Eclipse of the City of the Sun

July 18, 2011

In southern Illinois, just East of St. Louis, you can walk on and among the remains of a great prehistoric civilization.

Built a thousand years ago, it was once the largest city in North America – as big or bigger than Paris or London at the time. Between 15,000 and 40,000 lived here.

Too big to fail for hundreds of years, it is scarcely remembered, even in Illinois, today.

It is known as Cahokia.  City of the Sun.

It was a vast and complex city, anchored by regional trade flowing on and around the great rivers nearby.

And, as was their custom, the residents of Cahokia built incredibly large ceremonial mounds from of soil… manual work that took generations, even hundreds of years.

The largest is Monks Mound – at it’s base, as large as the Great Pyramid of Giza – in Egypt. It’s circumference is larger than the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan, Mexico. And in a concept much like the Parthenon, a temple was built on top. Towering over the flat-lands (at about 100 feet tall) the chief could see for miles in any direction.

Perhaps not so visually impressive these days, in part because it is constructed of dirt and not rock, and now dwarfed by a mound nearly twice as high a few miles away, built of entirely garbage, mostly from Saint Louis – called the Milam landfill, Monks Mound was, none-the-less, the immense anchor of an ancient civilization.

Here is what the entire settlement is thought to have looked like.

Many of the hundreds of ceremonial mounds have been plowed over during the course of the last 800 years – people just didn’t see any economic reason to preserve artifacts of the past. They got in the way of commerce – and progress.

The site even has an astronomical feature reminiscent of Stonehenge. Dubbed Woodhenge by archeologists, it was constructed so the 4 solstice days could be observed and noted.

No one knows for sure why the civilization died. The current leading theory is overuse of resources. Cahokia apparently was simply abandoned when the systems of the city failed – the cost of resupplying Cahokia with resources from farther and farther away was not worth the effort.

Hundreds of years later, the growing United States built a road right through the middle of the remains of the ancient settlement. The National Road, when it was constructed, in 1828, was America’s first interstate highway, connecting the civilized East to the wilds of the far west – ending in a city originally known as Mound City and now known as St. Louis.


Whether by design (to bring tourists out to pass through this important place) or by dumb luck, the road bisected Cahokia and spurred development in the region. At one time there were drive-in movies, a landing field and housing subdivisions built in the middle of the remains of the ancient city. A farmer planted corn on Monks Mound. Interstate 55/70, built in the 1950′s – and in part responsible for its preservation – took another huge hunk of Cahokia.

Today there are businesses, mobile home parks, and storage facilities still on the ancient site. And farms. The cash crop is horseradish – and more of that root comes from this region than anywhere else in the United States. Many mounds were eliminated by farmers who wanted fewer obstructions in their fields.

By the way, Monks Mound is that flat rise to the left of the sign, below.

Cahokia. City of the Sun. Once the largest city in what is now America. Now virtually unknown and unvisited.

Occasionally, on the summer solstice, I make a pilgrimage to the site. And certainly, anytime I am in the vicinity, I get off the interstate to walk the grounds. I become a viewser of the reality of this environment. The only things that are digital here are the records I make of my visit.

I find it humbling to think about what was here, about enterprises too big to fail, about plowed over land, lost forever sacred artifacts, and whether the residents of Cahokia had any warning signs that things were starting to slip away – or did it all just go at once.

One winter, was there just no firewood? Or food?

Did they have a chance to change their lifestyle before they were forced to abandon the City of the Sun?


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