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The fact that between 1175 and 1275 Cahokia's inhabitants built—and rebuilt, several times—a stockade encircling the main part of the city suggests that conflict or the threat of conflict had become a standard feature of life in the region, perhaps because there were fewer resources. Furthermore, dense populations create environmental problems as a matter of course—deforestation, erosion, pollution, disease—that can be difficult to counter and that have been the downfall of many a society.

That Cahokia lasted for only some 300 years, and was at the peak of its power for half that at most, should not come as a surprise. "If you look broadly at human history, failure is the norm," says Tom Emerson. "What's amazing is when things last."

Emerson is currently heading a huge excavation in East St. Louis of Cahokia's next-door neighbor, a site that had thousands of residents of its own (sort of like Fort Worth to Cahokia's Dallas). And again, road construction is paying the tab: A new bridge across the Mississippi is giving Emerson's team a crack at 36 acres that had been lost to earlier progress, if you can call the twisted path of human history something as simple as "progress." The stockyards that were built on the ruins of this Mississippian settlement have been shuttered for years, casualties of East St. Louis's own decline from a vibrant city to a collection of vacant lots and boarded-up buildings. This is history's march in our own midst: fleet of foot and easy to miss.

When I drive to St. Louis to see if anything still memorializes the big mound (named, with an appropriate lack of imagination, Big Mound) that was destroyed there by 1869, I'm surprised to see that the exact spot where it was located is where the new bridge from East St. Louis will land. I ask around and learn that archaeologists excavated this lot too before construction started. But they didn't find a trace of Big Mound, only remnants of the 19th-century factories that had taken its place. That is now the accessible history of this site. The rest is gone.

After a failed first attempt, I do finally locate a marker for Big Mound. It's a little cobblestone memorial a half block down Broadway from Mound Street, with a missing plaque and grass growing between its rocks. As luck would have it, I find it just as a man arrives to spray it with weed killer. I ask him if he works for the city, and he says no. His name is Gary Zigrang, and he owns a building down the block. He's called the city about the marker's disrepair, and they haven't done anything, so he's taking matters into his own hands. And as he sprays the weeds on the forgotten memorial for the forgotten mound of the forgotten people who once lived here, he says, "What a shame. There's history here, and it needs to be taken care of."

Author Glenn Hodges is a former staff writer for National Geographic. Photographers Ira Block and Don Burmeister are based in New York City.
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