July 4, 2014
A star died in the constellation Taurus, in the Crab Nebula, one of only three star deaths ever recorded in the Milky Way. It glowed brightly for weeks, obliterating Venus, the Grandmother and the Grandfather star, in different Indian cultures. The “death” would be seen for years.
How do we know this? A Chinese astronomer witnessed the event and wrote it down. A New Mexican potter painted an image of the supernova on a pot. Missourian petroglyphs depicted the event. In Chaco Canyon, an enormous mural was created, showing the night sky on the date of the explosion, the mural representing the crescent moon, the death star and a human hand. And a city, whose population would swell to as many as 50,000 inhabitants, began to be built.
The thousand or so people living in small village of thatched huts, just south of the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, witnessed the event. Their response, to what must have seemed like a sign from the gods, was to build, over the next decades, the City of the Sun. We call it Cahokia Mounds.
Enormous platform mounds were erected over the top of the old village. Funerary and ceremonial and housing mounds (no tepees east of the Mississippi) and a giant mound for a king’s living quarters (still the largest earthen structure ever built in the New World) were built on the platforms. An enormous plaza was built below the king’s mound and a solstice wheel (Woodhenge) was erected to the west. Farming was conducted on a massive scale. Labor specialists made jewelry, clothing, armaments and tools.
The City of the Sun was the hub of a vast empire spreading to the east coast. Lewis and Clark, at the end of their expedition, would meet an Indian on the Pacific coast who told them he was from that ancient, now in ruins, city.
The explorers had seen those mounds when they were camped at the Wood River across from St. Louis. According to Landon Jones, Clark’s biographer, the men didn’t know what to make of the mounds. Nothing they discovered on the Voyage of Discovery would eclipse what they saw from their original camp.
Much faster than the years-long construction of their city, did the citizens disperse to other, less populated areas of the country. Archaeologists, decades ago used to refer to the city’s demise as a disappearance. Now we know that too many people in too confined a space, with the inherent problems of water pollution, sewage, deforestation, and food production (Rome, London, Paris) in a time when tools were fashioned from wood and stone and copper, could not survive.
Did enemies suddenly appear, perhaps from Central America? The Anasazi nation suffered that fate, cannibalized by unknown tribes and dispersing. We may never know entirely, what event or events happened at the City of the Sun to cause the great exodus.
William Clark became the first Indian agent in history, headquartered in St. Louis in historical times. Just before the Civil War, the mounds in that city were torn down and plundered by Clark’s colleagues to make room for the ironically nicknamed Mound City. The Illinois mounds were systematically plundered until but a few remained. The current Cahokia Mounds state monument is but a shadow of the former glory.
The remnant of the City of the Sun, the most important archaeological dig in the Americas, is one of 100 World Heritage sites. Its museum is world class. New discoveries are telling us more and more about the largest gathering of Indians in history.
Last night, I was at the Alton Fourth of July celebration. It was a perfect night. The crescent moon, once partnered with a supernova, was brilliantly highlighted by the pink-and purple-colored sunset. I joined Sheila S. and her self-proclaimed witches (of Halloween Parade fame). We stood on the shore and contemplated the Father of Waters.
Indians lived here since the Stone Age. Marquette and Joliet had passed by here. The Lewis and Clark Expedition started just south of where we stood. Abraham Lincoln fought a duel (no blood was shed) 200 feet from our spot. He debated Stephen Douglas just blocks away, preparing for the event in what is now the My Just Desserts restaurant. Escaped slaves by the hundreds walked where we stood. Mark Twain was here. Elijah Lovejoy sacrificed himself for the nation’s sin of slavery, right down the street. Miles Davis was born here.
Oh, the ghosts of the river, of the river town. Of the river’s bend, of the great mound city on the American Bottom.
Born on the Fourth of July.