The Most Popular Sport in North America 900 Years Ago

Beneath the freeways of East St. Louis in Illinois there lie the ruins of a city built nearly a millennium ago, around towering earthen pyramids. Today called Cahokia, it held as many as 40 thousand people, and their influence spread throughout the southeast U.S. — mostly due the popularity of a game called chunkey.

Some 400 years after the last inhabitants of Cahokia abandoned the city, European immigrants to the nascent U.S. founded East St. Louis — probably for many of the same reasons that the Indians founded Cahokia in the mid-1000s CE. Located on the Mississippi River, the area made for a perfect port and was rich with fertile farmland. Though many early explorers in the area remarked on the incredible mounds built from hard-packed earth next to the river, European settlers completely ignored them. Trying to build up their own city, they put houses at the bases of the pyramids and sometimes plowed over them.

The Most Popular Sport in North America 900 Years Ago

But after Europeans began to explore the pyramids of Egypt and the Maya, scientists began to wonder about those giant mounds in East St. Louis. What if they were more then just weird piles of dirt? As anthropologist Timothy Pauketat explains in his incredible book Cahokia, it didn't take much digging to discover that the mounds were actually part of an incredibly advanced urban civilization.

The Most Popular Sport in North America 900 Years Ago

Like the Egyptian pyramids, the mounds were tombs and places of worship — inside one, archaeologists in the 1960s found the remains of a man who had been buried with thousands of shells in the shape of hawk's wings. Inside and next to his grave, they found dozens of people who had been sacrificed and buried with him. They also found the rotted remains of enormous astronomical observatory nicknamed Woodhenge, because its circle of massive wooden poles tracked the movements of sun and moon the way Stonehenge does.

The Most Popular Sport in North America 900 Years Ago

Cahokia, it turned out, was a city whose size and sophistication would have outstripped European cities of the 1000s. Its history and art turned turned out to be the key to understanding the so-called Mississippian culture of the southeast during a time that Europeans call the Middle Ages. This grand city of pyramids appeared to have been built on top of a less-sophisticated village that was razed quite suddenly, in roughly 1050. Pauketat suggests there may have been some kind of political or religious revolution that led to this sudden "big bang" of urbanism in the area.

And this big bang reverberated throughout the region, influencing the building styles, art, and adornments of peoples from as far north as Wisconsin and as far south as Florida. Most intriguingly, Cahokia seems to have been ground zero for a sport that eventually spread all across the regions that today we call the United States and Mexico. It was called by many names, but the Cahokians and their neighbors called it Chunkey.

The Most Popular Sport in North America 900 Years Ago

If you look at the city plan of Cahokia above, you'll see a rectangular area in the grand plaza between the pyramids. That was the chunkey field, covered with pale, fine sand. chunkey was a betting game, but it also required athletic precision. Players worked in pairs, and one would roll a special puck out into the sand on its side. The pucks looked a lot like hockey pucks, with concave sides. In Cahokia, they were often made of light, delicate rock mined locally, and had a hole in the center. As the puck was rolling, the second player would throw a long spear called a chunkey alongside the puck. Points were scored (and bets won or lost) according to how closely the fallen puck lined up with various markings and feathers on the chunkey. Depending on where the game was played, scoring rules varied — but the basic idea of puck and stick was the same.

The Most Popular Sport in North America 900 Years Ago

The Most Popular Sport in North America 900 Years Ago

Chunkey pucks made in Cahokia have been found in many Mississippian sites, and variations on it traveled as far as Central America. Early explorers in the Americas report seeing chunkey games, as well as the more action-packed game stickball which emerged later.

Pauketat speculates that Cahokia's culture became so influential in North America partly through chunkey games, which were associated with ceremonial occasions. Different cities would play against each other, and people have found several statues of chunkey players (like the one you see here). Whatever the events were that inaugurated the building of the magnificent civilization at Cahokia 950 years ago, it seems certain that one of their greatest inventions was a sport played with sticks and pucks.

Given our obsession with soccer in the Americas today, it doesn't seem farfetched that people were going nuts over sports in exactly the same way centuries ago — often in exactly the same places, in ancient cities that almost disappeared underneath new ones.

Finally, after several decades making more and more incredible finds at Cahokia, scientists and preservationists in 1982 managed to get a small portion of the remains of the city designated as a World Heritage Site and state park. The park encompasses about a third of Cahokia's original massive sprawl of pyramids, mounds, densely-packed huts and far-flung farm suburbs. If you're in the St. Louis area, you can visit it yourself and imagine the crazy sport that united the peoples of the North American southeast 900 years ago.