Science

New discoveries about 'sophisticated' Native American tribe that mysteriously vanished nearly 600 years ago unearthed in Illinois


A sprawling Native American city stretching six square-miles and home to roughly 20,000 people disappeared from the Mississippi river valley over 600 years ago.

And while the ‘Cahokia’ tribe mysteriously vanished, archaeologists have uncovered artifacts from the society that could provide clues about the group — their culture, language, and even their downfall are all still lost to history.

The team of university researchers recently discovered pottery, tools, like ‘micro-drills,’ and wall trenches at the Illinois site, dating back approximately 900 years.

Wood particles were also analyzed at the site as experts hypothesize the Cahokia cut down forests for their construction projects, which degraded the soil and may have caused flooding: an event that could have led to the tribe abandoning the city.

A team of university researchers recently discovered pottery (pictured), tools, like 'micro-drills,' and wall trenches at the Illinois site, which dates back approximately 900 years

A team of university researchers recently discovered pottery (pictured), tools, like ‘micro-drills,’ and wall trenches at the Illinois site, which dates back approximately 900 years

At their apex, this indigenous civilization had constructed an estimated 120 earthen mounds: the largest city north of Mexico prior to the arrival of European settlers (artist impression)

At their apex, this indigenous civilization had constructed an estimated 120 earthen mounds: the largest city north of Mexico prior to the arrival of European settlers (artist impression)

The excavation is being conducted by students from Saint Louis University (SLU) and neighboring colleges, who are working toward a career in archaeology.

Students dug out rectangular holes at the site, carefully shaving out dirt to uncover new discoveries while protecting this UNESCO designated World Heritage Site.  

Mary Vermilion, an associate professor and archaeology at SLU, told 5OnYourSide: ‘The structures that we’re finding here and the pottery that we’re finding here seem to date to the Sterling Phase of the Mississippian Period — which is approximately 1100 AD to 1200 AD — which is a critical point in the development of the chiefdom because it’s like the apex.’

The finds join hundreds of other sophisticated tools uncovered at the site, including shells and beads precision-drilled for various purposes, including as ‘conduits for human souls on their way to the afterlife,’ according to scholar Dr Laura Kozuch.  

Distinct from the Maya or Aztec people to the south, the Cahokia emerged in the Mississippi Valley over a thousand years ago, around 700 AD — in what is now the state of Illinois, across the river from the present day city of St. Louis, Missouri.

Above, an artist’s conception of the Cahokia Mounds Site. The illustration shows the large Monks Mound at the center of the site with the Grand Plaza to the south. The site includes land across the Mississippi River from present day St. Louis, Missouri in south-western Illinois 

While the 'Cahokia' tribe mysteriously vanished, archaeologists have uncovered artifacts from the society that could provide clues about the group - their culture, language, and even their downfall are still lost to history. Pictured is a tool found at the site

While the ‘Cahokia’ tribe mysteriously vanished, archaeologists have uncovered artifacts from the society that could provide clues about the group – their culture, language, and even their downfall are still lost to history. Pictured is a tool found at the site

The hundreds of microdrills and six cores in this picture were all surface collected many years ago by Gregory Perino on the Kunnemann tract on the Cahokia Mounds site in southern Illinois. The drilled shells and beads were all found on and near this same Mississippian site

The hundreds of microdrills and six cores in this picture were all surface collected many years ago by Gregory Perino on the Kunnemann tract on the Cahokia Mounds site in southern Illinois. The drilled shells and beads were all found on and near this same Mississippian site

At their apex, this indigenous civilization had constructed an estimated 120 earthen mounds: the largest city north of Mexico prior to the arrival of European settlers.

Many of the mounds might be better described as great pyramids, cornered square at the bottom and smoothed level at their highest points. 

Anthropologists believe these mounds — including the lost city’s largest, the 100-foot Monk Mound — served as high ground to elevate, honor and protect homes of the Cahokia’s civic leaders.

But by 1350 the society that build these impressive structures had vanished without explanation, just about a century before Columbus sailed into the Americas.

In addition to searching for artifacts, the SLU researchers teamed up with the US National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) to map key Cahokia sites via a ‘Light Detection and Ranging’ (LiDAR) aerial drone —  just like tech used in the spy agency’s official work.

‘The best part was applying our tradecraft in a way that is not the norm for us,’ as agency surveyor Stacy ‘Craig’ Ackermann put it, ‘in this case it was archaeology.’

