Their culture, religion and cities welded the American Southeast into a single mighty civilization. Meet the empire builders of medieval Missouri.

The Great Sun was dead. As a gray dawn broke over the city’s towering pyramids, a procession of mourning priests and nobles paraded through the courtyard, bearing gifts for their king’s tomb. A cadre of soldiers brought up the reair, dragging hundreds of slaves who knew they were marching to their deaths.

Mourners laid the Great Sun’s body to rest atop a great burial mound, surrounding his royal person with thousands of disc beads arranged in the shape of a falcon. Nobles offered their gifts: beads, shells, pots, and finely worked arrowheads imported from faraway lands. Priests howled laments, shook rattles and chanted prayers.

Then the human sacrifices began.

Mississippian ritual sacrifice by strangulation at the city of Cahokia
Ritual sacrifice by strangulation at the city of Cahokia

Some of the slaves died by blows; some by strangling – but many were thrown into the grave alive, clawing desperately in the mass of tangled bodies, while stone-faced soldiers covered them with sand and soil.

When all was finished, more than 250 young men and women had joined the Great Sun in the afterlife.

Who were these ambitious, wealthy, undeniably cruel city-builders? Where did they come from, and how did they create such a vast empire?

A chief of the Mississippian people at Cahokia
A chief of the Mississippian people at Cahokia

In truth, the people who witnessed the sacrifice that day were not a single tribe, but a confederation of peoples from throughout the American Southeast: groups like the Natchez, Pensacola, Choctaw, Ofo, and others.

Some had walked many days to attend this funeral. Others were permanent residents in this great city of Cahokia.

For more than 200 years (c. 1100 to 1300 CE), these wealthy traders – known today as the Mississippian civilization – knitted the American Southeast into a unified hierarchy of communities, all paying tribute to the mighty cities at the center.

Though they built no stone architecture, their cities were planned and constructed in precise alignment with the stars. At the center of each city, they heaped the earth into towering stepped mounds, not unlike the pyramids of Egypt, or of the Aztecs in Mexico.

Mississippian earthwork pyramids in the city of Cahokia
Earthwork pyramids in the city of Cahokia

Around vast central courtyards, the nobles dwelled in houses of packed earth and straw – attended by legions of slaves who fetched water, swept yards, sewed clothes, and worked the fields of maize, beans and squash that sprawled around the cities’ borders.

And although their priests did not develop a writing system per se, they created an elaborate network of symbols for use in religious artwork. These symbols have been found on amulets and masks throughout Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi – and as far away as Florida and Oklahoma.

Sometimes the artwork is so identical that they must have been carved by the same artist.

Symbols used by the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex (SECC).
Symbols used by the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex (SECC).

Clearly, then, people of all these far-flung regions considered themselves – in some sense – members of the same civilization. At its peak, this domain spanned some 180,000 square miles (466,000 sq. km.) – an area larger than modern Germany.

This was no local tribal confederation. It was a region-spanning dominion of planned cities.

If Hernando de Soto and his Spanish mercenaries had arrived in the 1220s instead of in the 1520s, they would’ve encountered a very different North America. Instead of tribes of “savages” hunting and gathering in the woods, they would’ve found tens of thousands of cultured, well-fed urbanites dwelling in clean, organized cities – not unlike the cities they encountered further south, in Aztec-ruled Mexico.

Mississippian people of the city of Cahokia, in Missouri
People of the city of Cahokia, in Missouri

Yet strangely enough, despite many surface-level similarities – the building of stepped pyramids, for example, and the carving of distinctive sequences of symbols –

Archaeologists have found no direct connection between this civilization and that of the Aztecs.

This empire seems to have emerged entirely on its own, without any links to the great empires of Mesoamerica – or with the mighty trading states of Arizona and Colorado, whom you met in Part 2 and Part 3 of this series.

Its rise and fall happened extraordinarily quickly. A mere 200 years before their civilization’s golden age, the ancestors of these city builders were simple nomads, hunting and gathering in the woodlands, crafting tools of stone and bone, dwelling in small thatch houses.

But in the 1000s CE, some of these groups gathered in large permanent settlements, and began to plant farms.

A Mississippian house in the city of Cahokia, in Missouri
A house in the city of Cahokia, in Missouri

Why did so many different groups undertake such a drastic shift so suddenly? The prevailing theory is that they got too good at hunting to support their own populations.

The more meat each clan brought home, the larger its families grew – until one day there wasn’t enough meat to go around, and clans had to split up into smaller groups to cover a larger hunting ground.

Some of these smaller groups began to starve. Other groups gave up hunting altogether, and took to raiding their neighbors – forcing those neighbors to seek safety in numbers, and raise more organized defenses. Communal farming was a natural next step.

A market in a Mississippian town
A market in a Mississippian town

Once a people settles down and starts practicing agriculture, society starts to reorganize.

