(Dis)remembered Cities

Ancient Indigenous Urbanism at Chaco and Cahokia

by Robert Weiner

Illustration by Peggy Shi

published March 4, 2016

There is a hushed-up story of Native North America, of vast civilizations of enormous complexity and knowledge that spanned this continent before the arrival of European colonizers. This story, absent from the consciousness of most Americans, tells of the monumental Native American city of Cahokia that now lies beneath St. Louis, once home to twenty thousand people and adorned with hundreds of earthen pyramids. It speaks to us, through finely-crafted multistory stone walls still standing in the deserts of the American Southwest, of pilgrimage sites built at Chaco Canyon in commemoration of intricate cycles of sun and moon. And it speaks of how the Native inhabitants of this continent faced, struggled with, and responded to many of the same issues that plague societies today.

Our ignorance of the past is selective. Certain civilizations of antiquity, particularly the Romans and Greeks, anchor the American sense of history and identity. State and national capitol buildings take the form of ancient Mediterranean exemplars, upholding an imagined tradition that begins in Athens and ends in Washington D.C. Yet even the most extraordinary accomplishments of the Indigenous civilizations of this continent remain unseen and unremembered. This is due, in part, to the fact that ancient North Americans did not develop a written language—but they didn’t need to. Their history was meticulously preserved in oral traditions and stories, and physically present in the form of ancestral sites and artifacts left behind by prior generations. However, many of the material traces of ancient North America were obliterated through colonial practices—and, disconcertingly, many sites continue to face increasing threats today.

The attempted erasure of ancient North America was aided by two frameworks used to describe Native Americans since the 1600s: the “noble savage” and the “savage savage”. Early colonizers and their heirs perpetuated the notion of a continent of savage savages, bloodthirsty Stone Age barbarians with infantile mental capacities and no science or sophistication. Once Native Americans were no longer seen as a threat, these same colonists began to see the noble savage, simple and at one with nature, unbothered by the squabbles plaguing “civilized” Europeans. The real story of Chaco and Cahokia defies both of these types: the ancient inhabitants of North America were urban planners and skilled farmers, visionary architects and astute scientists, powerful and subjugated, and ultimately resilient in the face of hardship. 

Archaeological research as shared in documentaries, school curricula, outreach programs, Native-run tribal museums, and other outlets has the potential to disseminate the stories of ancient North America civilizations that so often go untold. This is one version of that hushed-up history.


City on the Mississippi 

Cahokia’s first residents situated their settlement along the Mississippi River on a piece of earth now called St. Louis. By 1000 CE, it was an urban center of staggering scale. Thousands of sprawling residential structures, immense plazas, and some two-hundred smaller pyramids and earthen mounds defined the urban environment of this Native American metropolis. Modern St. Louis, where concrete streets and buildings now entomb most of Cahokia, did not match it in area or population until the mid-1800s. The ancient inhabitants constructed enormous earthen pyramids that towered above the fertile ground, reaching toward the heavens. The largest of these, Monks Mound, stood 100 feet tall and covered an area equal to that of the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt.

At times of ceremony, people gathered in a Grand Plaza the size of fifty football fields, feasted on corn grown in the fertile soils of the Mississippi, and drank the Black Drink—a beverage, brewed from the leaves and bark of holly plants that sent minds buzzing with caffeine and induced vomiting as a purificatory prelude to ritual activity. 

The sky-watchers of Cahokia understood, venerated, and marked the movement of heavenly bodies in their architecture and urban planning. The entire city grid is oriented consistently 5° off of north, and various mounds oriented to commemorate the shifting positions of the sun and moon throughout the year. At Cahokia, public works projects coordinating thousands of people, agricultural prowess, caffeinated ceremonies, community-wide feasts, and knowledge of astronomy combined to form a society by no means “uncivilized” or “savage.” 

