Prehistoric mounds have been documented since the French settlers arrived in the early days of colonization and can still be found throughout the area. The largest is Monks Mound, above, in Collinsville, Illinois.National Geographic Image Collection / Alamy
“Our area really was the center of prehistoric Native America,” said Leach, who has authored several books on the area’s history. “Because of its location. The rivers were the superhighways of the ancient people.”
St. Louis sits at the convergence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers as well as several smaller tributaries that, combined, link nearly the entire continent. Before the Mississippi River became a border between Missouri and Illinois, it ran through the center of a city that was one of the largest in the world nearly half a millennium before European contact. Remnants of that civilization — called Mississippian — can be found throughout the area, but most notably at the Cahokia Mounds site in Collinsville, Illinois, an eastern suburb of St. Louis.
Collinsville is also the site of the largest of the numerous earthen mounds built by ancient people in the region.
“St. Louis’ nickname used to be Mound City,” Leach said. The mounds have been documented since the French settlers arrived in the early days of colonization and can still be found throughout the area.
“This area was literally a Garden of Eden,” said Joe Harl of the Archaeological Research Center of St. Louis. “We’ve been trying to get the [cities] to watch out for this stuff.”
As the St. Louis metropolitan area has expanded, researchers and enthusiasts like Harl and Leach have watched the area’s remaining prehistoric sites be looted, damaged and even destroyed.
Harl recalled two mounds in the town of Fenton, Missouri, that were leveled to build a Walmart. The site of a 1,000-year-old village in Bridgeton, Missouri, was flattened to build an industrial park.
Missouri has few laws to protect these sites. If they are on private land, it’s typically up to the landowner to decide what happens to them, unless federal money is involved.
“It’s tough in Missouri to preserve archaeological sites,” Leach said. “There’s not a Missouri mound police or anything like that.”
An even bigger problem than development, Harl said, is looting. At the Fenton site, the city allowed archaeologists to excavate the mounds before they were destroyed. In most cases, looters looking to sell artifacts online get to them first.
“Almost every cave and rock shelter we know of has been dug into,” Harl said.
In 2010, the Riverfront Times reported that looters were digging through sites in St. Louis to fund their drug habits.
It has largely been left up to individuals and organizations to lobby for the preservation of these sites. When Leach came upon the Blake Mound in Chesterfield, he found an unsupported tunnel dug into the mound by looters. He and a team of volunteers moved 86,000 pounds of soil to repair the mound.
“We don’t want to turn back to the Stone Age,” Harl said. “But we want to protect these things.”