Cahokia: The massive North American city that pre-dated Columbus

Originally published at: Cahokia: The massive North American city that pre-dated Columbus | Boing Boing


Located in Illinois, across the river from St. Louis and a few miles east/north on I-55. DO take a guided tour if you ever visit, and be sure to bring some mosquito repellant!


Yeah, there is A LOT of archaeological research that still needs to be done. I remember watching something about holes in limestone in Florida that turned out to be post anchors for stilted huts in a village.

Native history is rich, varied, and way more complex than what is portrayed in media - and I only know a little bit of it.


This seems like a good time to remind that Columbus never set foot in North America. He’s celebrated because Italian Catholic community leaders dug through history books to find anyone of note to be a hero for their immigrant population. Then, following a massacre of said group, President Harrison declared a holiday for this guy they were rallying around to get their votes and ease tensions.

Everything Americans are taught about their own history is a lie.


Americans don’t reckon with history well,

Now Thom, what in the world makes you say that, I wonder aloud.



Are you a Vampire?


Reading Charles C. Mann’s amazing 1491 was the first I learned of Cahokia. How many US citizens really understand that under their very feet lie centuries of lost history, entire cultures that were erased.


What? Next I suppose you’ll be claiming that Amerigo Vespucci didn’t get here first! /s



Typical US history curriculums might acknowledge that Aztecs and Incans had some pretty cool cities. But there’s certainly no mention of any city-like structures in the modern-day United States.

I take your overall point that American Indian history doesn’t get the attention it should, but the statement about curriculums is a bit misleading. There is no “typical” curriculum at the P-12 level.

There are a few sets of national curriculum standards for social studies, including the National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies ((NCSS), College, Career, and Civic Life Framework for Social Studies State Standards (C3), National Council for History in the Schools (NCHS) and the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), which focus on literacy. States then devise their own Social Studies standards, often using one of these as a reference point. The national standards are very vague–intentionally so–in order to allow states the leeway to cover things relevant to their own states. For example, the NCHS standards for Pre-Columbian Americas has things like “Draw upon data provided by archaeologists and geologists to explain the origins and migration from Asia to the Americas and contrast them with Native Americans’ own beliefs concerning their origins in the Americas.” (Grades 5-12) and “Explain the common elements of Native American societies such as gender roles, family organization, religion, and values and compare their diversity in languages, shelter, labor systems, political structures, and economic organization.” (Grades 9-12).

State standards (despite the occasional bout of “why aren’t you teaching George Washington?” furor from the right) are similarly vague. So in Illinois, home to Cahokia, you have “SS.H.1.9-12. Evaluate how historical developments were shaped by time and place as well as broader historical contexts.” and “SS.H.7.9-12. Identify the role of individuals, groups, and institutions in people’s struggle for safety, freedom, equality, and justice.” Or, in the Priority Learning Standards “SS.CV.4.6-8.MdC: Analyze the ideas and principles contained in the founding documents of the United States and other countries, and explain how they influence the social and political system.”. [One note: even within Illinois’ “Mandates” Cahokia does not appear, though the Irish Famine, Study of the History of Women," African American History, and a generic Native America Day all do. Maybe they have it somewhere in a state mandate that I certainly could have missed.]

Given that the history part of social studies is generally taught in the 4th or 5th grade (usually state history), 7th and/or 8th grade (generally US history), and 11th grade (usually world history), and that their are only so many hours in a school year, states make choices. So in California they don’t really cover the Pequot people if it’s going to have time to focus on local Native groups and the history of Mexico in relation to California History. Many teachers use the CIHC standards as a guide. Cahokia isn’t relevant to them.

So then the question is one of “what’s in the textbook, and what do teachers choose to use to meet the standards?” Despite some public handwringing, it’s not true that Texas or California controls textbook content because of their market. States can choose what they want, and publishers (in our digital era) can create a textbook that meets a state’s demands. Some choose another state’s customization (California is a common one). Most every K-12 and college textbook of which I am aware (and I’ve written 3 supplements, based on NCHS, CCSS, and C3 standards) does discuss Cahokia as an early example of North American Indian culture. Whether teachers cover it or not is quite another thing. In my own supplement we didn’t cover Cahokia for pre-Exploration, but instead had a section on “Life in a Pequot Village” alongside “Life in an African Village.” Choices.


HEY! Thanks for getting the word out about Cahokia! I really hope this drives more people to visit my favorite place in the United States.

I belong to their Museum Society and frequently give donations to their land reacquisition fund so they can bring more of the surrounding residential and commerical land back under historic site protection.


Cahokia is amazing. It’s also the site of Woodhenge.

ETA: Monk’s Mound, the largest mound, is much bigger than this photo suggests. I think this is just the upper pyramid.


This instahistory is cute and spurred me to do more research, kudos for that, but…

Abubakari II left Mali in 1311.

To say they traded with indigenous people is pure speculation.

He never claimed to discover America because he never returned from the voyage.


Visited there years ago when this visitor center was new. Pretty cool.

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It’s also worth noting that the culture that built Cahokia didn’t only build Cahokia and call it a day. There are a ton of other smaller mounds scattered all around the region, usually seen as a lone, peculiarly-round or -oval hill in a soybean field in MO, IL, KY, and TN.


Yeah, it’s true that there are better ways to say that Africans got to what became the Americas before Columbus did.


The mounds in north America were basically the equivalent of Aztec and Mayan pyramids. they just get less notice because, being made primarily of earth rather than stone, they didn’t last in the same way and could erode or be be bulldozed and turned into farms fields and parking lots.


Never taught this in school, only knew from family (as a Revolutionary War ancestor took his land grant at Mounds, IL).

I don’t recall it being in any text books, but I do remember being taught about the ancestral Puebloans who lived in the Chaco Canyon area and built their cities/towns in the cliff walls. IIRC, they abandoned the area in the 1100’s, due to a long period of drought, and I thought that the same period of drought led to the decline of the Mississippian culture and Cahokia along with it.

This guy popularized the myth.

Anthropologists and archeologists, are, to put it mildly, skeptical.

CA Forum on Anthropology in Public: Robbing Native American Cultures: Van Sertima’s Afrocentricity and the Olmecs

Although, Martin Bernal did come to Van Sertima’s defense.