In its prime, about four centuries before Columbus stumbled on to the western hemisphere, Cahokia was a prosperous pre-American city with a population similar to London’s.
Located in southern Illinois, eight miles from present-day St Louis, it was probably the largest North American city north of Mexico at that time. It had been built by the Mississippians, a group of Native Americans who occupied much of the present-day south-eastern United States, from the Mississippi river to the shores of the Atlantic.
Cahokia was a sophisticated and cosmopolitan city for its time. Yet its history is virtually unknown by most Americans and present-day Illinoisans. It is one of many stories that have been bypassed in favour of the shopworn narrative – reinforced in literature and a century of American cinema – of Native Americans as backward and primitive.
“A lot of the world is still relating in terms of cowboys and Indians, and feathers and teepees,” says Thomas Emerson, professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois. “But in AD1000, from the beginning, [a city is] laid on a specific plan. It doesn’t grow into a plan, it starts as a plan. And they created the most massive earthen mound in North America. Where does that come from?”