Manual farm labor doesn’t require much skill, compared to hunting. Anyone in town can hoe, plant and harvest just about as well as anyone else. In fact, once you’ve upgraded from small family plots to large communal farms, your main problem is what to do with all the surplus grain.

At first, you keep it in storehouses, and everyone gets an equal share. But as more people arrive to join your successful community (and the next generation comes of age), you’ve got more workers than farm plots. What do you do with all that surplus labor? You can’t have people just loafing around. Surely there must be something productive they can do.

People of the Mississippian city of Cahokia, in Missouri
People of the city of Cahokia, in Missouri

So you modify the system a little. Instead of paying an equal share of grain to each family, you pay different amounts in exchange for different kinds of work. A farmer gets just enough grain to support his family. An architect or artisan gets a bit more, logically, since their work requires more skill.

Since you’re in charge of the storehouse, your family gets the largest share of all, obviously. The priests get extra-large shares too, since they maintain the favor of the gods, and keep the masses in line. And you’d better give generous shares to your best warriors, to keep them from walking out on their guard duties – or, worse yet, staging a coup.

Next thing you know, you’ve got a strict societal hierarchy in place.

As your warriors bring home captives – and some of your laborers default on their debts to the treasury – another new class begins to emerge: slaves, who don’t have to be paid anything at all, beyond the meager rations they need to survive and keep working.

Everyone loves this idea so much that soon your slaves outnumber your farmers, and even the farmers own slaves.

Warriors of the Mississippian people
Warriors of the Mississippian people

And now, instead of a communal hunting and gathering effort, you’ve got a pyramid-shaped division of labor – a few priests and nobles at the peak, a small cadre of loyal warriors just below them, a few dozen skilled artisans in the middle, hundreds of unskilled farm laborers below them… and at the very bottom, thousands of miserable slaves.

This basic pattern has played out countless times, in almost every region of the world.

It happened in Egypt and Mesopotamia, in sub-Saharan Africa, in almost every corner of Europe, in the river valleys of India and China, in Madagascar and the islands of Oceania, in the jungles of South America, and in Mesoamerica and Mexico.

Wherever you find fertile farming ground and a growing urban population, you’re likely to find a class system with nobles, priests and warriors at the top, and farmers and slaves at the bottom.

A procession in the Mississippian city of Cahokia, in Missouri
A procession in the city of Cahokia, in Missouri

We moderns easily forget this crucial fact:

Most large societies throughout history have consisted mainly of slaves, serfs, and other forced manual laborers.

At the bottom of Mississippian societal pyramid were a class known as “stinkards” – thousands of manual laborers who harvested and ground the corn, tanned the hides, swept the yards, chopped the wood, shoveled the earth, and generally sustained the existence of their rulers’ culture.

Some archaeologists think the stinkards may originally have been a less-powerful tribe, who joined the confederation under threat of violence – or perhaps sold themselves into debt-slavery, driven to desperation by hunger, or by fear of raiders.

The ruling class, called “Suns,” were led by a supreme chief known as the Great Sun (uwahšiL li∙kip). The Great Sun divided his leadership with his ceremonial brother, the Tattooed Serpent. While the Great Sun oversaw affairs of the city, the Tattooed Serpent was in charge of war, peace and diplomacy – similar to the division of royal power in Comanche and Sumerian societies.

Mississippian people
Mississippian people

In a fertile river valley in Missouri, the Suns commanded their slaves to build a great city.

Before raising a single building, they laid out a network of straight streets, courtyards, and fields, surrounded by a shield-shaped wall encompassing six square miles.

The planned Mississippian city of Cahokia, as seen from above.
The planned city of Cahokia, as seen from above.

Within those walls, the builders raised 120 earthen mounds consisting of 55 million cubic feet of earth. They moved all that soil in woven baskets, carried on their backs. The work must have taken decades.

The city of Cahokia thrived for more than two centuries, reaching its peak in the 1200s CE. At that time, it housed a population of 40,000 – greater than the population of London at the time, and more than any other city on American soil until the 1780s.

And Cahokia wasn’t the only city built on this model.

Throughout the 1100s and 1200s, similar cities rose up in southern Indiana, in Illinois, in Alabama and Arkansas –  all testaments to the vast reach of this civilization, and the influence of its religion.

The Mississippian city of Cahokia, in Missouri
he Mississippian city of Cahokia, in Missouri

For centuries, people had flocked to these sites for seasonal rituals. By the time a large agricultural population had taken root, those rituals and beliefs had developed into a full-fledged religion, known today as the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex (SECC).

In this belief system, the Cosmos was divided into three levels.

At the top was the Overworld, home of the Thunderers, of Red Horn, “He Who Wears Human Heads For Earrings,” the patron of order and stability. The Middle World was earth, home of humans. The Underworld was a cold, dark, chaotic place, home of the Underwater Panther, and of Corn Mother, the “Old Woman Who Never Dies.”

