Mysteries of the City of the Sun

Think of the wonders of ancient civilization, and chances are that images of Egyptian pyramids or Greek temples come to mind--not a long-lost metropolis beside the Mississippi River near what is now the city of St. Louis.

Long before Europeans first set foot in North America, Cahokia, the City of the Sun, reigned as the continent's largest and most culturally complex city for hundreds of years. At its peak, between 1100 and 1200 A.D., the city covered about six square miles and had some 20,000 inhabitants. Houses with thatched roofs were arranged in neat rows around public plazas. Cahokia's residents had to deal with crime, sewage disposal, and other problems that face today's city dwellers. Gigantic earthen mounds, many with temples on their peaks, were found throughout the city. The construction of these mounds--including Monks Mound, the biggest earthen structure in North America--took years of hard labor by members of a society that had a well defined social structure.

The City that Corn Built
You could say that Cahokia was built on corn--the main staple of the diet of those who lived in the ancient city. Throughout history in all parts of the world, cultures that have been dependent on hunting and gathering have not developed large cities and societies with members having specialized jobs or social roles--including that of the artist who created the sculpture from Cahokia at right. These developments have only occurred in places where people learned to grow crops or domesticate animals. Today's dominant civilizations all have grown from early agricultural societies with many similarities to the one that flourished in Cahokia.

Cahokia's mysterious end
No one knows for sure why Cahokia's reign as the most magnificent city in ancient North America eventually ended. To explore some of the ideas that archaeologiests are considering as possible causes for Cahokia's decline--and to learn more about this fascinating city--you can explore the Cahokia State Historic site web site (the source of the images on this page).

1. Why do you think that cities and more complex social structures tend to develop in agricultural societies and not in hunting and gathering societies?

2. Why do you think the banks of the Mississippi and other rivers are often sites for Native American burial and ceremonial mounds such as those found at Cahokia?

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