Anyone who traveled up the Mississippi in 1100 A.D. would have seen it looming in the distance—a four-level earthen mound bigger than the Great Pyramid of Giza. Around it like echoes were as many as 120 smaller mounds, some topped by tall wooden palisades, which were in turn ringed by a network of irrigation and transportation canals; carefully located fields of maize; and hundreds of red-and-white-plastered wood homes with high-peaked, deeply thatched roofs like those on traditional Japanese farms. Located near the confluence of the Missouri, Illinois, and Mississippi Rivers, the Indian city of Cahokia was a busy port. Canoes flitted like hummingbirds around its waterfront: traders bringing copper and mother-of-pearl from faraway places; hunting parties bringing such rare treats as buffalo and elk; emissaries and soldiers in long vessels bristling with weaponry; workers ferrying wood from upstream for the ever hungry cookfires; the ubiquitous fishers with their nets and clubs. Covering five square miles and housing at least fifteen thousand people, Cahokia was the biggest concentraion of people north of the Rio Grande until the eighteenth century.
Away from the riverside, Cahokia was hardly less busy and imposing. Its focal point was the great mound—Monks Mound, it is now called, after a group of Trappists who lived nearby in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Around its sides rushed a flow of men, their body paint and tattoos obscured by dust from the hardened, brick-like mud that lay underneath the entire city. Some built new mounds or maintained the old; others hauled wood for fuel and houses or carried water in leather pouches or weeded the maize fields with stone hoes. Women carried stacks of woven mats, baskets of fish and produce, yowling children. Cooksmoke chimneyed to the sky. Standards made of painted animal skins flapped everywhere. Anyone who has visited Siena or Venice knows how surprisingly noisy a city without engines can be. At peak times, given the right wind conditions, Cahokia must have been audible for miles.
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