The people of ancient Cahokia grappled with their environment and with the use and abuse of power much as we do today. Recent scientific work used strontium isotope analysis of teeth to discover that nearly one-third of the city’s population were immigrants from across the Midwest. Some archaeologists now suggest that the downfall of Cahokia may have been due in large part to social tension arising from 20,000 people of diverse ethnic, cultural, religious, and linguistic backgrounds attempting to live together in a densely packed area. The city’s challenges remind us that the image of enlightened, peaceful astronomers is neither accurate nor helpful.  

Social inequality was also a grim reality in ancient Cahokia. The burial of a forty-year old man atop 20,000 seashells organized in the shape of a falcon strongly indicate his high status in comparison to the city’s commoners. Accompanying his burial were pits filled with the bodies of sacrificial victims, many of whom were women. Eventually, Cahokia’s struggles with ethnic tension and social inequality were further stressed by the onset of drought and climate change. Sound familiar? 


A Desert Capital 

While Cahokians constructed pyramids, the people of Chaco Canyon in New Mexico were simultaneously constructing Pueblo Bonito: four stories high, containing 800 rooms, and the largest building in North America until the 1800s. But even more impressive than architecture, perhaps, was the ability of indigenous Southwestern peoples to coax an abundance of corn, beans, and squash from a harsh land of little rain. In a time when, for most of us, food comes from the supermarket, it is all too easy to forget the marvel that is planting, tending, and growing one’s own subsistence—especially in a rain-starved desert.

 Like in Cahokia, knowledge of astronomy played a major role in the Chaco culture, tied to agricultural cycles and more esoteric endeavors. The Chacoans carved a spiral petroglyph known as the Sun Dagger atop a sandstone butte that uses light markings to mark the movement of the sun and moon throughout the year on the same carving. Many of Chaco’s Great Houses were also built with orientations to the cardinal directions and extreme positions of the moon in an elegant and symmetrical pattern of alignments that stretches for miles. True scientists of the sky who communicated their knowledge across generation using oral tradition.

Stored inside of the walls of Pueblo Bonito was a cache of rare artifacts imported from the jungles of Mesoamerica far to the south. Tinkling bright bells of copper, conch shells used as trumpets, and brilliantly-colored, speaking scarlet macaws; all of them carried on foot from Toltec and Maya lands to the open deserts of New Mexico. Chacoans also consumed frothed beverages made from imported chocolate that, like the Cahokians’ Black Drink, stimulated the mind. 

Equipped with these material manifestations that proved their connection with the divine, Chaco’s religious leaders rule over a vast constituency twice the size of Ireland. Chaco-style Great House buildings were constructed in more humble farming communities throughout the American Southwest seemingly overnight. Members of these villages would periodically gather in Chaco Canyon for ceremonies. During these gatherings, people exchanged pottery and corn grown in their communities to participate in bedazzling, sensuous rituals of somatic and cerebral stimulation—cacao percolating between vessels for frothing that evoked the bubbling of life-bringing springs and rain, copper bells glimmering in the sunlight, the bellow of conch shells echoing off the canyon walls, and iridescent macaws squawking words and names. 

The power wielded by Chaco’s elites was immense, and like Cahokia, Chaco had its sinister side. While most members of society lived in small scale single story residences on one side of the canyon, a few privileged and healthier individuals lived inside the monumental, astronomically aligned Great Houses themselves. The oral traditions of the Pueblo and Navajo people speak of the abuse of power at Chaco, resulting in societal rot that threatened the very core of their culture, identity, and way of life. Eventually, it seems, when rains ceased to come and the ceremonial leaders’ power began to wane, the people of Chaco stood up against the unequal society that had developed. Before leaving, they purposefully sealed the doorways and windows of Great Houses, an act now seen as a deliberate symbolic expression denouncing the Chacoan lifestyle of hierarchy and the abuse of power.

