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Prehistoric urban blight? Can 40,000 people live harmoniously within six square miles?

During the years A.D. 700-1500, a metropolis of that size existed in the American Bottoms between present-day East St. Louis and Collinsville. The people inhabited 120 sites, planted crops, and traded with tribes as far away as Mexico.

They built a stockade around their settlement, a "woodhenge" to calculate a calendar, and the largest man-made earthen structure in the world - a temple mound.


By the time white men arrived the mound builders were gone, leaving no written record and no man who remembered their name.

Four centuries later, a preliminary dig by the University of Illinois recovered the first artifacts from the mounds. In 1925 the state of Illinois acquired 650 acres (Cahokia Mounds State Park); but the site was considered primarily a recreation area, and no serious excavation work took place until 1961.

What the archaeologists discovered left more questions than answers. The ancient people were designated Temple Mound II, Mississipian Culture, people who lived by agriculture and trade. Their ceremonial building (temple? home? priest's lodge?) was atop the main mound. They threw human bones in their garbage pits (cannibalism?) and practiced rituals which included the burial of 53 young women and four headless, handless men with the body of a chief.? priest? king? Whatever his rank, this dead man lay at rest on a blanket of 20,000 shell beads, with a copper staff and 700 arrows near at hand.

Between A.D. 900-1200, the Temple Mound II people, in 14 separate constructions, carried 21,650,000 cubic feet of earth to form a platform mound 1080 feet long and 710 feet wide. When Trappist Monks came to the area in 1803, they planted fruit trees on the terraced side of the mound, so that it became known as Monks Mound; but the people who built it were gone - vanished for no known reason sometime in the 16th or 17th century. The original use of the mound remained a mystery.

While the mounds slept, a new urban blight grew up around them. St. Louis today is barely visible through the smog, and railroad ties hold back erosion of the now-treeless Monks Mound. Twenty-five mounds have been destroyed by land developers and highways; and plans to enlarge the park and protect the buried civilization call for the purchase of Grandpa's Discount Store, Mounds Park Subdivision, Mounds Mobile Homes, Kreider Truck Co., the Falcan Drive-in, and a gas station - which now occupy the site.

The mounds that remain have changed little. Today's diggers and dirt carriers are archaeologists, but the mysterious mounds themselves continue to attract ceremonials. Now on summer nights amateur Indian dancers climb the steep path up the mound, bringing the drumming and chants of the Iroquois and Mandan to join the ghosts of the vanished peoples of Cahokia Mounds.


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