Before Europeans began their systematic colonization of North America in the 1500s, huge populations of Native Americans thrived on the continent.

Some historians estimate that the population of people living in the Americas before Europeans arrived was upwards of 100 million, which is pretty impressive considering the population of Europe at that time was only around 70 million.

There were hundreds of different Native American Tribes, each with their own unique culture and way of life, and over a thousand different languages were spoken across the continents. Many of them lived together in communities, some of which were quite large.

The city of Teotihuacan, for instance, had up to 200,000 people in it during its peak at around 450 CE. In North America, there was a city now known as Cahokia, which lies directly across the Mississippi River from St. Louis.

With a peak population of up to 40,000 people at around 1050 CE, it was the largest city in North America at that time, bigger even than many European cities, including London.

The birth of a city

Cahokia, as we think of it today, was first settled in 600 CE, although there is evidence to suggest that the area was occupied many centuries before.

The city was at its peak between the years 1050 and 1200, however, its population soon began to decline, and the city was completely abandoned just two centuries later.

Some historians believe this was due to soil exhaustion, that it became agriculturally incapable of supporting the number of people that lived there. Frequent flooding likely contributed to this, leading Cahokia to become uninhabitable.

Cahokia itself was established by Mississippians, a people who were mostly forgotten due to their lack of writing system and their susceptibility to the diseases brought over by Europeans. One thing we do know is that Mississippians were mound builders. At its peak,

The city was home to more than 100 mounds, which acted as centers for religious activities. They functioned both as burial sites for prominent individuals, and as places to perform sacrifices.

One such mound, creatively named Mound 72, holds the remains of almost 300 people, many of whom were sacrificed. Mound 72 is also on the site containing a “wood henge,” which as the name suggests, is an arrangement of wood similar to the stones in Stonehenge.

More than meets the eye

Of course, Cahokia wasn’t just a collection of mounds and wood. Although cities from a millennium ago would have looked very different to the cities of today, there were likely still some similarities.

Dr. Kristin Hedman, assistant director of Bioarchaeology with the Illinois State Archaeological Survey (ISAS) describes some of the features one might have seen in ancient Cahokia.

“There were large plazas that would have served as gathering places, market areas, and workshop areas for the manufacture of utilitarian objects, ornaments, and ritual items,” Hedman said. “Large scale events did take place –- likely tied to celestial events, and political or religious in nature. These likely would have been visible to the larger community and were, in that sense, theatrical. ”

The people of Cahokia didn’t just come from a single tribe, either. It was an incredibly diverse community, particularly for its time period. By analyzing the tooth enamel from humans long ago buried at the site, researchers found that about one-third of the people were non-local, indicating there was a substantial immigrant population.

They also traded extensively with other tribes. Materials such as exotic seashells from the Pacific, shark teeth from the Gulf Coast, and copper from the Great Lakes have all been found at the site, suggesting their trade networks extended vast distances in every direction.

Dr. Scott Manning Stevens, associate professor of Native American and Indigenous Studies at Syracuse University, explains how they also influenced other tribes culturally.

“They did leave pictographic evidence, and there are certain symbols that remain unknown to us to this day,” he said. “That’s how we can trace their influence; we’ll find pictographs of some kind of divine figure, and we’ll find the same representation of this divinity as far north as northern Wisconsin and as far south as Georgia, so we know they had a large cultural impact.”

Cahokia
Monks Mound is the largest prehistoric earthen construction in the Americas, containing an estimated 22 million cubic feet of earth with a base covering more than 14 acres. (Daniel Acker for The Washington Post via Getty Images).

When they weren’t busy trading or making sacrifices, some of the inhabitants of Cahokia might have participated in a popular Native American sport known as chunkey, which is a sort of a cross between lawn bowling and javelin throwing.

The game involves throwing a disc-shaped stone, known as a “chunkey stone,” onto a playing field, while players throw spears at it in an attempt to land them as close as possible to the stone. Onlookers would often gamble on the outcome of these matches.

Much of what we know about the ancient metropolis comes from archaeological finds since no evidence of any written records seems to exist.

Hedman explains how we can use various techniques to learn about places like Cahokia:

“From archaeological features we can determine how large their houses and other buildings were, what they were constructed from, and what kinds of internal features they had, such as hearths/fire pits, benches, and posts.

By mapping where features are relative to one another we can reconstruct household and community structure – where were storage pits relative to house structures? Were particular types of structures or features clustered together which might indicate specialized areas of a site? Is there evidence for palisades or fortifications that might indicate the community faced an outside threat?”

She adds that: “Different types of artifacts might have different distribution patterns across a site. For example, fragments of cooking vessels might be very common inhabitation features/houses, while more ornate vessels and exotic shell ornaments might be more common in mortuary contexts. Food remains to provide information not only on what plant and animal resources were available and utilized as food, but tell us something about seasons of occupation, hunting practices, and food preferences.

“In the case of Cahokia, maize (corn) agriculture was important in feeding the large population, and we see evidence for this in the plant remains, the types of cooking vessels and processing implements, and agricultural tools recovered. We have even found remnants of textiles that show how baskets, bags, twine, etc. were constructed,” she concludes.

Unfortunately, sometimes the motives of present-day humans can hinder our efforts to learn about our past.

“These mounds were found throughout parts of the Midwest, and a lot of them were simply plowed under by farms,” Stevens explains. “In terms of archaeological evidence, sometimes it was plundered during the early republic, but as often as not people thought ‘I don’t want that mound in my field,’ so they’d plow it down.

Even Cahokia itself at one point in the 1950s was in threat of the same thing when they wanted to build an interstate through the site.

In 1982 Cahokia became a UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of just 11 cultural heritage sites in the USA. There are still 69 human-made mounds at the site, including Monks Mound, the largest pre-Columbian earthwork in the Americas.

But Cahokia isn’t the only lingering example of the rich communities formed by some Native American tribes.

Stevens puts it best when he states: “We’re so trained in American history to think of Native people of this continent as either nomadic or living in temporary villages and so on, but this is just not the case. There are a variety of effigy mounds around the Midwest. Those things are still there as evidence of the complexity of culture, and also the length of occupation that these people have been there.”

A deeper dive: Related reading on the 101