Little more than a millennium ago, a vast metropolis now known as Cahokia dominated the ancient Mississippian floodplain. Back then, it was the capital city of a North American Empire that stretched as far as the eye could see in every direction on the continent. The settlement was strategically located between Lake Michigan and the Gulf of Mexico, as well as at the confluence of the Missouri, Illinois, and Mississippi rivers.
It all began around the year 900 when the climate started to get a bit warmer and wetter than it had been. This made the Mississippi floodplain very lush by 1000 of the common era. It also made it possible to grow thousands of tons of corn all year round, so the fertile land drew in Native Americans from far and wide. The plentiful supply of resources then led to sustained population growth for generations on end.
When Europe was in the Dark Ages, Cahokia was bigger than London, Paris, or Rome. With more than 20,000 inhabitants during the peak years, the vast city covered an area of six square miles in total. This was a metropolis of unprecedented size, with an incredibly extensive trading network. It was the center of everything from the old towns of Aztalan to Feltus and Spiro to Ocmulgee, containing the entire Mississippian culture.
This was engineering done on a whole new scale in North America. The centralized stepped pyramid alone was a hundred feet tall, and there were dozens of mounds across the land. Every layer was made up of little piles of earth brought in one small load at a time. This required about 50 million cubic feet of soil in total.
A massive labor force toiled away quarrying with flint stone hoes, day in and day out. The workers then carried fifty pounds of material at a time in woven baskets from one place to another. The project went on this way for decades before the site was finally complete, near the turn of the first millennium. These were amazing 10th century engineers with incredible know-how.
If the earthen mounds had been made entirely of dirt they would have all washed away. So, clay from the wetlands was brought in first. The base of Monks Mound alone is a core of clay 20 feet high, 650 ft long, and 900 feet wide. This provides the structure with a very stable foundation, so long as it is kept moist enough not to crack. To do this the Native Americans had to build up soil buttresses against the clay. In this way layers of coarse and fine grain material serve as a sponge drawing groundwater up and rainwater down into the mound.
The temple atop Monks Mound was central to Native American life, which was part of a lunar based society. So, like many prehistoric sites, the architecture lined up with specific astronomical phenomena. The main difference here was that the city was not set up in perfect North-South alignment. Instead, the complex was built along a specific axis in honor of the Moon, making it five degrees off from the classic angle of other ancient engineers.
The unique orientation was a result of lunar-based, as opposed to solar-based celebrations, which were common in the rest of the ancient world. The entire city was orientated toward an eighteen year lunar cycle. In this way the Native Americans were able to track the movement of the Moon to give them more accuracy. That is to say that the city complex was a cosmic clock that allowed them to tell time far more precisely than anyone else could.
As part of this, like Native Europeans, the Native Americans built their own particular version of woodhenge. This not only helped them grow better crops, but also gave them a much needed connection with the spirit world. In this way, Cahokia served as the main religious temple in North America a millennium ago. Thousands upon thousands of people would gather at the sacred space during all the major festivals of the age.
As was true of most, if not all ancient religions, drug use was an essential part of worship. However, rather than drinking coffee or cocoa like one might expect, the Mississippians produced tea from the leaves of the yaupon holly bush instead. This substance was easily as potent as coffee and also an emetic. This was very important to shamans because the vomiting was seen as a form of spiritual purging. The drug was so vital in fact that they had leaves imported from a couple hundred miles away.
Of course, not only would pilgrims travel from all over the continent to indulge in the exotic brew, priests would also perform human sacrifices at the ceremonies. Beginning around the year 1050, girls between the ages of 15 and 25 became victims of ritualized murder. Sometimes dozens of young women were even killed at the same time. Either way, in total hundreds of females were willingly put to death to commemorate the gods at the height of the city’s success.
Then, by the middle of the 12th century the peaceful Native Americans began to engage in battle with one another when the climate changed for the worse. Annual droughts quickly led to mass starvation and in order to protect the people of Cahokia from the surrounding settlements it became necessary to construct a wall around the city. This led to increased civil war and by the year 1300 the population had plummeted severely. So, after enough people had finally abandoned the once fertile valley, Cahokia became a ghost town.