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Two of the Most Mysterious Sites in the U.S.

There are ancient mysteries all over the world that have perplexed scientists, historians and archaeologists for ages: Stonehenge, the Pyramids and the Nazca Lines among them. They might not be as well known, but we have at least a couple of pretty intriguing mysteries of our own here in the U.S. Check out these two mind-bogglers - and be sure to let us know in the comments if you have any good theories as to what happened.


It’s hard to believe there was a city in the U.S. that outnumbered any other in population, that was larger than even London at one point, that served as the biggest urban center north of Mexico - and that lots of us have never even heard of. It’s Cahokia, Illinois, about 15 minutes away from St. Louis, Missouri. It was inhabited for about 700 years and was home to up to 20,000 people when it peaked from 1050-1200. More than 120 “mounds” were built for ceremonial purposes and to provide a prestigious spot for temples and the homes of chiefs. Lots of interesting things have been discovered in excavations at Cahokia over the years. It even had its own Stonehenge - in fact, maybe up to five of them. Dubbed “Woodhenge,” archaeologists think the early residents of Cahokia used red cedar posts stuck in deep pits to mark days and events. One of them has been reconstructed for tourists to the Cahokia area. Other advancements found include a copper workshop and watchtowers. A slightly more disturbing discovery was hundreds of skeletons, including a mass grave of more than 50 women who were about the same age. Another mass grave was found containing both men and women, some of whom where apparently buried alive. It’s believed that they were sacrificial victims. All of these signs of thriving civilization have to make you wonder: what the heck happened? How does a city go from being one of the largest in the world to being practically nonexistent in less than 200 years? Well... we don’t really know. There are plenty of theories, from widespread disease to political collapse. But since the people who lived there left absolutely no written record, we have no idea what actually happened. We also don’t know who these early people were - although we know all about the French missionaries who settled in the area in 1699 and the monks who made the mounds their home in 1809, it’s still not known what Native American tribes might be descendants of those early people.


If you think it’s a little eerie that an entire city could slowly dwindle to nothingness like Cahokia did, consider that the Roanoke Colony of present-day North Carolina dwindled to nothingness seemingly overnight. More than 20 years before Jamestown was founded, the English Colony of Roanoke was set up with about 100 households. But the colony wasn’t thriving and leader Sir Richard Grenville shipped back to England with the promise of returning with more supplies to sustain the colony. When he came back, he discovered that the majority of the town had abandoned it, heading back to England with Sir Francis Drake when he offered to take them back with him after a brief visit. In 1587, a second attempt was made to settle at Roanoke. Nearly 120 colonists settled in at the island and tried to establish friendly relations with the nearby tribe, but to no avail. The tribe had bad experiences with the original group of colonists and refused to meet with the new batch. After one of the settlers was killed while out hunting for crabs alone, the settlers began to fear for their lives and sent their governor back to England to ask for supplies and assistance. Due to various circumstances, Governor White didn’t make it back to Roanoke until three years later. When he finally did make it back, he discovered that the entire town was essentially gone - people, houses and all. Knowing that relations with the Native Americans in the area were pretty hostile, White told the colonists that they should leave him a sign if they had to relocate against their will or were under distress. The sign was supposed to be a Maltese cross carved on a certain tree. There was no Maltese cross on the tree, but there was something: the word “Croatoan” carved into what was left of the fort and “Cro” carved into a tree. Governor White never found his Lost Colony, nor did any trace of them ever show up anywhere. But there’s no shortage of theories as to what may have happened to the settlers, but here are the five most popular:

  • The colonists simply left and settled elsewhere. And took all of their houses with them. And left no word on where they had moved to. And were never found by anyone ever again. Hmm.

  • Disease swept the island and killed everyone off. It also ravaged the buildings and apparently left no bodies.

  • A hurricane did away with the whole colony. The trouble with this theory is that the fence surrounding the settlement was perfectly intact even though the houses were gone, and if a hurricane was powerful enough to wipe out the whole village without a trace, it surely would have claimed the fence as well.

