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November 9: Cahokia and Mississippian Culture


From about 800 CE to 1600 CE, the banks of the Mississippi River near St. Louis were home to a flourishing great civilization known as Mississippian, which stretched from the Southeast as far as Georgia to the Midwest. The explosion in village population was literally nourished by the mixed cultivation of corn, beans, and squash known as “three-sister” agriculture, augmented by abundant game in the forests and rivers which anchored individual settlements. Food production at one point may have supported as many as 40,000 people around Cahokia alone, with their ability to support specialized trades, artisans, and religious leadership peaking around1100 CE. Satellite towns usually covered around 10 square acres, surrounded by wooden pickets. Thanks to a moderate climate, the people who lived here lived outdoors, only sleeping in their wood framed, cane-mat covered houses in winter.


Religion and social hierarchies structured daily life once the fear of want receded. The great towns centered around ceremonial mounds that could reach 100 feet high, and thus the other name for the Mississippian culture is “Moundbuilders.” Large mounds were the location of homes for the elite ruling and religious classes. Smaller mounds were usually burial sites for more common folk. There is much speculation as to what caused the decline of Cahokia: diseases racing ahead of European settlers, carried by trade? Too much agricultural development creating erosion? No one is certain. But by the time Europeans really began making their homes here, Cahokia was largely abandoned and its culture scattered.


At one time, the greatest Moundbuilder settlement covered both sides of the Mississippi River from what is now St. Louis to Cahokia in Illinois, along the New Madrid fault. To this day, one of the nicknames for St. Louis is “Mound City” due to the prevalence of ceremonial mounds (estimated to be at least 40 in all) when the French arrived in the late 17th century. The main complex of mounds in the city of St. Louis is now the Convention center complex. Some of the mounds within Forest Park’s boundaries were finally leveled for the 1904 World’s Fair. The only partial mound that still remains on the west side of the Mississippi is Sugar Loaf Mound, located in south St. Louis city in the Dutchtown area north and east of Carondelet. Ironically, the mound has been saved from further destruction by the Osage Nation, which purchased the mound in 2009.


Educational sites of interest related to the Mississippian period in the Diocese include, of course, Cahokia Mounds in Illinois and the New Madrid Historical Museum in New Madrid.



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