National Geographic : 1948 Jan
"Pyramids" of the New World BY NEIL MERTON JUDD W HEN Antipater of Sidon compiled his list of the Seven Wonders of the World, he included the Pyramids of Giza but not those of Cholula and East St. Louis. The Pyramid of Cholula, in the State of Puebla, Mexico, bulks larger than any other in the world. It covers three and one-half times the area of Cheops's famous monument at El Giza but is less than half as high.* In the suburbs of East St. Louis, Illinois, Cahokia Mound likewise occupies more space than the largest Giza pyramid. New World "pyramids," built by the an cestors of living American Indians, were con structed of earth or rubble faced with dressed stone or stucco. Where stone was lacking, as in the highlands of Mexico and the desert foothills of the Andes, mud bricks were com monly substituted. But the fundamental difference between New and Old World pyramids is their func tion. Egyptian pyramids were tombs; those in the Americas, temple foundations. As such, the latter were necessarily truncated, or flat topped. And those within the present United States were invariably accompanied by one or more conical burial mounds. These burial mounds, as in the case of the Egyptian tombs, became an early attraction for treasure seekers. In the New World, however, curiosity and scientific interest rather than cupidity spurred these men on. Otherwise, experience would soon have taught that Indian burials were accompanied not by gold and precious stones but only by earthenware vessels, shell beads, flint arrowheads and knives, and like objects of little monetary value. Moreover, the Indians, unlike the Egyptians, had no elaborate method of preserving their dead. Among certain Indian tribes it was customary, by burial or otherwise, to remove the flesh from a corpse. At prescribed intervals the principal bones from all such individual graves were gathered up for reinterment in a community pit, or ossuary. Thus an archeologist seeking to re trieve and interpret the unrecorded history of the "pyramid" builders finds the job difficult. New World "pyramids" are found in a variety of forms from Peru to the Canadian border. They range in shape from the high, steep temple foundations of the Maya, through * See "Daily Life in Ancient Egypt," by William C. Hayes, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, October, 1941. the colossal pyramids of the Aztecs and their predecessors, to the huge, broad earthworks found in the United States. North of Mexico these aboriginal pyramids are found chiefly in the wide valley of the Mississippi River and its tributaries. "The Mound City" St. Louis was once known as "the Mound City," from the number and character of its Indian remains. Most of them had already been obliterated, but 27 still remained at the north end of town in June, 1819, and were surveyed by members of Maj. Stephen H. Long's exploring expedition. The task offered welcome respite from in activity while they awaited repairs to their stern-wheeler, Western Engineer. Gen. William H. Ashley, famed in the fur trade, built his palatial residence on a mound overlooking Broadway. Col. John O'Fallon, soldier, merchant, and philanthropist, selected another as the site of his mansion on lower Bellefontaine Road. The quantity of human bones unearthed during grading operations suggests O'Fallon's mound as an ossuary. The "Big Mound," at the corner of Mound Street and Broadway, was best known. From it a street was named and the old Mound Market. For fifty years it had whetted the curiosity of passers-by (page 110). When the mound finally was removed, in 1869, it was found to cover a burial chamber 8 feet high and more than 70 feet long. At least 20 bodies had been interred in the vault, but none survived the wreckers and souvenir collectors. All knowledge of the tombs' con tents has been lost. As St. Louis continued to expand and its Indian mounds vanished one by one, the ad visability of preserving typical examples was advocated repeatedly. Finally, in 1870, the commissioners looked with favor upon a series of small mounds in Forest Park, "a few miles west of the city." Of this series, the last two were razed pre paratory to the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904. Today a single mound stands within the borders of St. Louis, and that is in the southern part of the city overlooking the Mississippi. Across the river and only six miles away are the remnants of the famous Cahokia Mound group. Here, in the heart of that ex traordinarily rich agricultural area known as the "American Bottom," was an important Indian religious center.