also served a key role in their culture's unifying mythology.

Furthermore, Standage notes, Sumerian iconography often shows two people sipping from waist-high jars through reed straws. The earliest beers were consumed in a similar fashion because technological limitations prevented baking individual cups or filtering the beverage. But the Sumerians had the pottery skills to make such cups and filter the dregs. That they kept the tradition suggests that they valued the camaraderie brought by the experience, a sign of communal hospitality and kinship.

The ancient Greek's similarly used alcohol as a means of maintaining social and political relationships — though their drink of choice was wine.

During symposiums, upper-class Greek men would gather for a night of drinking, entertainment, and social bonding. In Alcohol: A history, Rod Phillips notes that symposiums were serious affairs where art, politics, and philosophy were discussed throughout the night and could serve as rites of passage for young men. (Though, music, drinking games, and sex with prostitutes may also be found on the itinerary.)

Of course, we can amass social capital without resorting to alcohol, which has been known to damage social relationships as much as improve them.

In the 17th century, London's coffeehouses stimulated the minds of thinkers with their caffeine-laden drinks, but also served as social hubs. Unlike the examples we've explored already, these coffeehouses brought together people of different backgrounds and expertise, unifying them in their pursuit of ideas and truths. Thus, coffeehouses can be seen as the nurseries of the Enlightenment.

Relearning ancient lessons

The Field Museum archaeologists hope their research can help remind us the importance social institutions and cultural practices have in creating our common bonds, whether such institutions are BYOB or not.

"This research is important because it helps us understand how institutions create the binds that tie together people from very diverse constituencies and very different backgrounds," Williams said. "Without them, large political entities begin to fragment and break up into much smaller things. Brexit is an example of this fragmentation in the European Union today. We need to understand the social constructs that underpin these unifying features if we want to be able to maintain political unity in society."

So, grab a beer or coffee or tea, spend some time together, and raise a glass. Just try not focus too much on whether your friend ordered Budweiser's swill or an overpriced, virtue-signaling microbrew IPA.

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