Cahokia Mound State Park, located in southern Illinois just across the river from St. Louis, Missouri, is the site of a great ancient city. The center of Mississipian Indian culture from 900 to 1300 AD, Cahokia was the largest pre-Columbian community in North America. The Cahokians built several ritual earthwork mounds that can still be seen today.
Humans first arrived at Cahokia around 700 AD, but sometime around 1050 the population exploded for unknown reasons and the city became a regional center of what is known as the Mississippian culture.
At its peak (1050-1250 AD), the city was home to 10-15,000 residents, with the regional population estimated to have been as large as 40,000. That means it may have been the biggest world metropolis of its time, surpassing even London.
The center of Cahokia, both geographically and spiritually, was the huge Monk's Mound. It was the home of the city's ruling priest, who lived in a wooden temple at the peak. He ruled over a social structure similar to that of the Maya or ancient Egyptians, with a graded aristocracy and a proletariat of slaves and commoners.
Cahokia's downfall was just as sudden as its rise. For some reason, by 1300, the once-magnificent city had been virtually abandoned and its people dispersed. It's possible that the construction of the great mound contributed to Cahokia's demise by overexploiting natural resources. Agricultural degradation, droughts, and overpopulation may also have been factors. In the late 1600s, the Cahokia Indians (of the Illinois confederacy) came to the area and it is from them that the site derives its name.
What to See
The Cahokians built three types of earthen mounds, which can all be seen today in Cahokia Mound State Park. The most important were pyramid-shaped platform mounds, which had flat tops that served as bases for ceremonial buildings or homes of the elite. Conical and ridge-top mounds were used for burials of important people and victims of sacrificial rituals. At its peak, Cahokia included 120 mounds.
The largest mound at Cahokia is a tiered pyramid known as Monks Mound, the largest prehistoric mound in the Americas. It gets its name from a community of Trappist monks who lived there from 1809 to 1813 and grew their vegetables on the terraces. Rising over 108 feet from its 16-acre base, it contains 22 million cubic feet (623,000 cubic meters) of earth. The earth was transported from nearby “borrow pits” in baskets carried on the backs of workers.
At the top of Monks Mound was a large wooden building — 105-feet long, 48 feet wide and about 50 feet high — that is believed to have been the temple and ceremonial home of the city’s ruler, the "Great Sun." Only the ruler and his priests could enter the temple on the summit. A sacred fire was kept burning at the top, which could be seen by the Mississipians from afar. There is evidence of human sacrifice here.
Today, visitors can climb to the top of Monks Mound via a modern stairway. The summit provides an excellent view of the site and of of the city of St. Louis across the river.
South of Monks Mound, and astronically aligned with it, is Mound 72, also known as the Mound of the Ruler-Priest. In this ridge-top burial mound, archeologists found the remains of an important ruler, a male in his 40s, lain on a bed of more than 20,000 marine shell beads. Nearby were caches of arrow tips from as far away as Arkansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Wisconsin, apparently sent in tribute to the deceased.
The buried man is thought to be the highest ruler of Cahokia, who was revered as the manifestation of the "Great Sun." The main skeleton was accompanied by the bones of six human sacrificial victims, and nearby were the bodies of 53 young women and four men who had had their heads and hands cut off. The human sacrifices may have been part of a mythical ritual, possibly a retelling of the story of creation.
Between the mounds were a series of plazas, the biggest of which — the Grand Plaza — covered almost 50 acres. These plazas were used for feasts, processions, public gatherings, and chunkey. Chunkey was a two-player game that consisted of rolling a smooth wheel-shaped stone and then throwing spears to try to come closest to the spot where the stone would come to rest.
Also discovered at the site was a palisade intended to protect the inner city and a circle of wooden poles known as Woodhenge, used as a solar calendar. Near the mounds is the Cahokian Interpretive Center, which has many reconstructions of Cahokian life and displays artifacts excavated at the site.
Quick Facts on Cahokia Mounds
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|Coordinates:||38.654386° N, 90.063064° W (view on Google Maps)|
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Map of Cahokia Mounds
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- Cahokia Mounds Home Page
- Norbert Brockman, Encyclopedia of Sacred Places (Oxford University Press, 1997), 33-34.
- Colin Wilson, The Atlas of Holy Places and Sacred Sites (DK Publishing, 1996), 77.
- A Mississippi Mound Mystery - MSNBC, August 11, 2004
- Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site - UNESCO World Heritage List
- Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site - U.S. National Park Service
- Reviews of Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site - TripAdvisor traveler reviews
- Cahokia Mounds State Park - 43 Places
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- Maureen Korp, Sacred Art of the Earth: Ancient and Contemporary Earthworks (Continuum International Publishing Group, 1997).
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- George R. Milner, The Moundbuilders: Ancient Peoples of Eastern North America (Thames & Hudson, 2005).
- Timothy R. Pauketat, Ancient Cahokia and the Mississippians (Cambridge University Press, 2004).
- Robert Silverberg, Mound Builders of Ancient America (Graphic Society, 1968).
- Susan Woodward and Jerry McDonald, Indian Mounds of the Middle Ohio Valley: A Guide to Mounds and Earthworks of the Adena, Hopewell, Cole, and Fort Ancient People (McDonald and Woodward, 1986).
- Cahokia Mounds - Go Historic
- Photos of Cahokia Mounds - here on Sacred Destinations
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