One thousand years ago, Cahokia was the largest city north of Mexico. Twenty thousand people lived in in a complex urban environment in the wide fertile valley of the Mississippi/Missouri basin. They built mounds for ceremonial and functional use. The largest, Monk’s Mound, is one hundred feet tall and covers fourteen acres. It took twenty-two million cubic feet of earth, transported by Indians in backpacks, and three hundred years to complete. The Cahokia chief, communicator with the gods of the Upper and Lower Worlds to the inhabitants of the Middle World, lived atop this giant mound. Today, we can scale the 157 steps to the top and scan the immense basin for miles, all the way to Saint Louis’ Gateway Arch.
Early settlers to the area understood these were Indian Mounds, but preservation efforts didn’t begin until after Warren Moorehead spearheaded the first archeological study of Cahokia in 1921. He identified over 120 mounds, many of which had already been altered. He cajoled the state of Illinois to preserve a 144-acre track. By the 1960’s this grew to 2200 acres and in 1982, Cahokia was named a World Heritage Site. At this time, Cahokia State Historic Site includes 72 protected mounds. A non-profit group continues to purchase property to preserve additional mounds, much of it in platted subdivision of suburban Saint Louis.
Bill Iseminger came to work here in 1971 and never left. At that time there was a ranger station near Monk’s Mound that contained a few exhibits. Bill and others developed a museum that quickly outgrew that building. In 1989 the state opened the current interpretive center, which features a terrific introductory film and extensive background on the people of Cahokia and their world.
The State of Illinois, and Bill, would like Cahokia to be part of the National Park System. It could be a National Historic Site, which requires congressional designation. Or, it could be a National Monument, which can be created by Presidential decree. “We don’t know if Obama will do it before he leaves office. After all, he’s from Illinois.”
How will we live tomorrow?
“For the most part, pretty much as we do today. We’ll see changes in the environment and politics that will impact our lives, to various degrees. The conservative movements are expanding. There is more friction in the world. Technology has its influences. The more technology we have, the less practical our lives. Communication and the spread of knowledge is expanding, but we are losing personal communication.
“In archeology, technology offers many advantages. With remote detection we get better direction on where to dig. We have more advanced analytic techniques. Dating and DNA improve our interpretations. We can revisit former digs and learn more. Here at Mound 72, in the 1960’s we found mass ceremonial graves. Now we can analyze the bones of the remains and determine where the people were from, and their diet. We can analyze what food was cooked in a particular pot.
“Understanding the past helps to remove misconceptions about what Indians were. These people had a complex society. They had overpopulation and pollution. We think we learn from the past, but we often repeat our patterns.”