Iconography of the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex
Iconography of the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex

Worshipers represented this cosmology through an elaborate system of iconographic symbols, many of which are only dimly understood today. Archaeological evidence attests that this belief system had followers throughout the Mississippian culture’s vast sphere of influence – and even as far away as Oklahoma and Florida.

The followers of this religion gathered at many sites throughout Southeastern America – typically assembling around the burial mounds of ancient rulers at certain times of the year. But for reasons lost to history, a few particular sites stood out as supremely sacred –  as did the cities raised upon them.

The great central court of the Mississippian city of Cahokia, in Missouri
The great central court of the city of Cahokia, in Missouri

And yet, by the year 1300, the streets of these great cities stood empty.

Like their hunter-gather ancestors, it seems, the inhabitants overexploited their natural resources – tearing down the forests, exhausting the soil, and polluting the rivers until their homes became uninhabitable. When the worldwide Little Ice Age struck around 1300, crops failed and people starved, just like their contemporaries in Europe and Asia.

When the Spanish conquistadors arrived, just over 200 years later, they encountered dozens of tribes living among the ruins. Some were friendly, while others attacked – and many used the Spanish as political tools to gain the upper hand on longstanding rivals.

On one fact, however, all these woodland tribes agreed:

They were the descendants of the people who’d built the mighty cities.

Woodland Indians helping a wounded European man
Woodland Indians helping a wounded European man

Some tribes even preserved faint vestiges of their ancestors’ urban social structure, appointing a Great Sun and a Tattooed Serpent to rule them, and lording over a lower class of stinkards – who now lived the same simple lifestyle as everyone else in the tribe.

The European colonists, however, found these stories of noble ancestry hard to believe. How could such simple “savages” have ever raised mighty pyramids, or laid out straight streets, or constructed vast palisade walls? The local peoples insisted this was the truth –

But the Europeans cooked up all kinds of far-fetched stories to explain the ruins.

Ruins of the Mississippian earthworks at Cahokia
Ruins of the earthworks at Cahokia

Many early researchers proposed that a group of Aztecs had made their way north from Mexico. Others insisted that explorers from Egypt or Mesopotamia had somehow reached North America. Still others proposed that a lost tribe of Israelites (why is it always a lost tribe of Israelites?) had built these pyramids.

The truth, of course, was much more straightforward.

Many Southeastern Native American groups – including the Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Natchez, Osage and Yamasee peoples – are now recognized as direct descendants of the medieval city-builders. Some still speak dialects of the languages once heard on the streets of Cahokia.

Mississippian people in the city of Cahokia
People in the city of Cahokia

The Europeans arrived not at the height of the region’s golden age, but during one of the darkest, most violent periods in its history. Even at their peak, the builders of Cahokia would most likely have fallen victim to Spanish warfare and diseases, as did the Aztecs.

But it’s still tempting to wonder what might have happened in Southeastern America if the Little Ice Age hadn’t struck, and the cities had continued to support such huge populations of trained specialists, skilled laborers and slaves.

Would the Mississippians’ elaborate religious symbology have evolved into a full-fledged writing system, like those of the Mayans and Aztecs? Would their copper-hammering metallurgy have developed into bronze-casting, or even ironwork? Might new rulers have raised greater pyramids – and built palaces and temples of stone, rather than soil?

It’s easy to dismiss all this as meaningless speculation. And yet – look how much the Mississippians achieved in only 200 years.

A Mississippian copper workshop in the city of Cahokia
A copper workshop in the city of Cahokia

What if they’d had 700 years to build a great classical civilization, like the Mayans? Imagine Spanish explorers entering a Southeastern America filled with looming stone ruins – pyramids and palaces of granite; courtyards and streets paved in polished limestone.

Imagine the modern inhabitants of Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi growing up in the shadows of ancient ruins – as people in Europe, Africa and Asia have done since time immemorial.

Imagine how such timeless ruins might sculpt modern Americans’ sense of time – and of their place in history.

Monks Mound - all that remains of Cahokia's great pyramid
Monks Mound – all that remains of Cahokia’s great pyramid

With a mere 200-odd years of history at their backs, Cahokia’s mighty rulers began to think of their cities as permanent features of the landscape, like water and stone. They conceived themselves the world’s predestined rulers, chosen by the gods to bring civilization and order to a savage land.

And of course, they had good reason for thinking so.

Their upper classes enjoyed the highest standard of living ever known. No one had fought a significant war for decades. Even the slaves were eating well. From Missouri all the way to Florida, everyone was trading, prospering, and looking forward to a bright future.

How could it be otherwise? They were, after all, a people blessed by the Great Sun himself.

Houses in the city of Cahokia
Houses in the city of Cahokia