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Ancient Native Americans left behind many forms of rock art, including petroglyphs that were pecked into rock faces with smaller stones, and pictographs that were painted onto the stone. One of the best known pictographs was a monumental figure called the Piasa Bird, on an exposed limestone cliff above the Mississippi River in what is now Illinois. It was the largest painted pre-historic image known to have existed in the continental United States.

Like many legendary dragons, the Piasa Bird was a hybrid creature with many parts. It was quadrupedal, with a long body that reminds me of a cougar’s, but with clawed feet like an eagle or falcon. The wings were as large as its body. Its head and face were humanlike, with a bushy beard, but it had antlers. A long tail circled almost completely around its body, with a fork at the end like that of a fish. All parts of it except the face were covered with feathers, or perhaps scales.

Archaeologists believe that this pictograph originated with the Cahokia people. Cahokia was one of the largest native kingdoms in North America. The culture reached its zenith around 1200 C. E. Due to its great size and prominent location, scholars speculate the rock art was a sort of billboard. “Caution: You Are Entering Cahokia Territory.”

As early as 1673, explorers and travelers made note of the rock art, which included several smaller figures in addition to the Piasa Bird. Their accounts state that Native people would shoot their guns at the pictograph whenever they passed. So possibly this was a “scapegoat” image and attacking it was meant to drive off evil forces. Or perhaps later tribes remembered the Cahokia with hatred, and showed it by attacking their most visible relics.

As you can see from all these theories, there is no clear understanding of what the Piasa Bird represented when it was made. (No one seems to have asked the tribal members, I have to note.) One printed account, by college professor John Russell, claimed that the tribes in the area had been at war, and the gigantic Piasa Bird fed on the corpses of fallen warriors. It enjoyed this treat so much that it began snatching people from the villages nearby. A local chief named Ouatoga prayed to the Great Spirit and received a vision. He armed a number of warriors with poisoned arrows and stationed them around the Piasa’s cavernous lair. Then, using himself as bait, he lured the monster out. It soon fell to the tribal arrows. The natives then painted its image to commemorate the deed.

Dramatic as this account may be, there is no documentation to support it. There won’t be, either. The Piasa Bird was painted onto high quality limestone, which was mined beginning in the 1870s. The entire array of images was destroyed. Some historic drawings do survive. Based on these, a re-creation of the Piasa Bird has been painted onto a bluff not far from the site of the original. You can see it at Piasa Bird Park near Alton, IL. The Piasa Bird is also a mascot for a nearby high school.


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