The largest excavation of a prehistoric site in the country is poised to solve a riddle about Illinois prehistory that has lingered for a century — where did the Mississippians go?
An enormous dig of a village site first inhabited about 1050 A.D. on 78 acres of what used to be the National Stockyards is providing so much data and so many artifacts that archaeologists are daring to speculate that basic questions about the Mississippians will finally be answered.
The Mississippians, or Native Americans, whose pottery and building styles identify them as a single cultural group, lived in or near the Mississippi Valley more than 1,000 years ago. They erected complex cities, built enormous mounds for ritualistic purposes and disappeared in the space of about 200-300 years.
But the stockyards dig, known as the "East St. Louis site," was abandoned after only 150 years.
This site is 5 miles west of the region's main group of mounds, now the grounds of the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in Collinsville, which was occupied for about another 150 years. However, less than 1 percent of the Cahokia Mounds site has been excavated because of a policy that the area should be reserved for future study.
But the village site will be fully excavated.
"By 1200, the Mississippians are gone from this site with no evidence of any other occupation," said archaeologist Patrick Durst about the dig at the old stockyards. Durst, of the Prairie Research Institute of the University of Illinois at Champaign, supervises 90 hired diggers.
"What happened to them is one of the research questions we're hoping to answer. Having an opportunity to completely investigate a major portion of a site this large is almost unheard of. When we are finished with this project more of the East St. Louis mound group and the complex associated with it will have been excavated than all of Cahokia."
One of the questions is whether the people who lived in the East St. Louis village site were the same people who lived at the much larger Cahokia Mounds site.
"We're trying to identify how this community, and its large mound center, relates to Cahokia, the largest mound center," Durst said, "We don't know exactly the direct relationships between these groups. It could be different groups that didn't necessarily work together. We don't necessarily think they were enemies, but they may not be the exact same cultural groups."
For residents of Southern and central Illinois, the ancient Mississippians represent a presence that turns up in daily life, from the "birdman" symbol etched into state highway overpasses to the term "Cahokia."
But what is still unknown is: Where did they come from, and what happened to them? Did they die off or did they become the "Indians" of more modern times?
The small army of diggers has been working since 2008 to finish this excavation by the end of the year. This area, once home to 3,000 people who lived 500 years before Columbus, lies in the path of the New Mississippi River Bridge Project and must be excavated or lost to bulldozers. Less than a mile away near St. Clair Avenue, construction crews are already repaving roads that will lead to the bridge.
For archaeologists, this location is significant because it would have been the first habitation seen by visitors in prehistoric times to this region as they cruised down a much wider and shallower Mississippi in dugout canoes. The village would have been in the path of native people headed for the Cahokia Mounds ritual center 5 miles further inland.
Durst speculated that from the river, the village would have been an awesome sight easily visible because the years of habitation would have deforested the slope leading from the beach. Hundreds of smoke plumes from campfires would have filled the horizon. And marker poles, which were tree trunks set upright in the ground and possibly containing forbidding carvings of gods or animals, warned visitors that they were entering a place where highly civilized people ruled.
Artifacts usually found in other states, including pieces of finely decorated pottery from Arkansas, Missouri and Iowa and beads carved from shells from the Gulf of Mexico, are being found almost daily. These discoveries support a long-held theory that the entire Cahokia area was the center of a culture that built mounds throughout the Midwest and southeastern United States.
A 6-inch high stone statue of a kneeling woman holding a conch shell was found last year. It is believed to be one of only a few that are known to exist.
Durst said that the sheer amount of data being collected all from one place is likely to lead to answers to basic questions about the Mississippians.
A smaller, but very artifact-rich, nearby site just east of Brooklyn called "Janey B. Goode," was excavated a few years ago. Durst said that it contained about 800 features. A feature can be the remains of a dwelling or communal structure, a waste pit, fireplace or hearth or the dark stains in the earth where large, log-like poles were placed upright in the ground.
But the larger East St. Louis site has more than 2,500 features, including the remains of 500 dwellings, although that many more ancient homesites might remain buried, he said.
"How and when this urban commercial and ritual center all came together and what caused it to fall apart is what we want to answer," said Brad Koldehoff, an archaeologist and cultural resources director for the Illinois Department of Transportation. The dig is a joint effort by the Illinois State Archaeological Survey and IDOT.
Koldehoff said that the village's abandonment might have been a result of over exploitation of animals and plants. While the Mississippians depended on fishing and growing a primitive type of corn and other vegetables, like squash and beans, they needed firewood and meat from game animals to augment their diet.
"Staying in one place too long almost sets you up to fail," Koldehoff said.