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The role of water in the emergence of the pre‐Columbian Native American City Cahokia

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Studies of the role of water in the emergence and maintenance of complex societies often span functional, political, and economic perspectives on water management with a particular focus on conservation and water storage. However, water is also symbolically important typifying urban environments like the Olmec site of San Lorenzo in Mexico, the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, and Ancestral Puebloan sites in the North American Southwest. In fact, the symbolic and relational importance of water contributes to the location and emergence of some of the world's most prominent early cities and urban environments. In examining the role of water in the emergence of one of North America's largest pre‐Columbian cities, Cahokia (ca. AD 1050), it becomes apparent that early Native American people valued more than the functional properties of water, directly incorporating natural and man‐made water features into the city plan. Nestled into the naturally wet ridge and swale setting of the Mississippi River floodplain at the confluence of the Illinois, Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, water was a focal point of Cahokia's dynamic landscape impacting the location of earthen mounds, neighborhoods, causeways, and public plazas. Through an examination of the natural and built environments, I demonstrate the importance of water as symbolic and relational where Cahokians manipulated the natural environment to create a city that emerges out of a watery world. Understanding the relational and animate roles of water to the construction and maintenance of early urban environments can and does provide unique insight into ancient worldviews. WIREs Water 2015, 2:489–503. doi: 10.1002/wat2.1094 This article is categorized under: Engineering Water > Planning Water Human Water > Water as Imagined and Represented
Cahokia as viewed from Rattlesnake Mound (original drawing by Glenn Baker).
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LiDAR of Rattlesnake Mound and Rattlesnake Causeway (LiDAR courtesy of the Illinois State Archaeological Survey).
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Water‐filled borrow pit and two earthen mounds at Cahokia.
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Wetland areas surrounding Cahokia. (Reprinted with permission from Ref . Copyright 1998 University of Florida Press)
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River drainages into the American Bottom (original map by Baltus 2014, Figure 3.2).
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Mound A Poverty Point, Louisiana.
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