  • The colonists became friendly with a Native American tribe called the Croatans and moved to Croatoan Island to live with them, theorizing that they had a better chance of survival that way. Some historians think this is probable since there is some evidence of a friendly relationship between the Croatans and the colonists. It does, however, seem odd that the colonists were so cryptic with their "Croatoan" message instead of leaving a more detailed explanation.

  • Another tribe of Native Americans (not the Croatans) annihilated the entire colony to serve as a warning to others. This is a pretty strong contender in the list of plausible explanations, but this theory has its problems too. If the entire colony was being mass murdered by a vengeful group of Native Americans, why wasn't the distress signal carved into a tree? And who would have taken the time to carve "Croatoan" into a tree during this melee?

What do you think happened at these two mysterious sites? Do you think we'll ever know for sure?

Of course, if a nearby tribe had massacred the colonists, why wouldn't the bodies have been left behind? The lack of any remains strongly suggests that the colonists left on their own.
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I remember a theory about the Roanoke colonists moving to live with Central American natives based on later colonists wondering why certain tribes had a random sprinkling of pale skinned, blue eyed members. Can't recall details atm. To Google!
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The colonists became middle-aged slackers and moved into their moms' basements and spent all their time playing the popular, for the time, "Pilgrims and Indians" role playing game.
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The Obvious Answer:

That second group of settlers didn't really get the chance to investigate what happened to the original bunch, because a few years later an even bigger mysterious phenomena occurred: Blue-eyed, pale-complexioned Indians began showing up on nearby Croatan Island.

So what to make of these mysterious children, who looked like they might have been the descendents of white/Indian mixed race parents? On CROATAN island?

It's almost as if, we don't know, a certain group of settlers realized their colony sucked, and went and found some natives nearby who seemed to know how to live off the land. And that they then left their shitty colony forever to go live happily ever after on Croatan Island, and to have impressive amounts of sex with the natives.
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Roanoke was pretty definintely solved by Josh Berstein's "Digging for the Truth" episode, in which they collected DNA samples from several local native tribes, and compared it to known relatives of the colonists from Scotland. The colonists were absorbed in to several local tribes when their colony failed (because it was too small and too poorly supported).

Cahokia is also not all that mysterious, really. Normal story of too many people living too closely together for too long, and depleting the land to the point where they just couldn't grow enough food locally with the technology they had. Imported food is expensive, so everyone moved away. (Yeah, it's a lot more complicated, and more violent, than that, but that's the basic story.) Cahokia was local to me in high school. As a side note, the locals in the area, Missouri and Illinois, will latch on to *any* chance to extract money from tourists, and Cahokia is certainly a good attraction, and that much better if it's somehow mysterious. Shoulda been there with one of the locals convinced the barge lights on the underside of the clouds over The River were UFOs. T-shirts and beer stands in the streets!
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The folks from roanoke hooked up with the equally mysterious Cahokians from the midwest. they ultimately settled in what is know known as Roswell, New Mexico
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Concerning Cahokia;

I'm a PhD candidate in archaeology, so I while probably have my head up my butt, it might be a little less than the author.

We know a lot about the group occupying that area, there are known as Mississippians and Cahokia is one of a large number of sites known to have been inhabited by these folks. Aztalan is likely the northern extent of the group in Wisconsin and the sites reach at least as far as Moundville Alabama.

Maize/corn (imported from Mexico orginally) was the basis of nutrition for this culture and it was this energy rich abundant food that created surpluses needed to support full time mound builders and artisans. It's also their downfall since maize doesn't carry the same nutrition as a mixed diet of gathered foods and wild game. There is a set of clear indicators in skeletal remains including caries in teeth and a higher incidence of rickets and other diseases related to malnutrition.

As for all the skeletons in the mound. What isn't mentioned is that they are grouped around a central figure that has nicer stuff than anyone else. Sound familiar at all? Yeah, these individuals were to accompany him into the next life as some sort of attendants. Pretty common stuff in the historical record.

