On enormous plazas, throngs jostled for space. Drinks that were buzzy and caffeinated were handed from hand to hand. As sportsmen launched spears and stones, the crowd yelled bets. And the Cahokians feasted lavishly: investigators digging into their ancient waste pits discovered 2,000 deer carcasses from a single blowout event. It must have been a logistical nightmare.
Cahokia, now a peaceful Unesco site, is calmer these days. However, the presence of massive earthen mounds there suggests the presence of the greatest pre-Columbian city north of Mexico. Cahokia, a cosmopolitan whirl of language, art, and spiritual ferment, may have swelled to 30,000 people at its peak in 1050 AD, making it larger than Prussia at the time.
What’s surprising about Cahokia is what it didn’t have, writes Annalee Newitz in their new book Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age. The vast city lacked a permanent marketplace, which contradicted long-held beliefs that trade is the driving force behind all urbanization.
“Cahokia was more of a cultural center than a commercial hub. It still perplexes me. ‘Where were they trading?’ I keep thinking. ‘Who was making money?’, says the narrator “According to Newitz. “They weren’t, to be sure. They didn’t build the room for that purpose.”
Newitz isn’t the only one who gets taken aback. According to archaeologist Timothy Pauketat, who has researched Cahokia for decades, assumptions that commerce is essential to urban life have long formed a Western understanding of the past.
He stated, “It’s undeniably a bias that influenced past archaeologists.” Researchers discovered evidence suggesting trade was the organizing force behind the rise of towns in Mesopotamia, and then applied the same lens to ancient cities all across the world. “This was regarded to be the foundation for all early cities. It’s led to generations of people hunting for similar items all over the place “Pauketat said.
They didn’t discover it in Cahokia, which Pauketat says was designed as a crossroads between the living and the dead. “Water is this barrier between the realm of the living and the world of the dead,” Pauketat observed of numerous cultures with origins in ancient Cahokia. Cahokia, which strewn across a landscape of solid dirt and swampy parts, may have served as a spiritual crossroads.
Pauketat explained, “It’s a city created to straddle water and dry land.” Living people moved to the driest areas, while burial mounds grew in the wetter areas.
Elevated causeways linking the “neighborhoods” of the living and the dead, physical walkways that literally connected the realms, were discovered during Lidar scans of the site.
And, while living on the edge of two worlds sounds bleak, Cahokians appear to have viewed their hometown as a happy place. Cahokia’s planners constructed structures and public areas devoted solely to mass meetings, locations where individuals would be carried up by the ecstasy of collective experiences, according to Newitz in Four Lost Cities.
The 50-acre Grand Plaza, where 10,000 or more people could gather for celebrations in a gigantic arena bordered by earthen pyramids, was the most spectacular of them.
“It’s difficult to convey the magnitude, grandeur, and multi-dimensionality of an event like that,” Pauketat remarked. Food and drink would be transported for days into the city, where a phalanx of cooks would feed those arriving for the celebrations. Shared feasts were created from stockpiles of wild game, berries, fruits, and vegetables. Visitors would sleep in makeshift shelters or friends’ homes before traveling to the plaza for dances, blessings, and other festivities.
When fans gambled on bouts of chunkey, the plaza’s buzzing energy evolved into a collective shout. When a participant rolled a stone disk across the smooth surface of the earth, the game began. Hundreds of sportsmen launched their spears despite the fact that the stone continued to bounce and roll. Like a gigantic game of bocce with deadly projectiles, the winner was the one whose spear stuck closest to the chunky stone.