At their apex, the Cahokia had constructed an estimated 120 earthen mounds: the largest city north of Mexico prior to the arrival of Europeans. Many of the mounds might be better described as great pyramids, cornered square at the bottom and smoothed level at the top

At their apex, the Cahokia had constructed an estimated 120 earthen mounds: the largest city north of Mexico prior to the arrival of Europeans. Many of the mounds might be better described as great pyramids, cornered square at the bottom and smoothed level at the top

Distinct from the Maya or Aztec people to the south, the Cahokia emerged in the Mississippi Valley over a thousand years ago, around 700 AD - in what is now the state of Illinois, across the river from present day St. Louis, Missouri (mapped above)

Distinct from the Maya or Aztec people to the south, the Cahokia emerged in the Mississippi Valley over a thousand years ago, around 700 AD – in what is now the state of Illinois, across the river from present day St. Louis, Missouri (mapped above)

The Cahokia Mounds aerial survey conducted flybys over more than 490 acres of the site, the largest single area that NGA has ever surveyed via drone with LiDAR technology. This data was also used to build a photogrammetric 3D foundational mesh model of Monks Mound (above)

The Cahokia Mounds aerial survey conducted flybys over more than 490 acres of the site, the largest single area that NGA has ever surveyed via drone with LiDAR technology. This data was also used to build a photogrammetric 3D foundational mesh model of Monks Mound (above)

Above, and aerial photograph of ancient Cahokia's major city landmark, Monks Mound

Above, and aerial photograph of ancient Cahokia’s major city landmark, Monks Mound

NGA and SLU also surveyed the wilderness outside the lost city’s known mounds, to determine whether more mounds or other viable archaeological sites might be hidden within the dense forests and marshlands surrounding Cahokia.

‘You can’t really even walk through some of that part,’ as the intelligence agency’s drone program manager, Philip ‘Casey’ Shanks, noted.

‘That’s why the UAS is the right tool for the job,’ according to Shanks, who works our of the agency’s Office of Geomatics.

The collaborative Cahokia Mounds aerial survey conducted flybys over more than 490 acres of the site, the largest single area that this air-based US spy agency has ever surveyed via drone with LiDAR technology.

LiDAR is a remote sensing tech that can measure the distances and contours of surfaces by beaming a laser at its target and analyzing the light reflected back.

The data collected was then used to build a photogrammetric 3D foundational mesh model of the ancient city’s most impressive landmark, the Monks Mound. 

‘There are a lot of questions about Cahokia’s past that can be answered by remote sensing and LiDAR data,’ said Justin Vilbig, a geospatial data scientist at the Taylor Geospatial Institute and the doctoral student at SLU leading the project.

‘This gives the full landscape — where features were in context with each other — and what were the priorities of the Cahokians,’ Vilbig said.

Above, a replica of a Cahokia style home

Above, a replica of a Cahokia style home

Above an NGA drone equipped with a Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) scanner perched for takeoff on a tarp within the Cahokia Mounds Historic Site in Illinois

Above an NGA drone equipped with a Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) scanner perched for takeoff on a tarp within the Cahokia Mounds Historic Site in Illinois

A total of 11 students studying anthropology, archeology, geological surveying and other related disciplines are participating in Vermilion’s Cahokia collaboration.

Each is bringing their own unique scholarly focus to the endeavor for the potential future drafting of a senior thesis.

‘I’m looking at wood usage,’ University of Vermont student Hal Nalamliang told local news. 

Nalamliang spent a month visiting SLU to work on the dig. 

‘There’s sort of a commonly accepted hypothesis that the people of Cahokia used a lot of wood from their area,’ as he explained his wood research, ‘and that caused degradation to the soil, which caused flooding.’

Gus Krussel, an undergraduate junior at LSU, said the experience of excavating the Cahokia site has already led him to want to become a professional archaeologist.  

‘You can learn a lot about past cultures doing this,’ Krussel said, ‘that’s what got me hooked.’

He added: ‘It’ll keep me in good shape, keep me active. I wouldn’t want a desk job.’

LiDAR remote sensing technology allows archaeologists to hunt for sites of interest from a distance

LiDAR (light detection and ranging) is a remote sensing technology that measures distance by shooting a laser at a target and analysing the light that is reflected back.

The technology was developed in the early 1960s and uses laser imaging with radar technology that can calculate distances.

It was first used in meteorology to measure clouds by the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

The term lidar is a portmanteau of ‘light and ‘radar.’

Lidar uses ultraviolet, visible, or near infrared light to image objects and can be used with a wide range of targets, including non-metallic objects, rocks, rain, chemical compounds, aerosols, clouds and even single molecules.

A narrow laser beam can be used to map physical features with very high resolution. 

This new technique allowed researchers to map outlines of what they describe as dozens of newly discovered Maya cities hidden under thick jungle foliage centuries after they were abandoned by their original inhabitants.

Aircraft with a Lidar scanner produced three-dimensional maps of the surface by using light in the form of pulsed laser linked to a GPS system. 

The technology helped researchers discover sites much faster than using traditional archaeological methods. 



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