After leaving Chaco, the Ancestral Puebloans (formerly known as the Anasazi) underwent a chaotic transitionary period of violence and drought that ultimately resulted in largescale migrations south to the Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico. This is where the descendants of ancient Chacoans, today’s Pueblo Indians, settled and fundamentally reorganized their society—in response, some suggest, to the trauma of inequality and exploitation at Chaco. This reorganization of society saw the establishment of a more communal way of living that emphasizes collective benefit of the group over individual aggrandizement. The new ways of social organization developed by Pueblo people after leaving Chaco have allowed them to sustain their language and culture and to resist 500 years of colonialism to a degree unparalleled in the United States. A powerful story, but one that rarely reaches a larger audience.


The Cover-Up

How is it that these pieces of Native North American history remain so unknown? The answer lies in colonial practices of historical erasure that live on—and must be resisted—today.

When European settlers in the Midwest first encountered the platform mounds of Cahokia and other ancestral Native peoples, they frantically sought to deprive the North Americans of their humanity and heritage by insisting that Native Americans had not built them. Over the following centuries, Euro-Americans advanced a nonsensical list of more credible constructors—Israelites, Romans, Greeks, Phoenicians, Hindus, Vikings, Celts—such that nearly any of the Old World societies seen as a forebear to the Euro-American tradition was a candidate for the “lost civilization” of mound-builders. Likewise, the archaeological sites of the Southwest were attributed to the high Maya and Aztec civilizations of Mesoamerica. The Maya and Aztecs, unlike inhabitants of Cahokia and Chaco, were assisted in their political, architectural, and mathematical endeavors by the use of a written language. This set them, in the eyes of the colonizers, one step closer to the Old World civilizations, and one step further from savage.

Archaeological research eventually swayed public opinion towards accepting Native Americans as the builders of sites throughout the developing Republic. But our modern day ignorance of these ancestral Indigenous North American sites perpetuates the same colonialist attitudes that refused to recognize the accomplishments of Native American peoples. This forgetting is a direct result, and a strategy, of conquest and subjugation. Popular media outlets like Ancient Aliens that seek alternative, extraterrestrial explanations to the accomplishments of the past are only the latest iteration in a long line of attempts at dehumanization. 

In the Midwest, the evidence was destroyed through the building of cities. Most Cahokian mounds were leveled and demolished to make way for burgeoning St. Louis, a process echoed in countless sites throughout the region. While some remains of Cahokia are preserved within a state park, most of the remaining traces of the ancient Mississippian culture lie covered by the urban sprawl of modern American cities. Occasionally, a mound still can be seen rising along a highway, but few recognize such nondescript hills as traces of a remarkable civilization. Archaeological research has begun to revive awareness of Cahokia’s story. The history presented here heavily indebted by the scholarship and insights of Tim Pauketat, Steve Lekson, Scott Ortman, Randy McGuire, and Anna Sofaer, who have worked to bring this knowledge to the fore. But in a contemporary culture that regards the ancient past as irrelevant, the attempt often falls on deaf ears. 

The traces of Chaco’s past scattered across the Southwest are currently in danger of being destroyed by fracking. The Bureau of Land Management has announced plans to lease 6.2 million acres of land surrounding Chaco Canyon for fracking with the potential to damage and destroy hundreds of Chaco buildings and roads. Many of these sites have never been documented or excavated, and Pueblo people, archaeologists, environmental activists, and other concerned voices have banded together to stand up against this act of erasure. Like the leveling of Cahokia’s mounds, fracking in the San Juan Basin has the dire potential to further obliterate the Chaco culture from our collective memory, and, perhaps worst of all, to obliterate the sites that physically anchor the oral traditions of the today’s Pueblo people to their ancestors.

The story of ancient Native North Americans shared here—a history of achievement, intellect, social strife, and survival strategies—smashes to bits the picture of primitive, at-one-with-Nature Indians we are fed in grade school. It is an archaeological and cultural heritage that needs to be protected and preserved so that the remarkable past of Native American peoples remains written, not solely in words, but on the landscape; a history book of stone, earth, and pottery fragments that proclaim the millennia of birth, life, death—and ultimately hope—in Indigenous America.


ROBERT WEINER B’16 looks for stories in the landscape.