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updated 8/11/2004 10:52:52 PM ET 2004-08-12T02:52:52

The Mississippi River has its mysteries, but none that can touch the one that unfolded on its banks 1,000 years ago in what is now southwestern Illinois, across the river from St. Louis. We began the second week of our journey down the Mississippi by visiting the eerily magnificent mounds of the native American metropolis of Cahokia and hearing an archeologist describe the rapid rise and fall of “the city that history forgot.”

Every good mystery needs a detective, and we found ours in Tim Pauketat, an associate professor of archeology at the University of Illinois and a leading expert on Cahokia. Also joining us for our tour of the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site was Susan Alt, a post-graduate student who is working on her dissertation on Cahokia and the surrounding villages.

As we began our tour by climbing Cahokia’s biggest mound — a tiered pyramid known as Monks Mound for a group of Trappist monks who built a monastery nearby in the early 1800s — Pauketat filled us in on the basics of what is known about the city and its people.

Prehistoric Indians first arrived at Cahokia around A.D. 700, but sometime around 1050 the population exploded for unknown reasons and the city became a regional center of what is known as the Mississippian culture. At its apex, the city had between 10,000 and 15,000 residents, with the regional population, including parts of St. Louis and East St. Louis, estimated to have been 30,000 to 40,000. That would make it one of the biggest — if not the biggest — world metropolises of its time.

Its fall was just as sudden. For reasons that remain unclear, by 1300 — only 250 years after its emergence as a prehistoric powerhouse — the once-magnificent city had been virtually abandoned and its people dispersed.

Almost as baffling as Cahokia’s rocket-like ascent and Icarus-like fall is the fact that many Americans have never heard of Cahokia and the Mississippian civilization.

Jim Seida  /  MSNBC.com
Archeologist Tim Pauketat in front of a reconstructed section of the stockade with Cahokia’s biggest mound — a four-tiered pyramid known as Monks Mound —  beyond.
Pauketat said that stereotypes about American Indians likely play a role in the dearth of knowledge.

“I think Cahokia has been forgotten, especially by Americans today, because it’s in North America, it’s in our backyard, it’s not exotic,” he said. “… That’s partly wrapped up in the subtle racism that still exists against American Indians. People typically don’t think that American Indians could have built a civilization given the biases that were developed during the westward expansion.”

As we gained the top of Monks Mound and gazed out at nearby mounds and restored features — a palisade intended to protect the inner city and a giant solar calendar called Woodhenge for its resemblance to Great Britain’s Stonehenge — Pauketat painted a picture of how the ancient city looked during its heyday.

The Cahokians built three types of earthen mounds — pyramid-shaped platform mounds, which had flat tops that served as bases for ceremonial buildings or residences of the elite, and conical and ridge-top mounds, both of which were used for burials of VIPs and, in some cases, victims of sacrificial rituals.

Monks Mound was the centerpiece of the complex, rising 100 feet from its 14-acre base. Archeologists estimate that it took 22 million cubic feet of earth, all transported from nearby “borrow pits” by baskets carried on the backs of workers, to create the mound in several phases. A large building — 105-feet long, 48 feet wide and about 50 feet high — once stood atop the mound and is believed to have been the ceremonial home of the city’s ruler or an elite clan.

Between the mounds were a series of plazas, the biggest of which — the Grand Plaza — covered almost 50 acres.

“These were places where you’d have feasts, processions or other public gatherings,” Pauketat said.

The plazas also were used as arenas for chunkey — a two-player game that consisted of rolling a smooth wheel-shaped stone and then throwing spears to try to come closest to the spot where the stone would come to rest.

The game, which was developed by Cahokians, remained popular hundreds of years later among Southwestern and Midwestern tribes. It likely involved high-stakes gambling, or at least it did when the first European explorers saw it being played.

“French explorers wrote that they got so into it that they would lose their families (through gambling) … and then commit suicide,” Pauketat said. “It was a very important game.”