If you want a bit more mystery and smaller but amazingly cool mounds, look at the Effigy Mounds built by the "Ft. Ancient" culture. Or the Hopewell group centered out of Chilicothe Ohio. (Shout out to my Buckeyes from Michigan!) The interesting thing there is that they DON'T have a easy food source but had advanced crafting, mounds that accurately predict long term astronomical observations, and it's beginning to look like there is some interesting math encoded into the mounds. And how did they get all those exotic materials into Ohio from as far away as the UP of Michigan, Wyoming, and the East and Gulf Coasts? At a time of increasing warfare? And most importantly, what were they trading for the material? There's nothing from Ohio found in any of the artifact records of those areas.

So yeah, there's some weird stuff out there. But it isn't either of these places. And there's no aliens, sorry. Humans are capable of all sorts of amazing things all on our own, thank you very much.

Thanks for the other debunk Coyote!
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Neither of these cases sound particularly mysterious to me. At least, not anymore so than a number of other cases where we merely don't have all the evidence.

On a side-note, while there are still plenty of mysteries involved with the pyramids, we've come a long way in unlocking the secrets to their construction. Dr Rainer Stadelmann in particular has brought about many very reasonable explanations for how construction was accomplished.
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I thought 'Roanoke' when I read 'Mysterious Sites' and remember reading about the appearance of blue-eyed natives in the region afterward, like the other readers above. Strange stuff!

Now if only we could solve the mysteries of ghost ships with still-warm food on the tables... and no occupants anywhere on the ship.
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About the Roanoke settlement I've understood that the main pointwhy people did not understand the dissapearance of that settlement, was because for ages people just did not want to believe that anyone would want to choose to abandon the European way of life for a socalled "primitive" lifestyle. This cultural Eurocentristic view stood in the way of any comprehension of what happened there.
Same thing could be seen all over the world where Europeans or people of European-culture somehow got stuck outside their safe culture in the rough outback and they had to survive without all the backup of their own folks- Either their colony got strong enough to survive and prosper, or if they couldn't get strong soon enough, they just died of starvation or by being overrun by natives and they vanished because they didn't grasp the survival-skills of that location in time. Or they survived by simply let themselves be absorbed by the ways of the land- by those who already lived there succesfully. You see similar tales of individuals and groups in Australia, the America's, Asia and Africa. And lots of times that same disbelief of other Europeans that their own people willingly for any reason would choose to assimilate with natives, socalled "primitives".....
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Reminds me of the computer game Fallout, where in a post-nuclear world there are people who chose to live a tribal way of life, while others decided to stay and live in the destroyed ruins of cities where crime and discord is rampant, while calling themselves the "civilised folk". It was quite an effective parody of that mindset.
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I suggest you check out "Roanoke: Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony" by Lee Miller. It is a great read and presents the disappearance and basically a political gambit. Alternatively, there is also the hypothesis that the Roanokers, joined with folk brought from Latin America by British privateers, joined up with some local native Americans and their microsociety led to the development of multiracial groups like the Portygee (Melungeons) and the Carolina "Redbones."
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What is interesting is that high school teaches you when the settlers arrived in the Americas; they discovered small tribes of "barbaric" people. HOWEVER, archaeologists & anthropologists are beginning to discover or argue (as this article appropriately indicates) North and South America were already thriving populaces of huge tribes/forms of government that had advanced trade routes and other technological advances thought not to have existed initially amongst the natives. The theory exists that these native tribes had already endured tremendous decreases in population due to rampant diseases and that is why their tribes were so small when the settlers first arrived. of course, their numbers dwindled further once the settlers introduced small pox and syphillis but we already knew that... A really interesting read that covers a lot of this theory is "1491"- can't recall the author, but it's rather enlightening- cheers!
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Re Rumpus: Thank you so much!! I'm a grad student in archaeology as well and this was a bit irritating to me. Cahokia isn't that big of a mystery any more, you're totally right there are several other places that are less well known.
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