Arrayed around the central city were many outlying villages, where Cahokians raised corn, squash and a variety of starchy seeds on farms and hunted to supply the inner-city residents with meat.

They also practiced craft specialization, with individual clans or villages producing artworks, tools and weapons. 

Pauketat said these villagers were clearly second-class citizens.  

“They didn’t eat the good meat even though they were closer to the source at the woodlands … and may have had some social obligation to send it here,” he said.

Pauketat said archeologists have barely scratched the surface of Cahokian culture.

One of the most significant discoveries to date is Mound 72, a ridge-top burial mound in which archeologists found the remains of an important ruler, a male in his 40s, lain on a bed of more than 20,000 marine shell disc beads. Nearby were caches of arrow tips from present-day states like Arkansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Wisconsin, apparently sent in tribute to the deceased.

Also buried nearby were the bodies of many men and women, the victims of a mass execution at the same time of the man’s burial.

Though the reasons for the human sacrifices remain unclear, Pauketat said it appears the deaths were part of “a theatrical ritual, and the roles seem to be mythical,” possibly a retelling of the story of creation.

Mythical creatures like the birdman, a human looking figure with a falcon beak, also figure prominently in Cahokian artworks.

While such tidbits give glimpses of the ancient Cahokians, many aspects of their lives are shrouded by the passage of time, including the name by which they knew their city.

The name Cahokia comes from a clan of the Illinois Indians — the Cahokia — that was living in the area when the first French explorers arrived in the early 1600s. But the city’s original name was never recorded because the Cahokians had no form of writing. And strangely, no stories referring to the great city were ever recorded among the tribes that are believed to be their direct descendants — the Osage, Omaha, Ponca and the Quapaw, among others.

One theory, put forward by anthropologist Alice Kehoe, suggests that “Cahokia had some negative associations and when people left they were trying to get away from it and they intentionally forgot about it,” said Pauketat. “… (The Indians) didn’t talk about it, Euro-Americans came in, they didn’t care about it. So this place is sort of the city that history forgot.”

Just what those “negative associations” might have been remains open to debate, but Pauketat said he believes that an internal power struggle that spun out of control is the most likely explanation.

“It looks like there were factions and they were vying for control,” he said. “… First and foremost it was a failure of government.”

Others have theorized that environmental problems, including a drought and a major climatic shift that led to a “mini-ice age,” may also have contributed to Cahokia’s rapid downfall, Pauketat said.

While archeologists have fairly well-developed theories about the collapse of the civilization, the question of what caused Cahokia to catch fire has so far defied explanation.

“At 1050, there is a sudden coalescence and a central authority emerges … and the site goes from maybe 1,000 to maybe 10,000 to 15,000 people and grows to 8 square kilometers (a little less than 5 square miles),” Pauketat said. “Cahokia is a magnet. It sucks other people in here.”

Pauketat said efforts to answer such questions are being hampered by the fact that modern development in outlying areas continues to erase clues that could provide new insights into Cahokia.

“The Cahokian sprawl is difficult to measure because it has been covered by the St. Louis sprawl,” he said.

Still, with much digging yet to be done at Cahokia, Pauketat believes that the answers to many puzzles will eventually emerge.

“I’m an optimist,” he said. “I think you can get at answers, sometimes circuitously, through different routes. … But maybe I have to be an optimist, because it can be depressing given the rate of destruction.”

After saying goodbye to Pauketat and Alt and touring the Cahokia Mounds Interpretive Center, we pointed our van south and set off on a 250-mile drive to Memphis, Tenn.

We’ll return to the river on Day 9 of our trip, joining the crew of a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredge to learn the ins and outs of river-bottom vacuuming to maintain the Mighty Mississippi’s crucial shipping channel.

Reporter Mike Brunker and media producer Jim Seida are traveling the length of the Mississippi in August and will be filing daily dispatches along the way. If you have a question or comment, mail us at mississippi@msnbc.com.

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