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Cahokia Mounds – Largest
Archaeological Site in North America
Preserving the remains of an ancient
Native American city near
the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site is across the
Mississippi River from
Covering more than 2,000 acres, Cahokia is the most sophisticated
civilization north of Mexico.
Best known for large, man-made earthen structures, the city of Cahokia was
inhabited from about A.D. 700 to 1400. Built by ancient peoples known as
the Mound Builders, Cahokia's original population was thought to have been
only about 1,000 until about the 11th century when it expanded to tens of
Monks Mound at Cahokia Mounds today.
Photo by Kathy Weiser.
At its peak from 1,100 to 1,200 A.D., the
city covered nearly six square miles and boasted a population of as
many as 100,000 people.
Houses were arranged in rows around open
plazas. Agricultural fields and a number of smaller villages
surrounded and supplied the city. The Cahokians were known to have
traded with other tribes as far away as Minnesota. The original name of
the city is unknown and the inhabitants apparently never utilized
writing skills. The name Cahokia
is that of a unrelated tribe that was living in the area when the
first French explorers arrived in the late 17th century.
Indians built more than 120 earthen mounds in the city, 109 of
which have been recorded and 68 of which are preserved within the
site. Many others are thought to have been altered or destroyed
by farming and construction. While some are no more than a
gentle rise on the land, others reach 100 feet into the sky. Made entirely of earth these ancient people transported the soil on
their backs in baskets to the construction sites, most of which show
evidence of several construction stages. More than 50 million cubic
feet of earth was moved for the construction of the mounds, leaving
large depressions called borrow pits, which can still be seen in the
Three types of mounds
were constructed, the most common of which wash a platform mound,
thought to have been used as monumental structures for political or
religious ceremonies and may have once been topped by large buildings.
Conical and ridge top mounds were also constructed for use as burial
locations or marking important locations.
At the center of the
historical site is the largest earthwork called Monks Mound. At
one hundred feet, it is the largest prehistoric earthen mound in North
America. The mound is 1,000 feet long, 800 feet wide and
comprised of four terraces, each one probably added at different
times. An estimated 22 million cubic feet of earth was used to
build the mound between the years of 900 and 1,200 A.D. The
mound was named for French monks who lived nearby in the early 1,800's
as was most likely the site where the principal ruler lived, conducted
ceremonies, and governed the city. Over the years, the mound has
significantly eroded or been damaged by man, so that the original size
is now uncertain.
Surrounding Monks Mound and the center of
the city was a 2-mile-long stockade with guard towers placed every 70
feet. Thought to have been constructed four different times,
each building took nearly 20,000 logs. In addition to defense
purposes, the wall acted as a social barrier, separating the elite
from the common people. Today, several sections of the stockade
have been reconstructed.
Archaeologists have also excavated four, and possibly five, circular sun
calendars referred to as Woodhenge. These evenly spaced log posts
were utilized to determine the changing seasons, displaying an impressive
example of scientific and engineering practices.
On of the most interesting discoveries made during excavations was
that of a small ridge top mound referred to as Mound 72. Here,
archeologists found the bodies of nearly 300 people,
mostly young women believed to have been sacrificial victims. Nearby
was another grave, that of what appears to have been a male ruler
about 45 years of age. Laid upon a bed of 20,000 marine shell disc
beads, archeologists believe that many of the other bodies buried near
him are the remains of those who were sacrificed to serve him in the
Artist's rendition of Cahokian
Artist's rendition of Cahokia Mounds, photo
from Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site
During the excavation, four other skeletons were also uncovered that
continue to remain a mystery. These four men's heads and hands were
missing from their graves and no one knows why they were mutilated before
their burials. The burial site is estimated to have been originally dug
around 950-1000 A.D.
A gradual decline in the Cahokian population is thought to
have began sometime after 1200 A.D. and two centuries later, the entire
site had been abandoned. Though their fate remains unknown, theories
include climate changes, war, disease, and drought. Archeologists
continue to be puzzled by the fact that there are
no legends, records, nor mention of the once grand city in
the lore of other local tribes, including the Osage, Omaha, Ponca and Quapaw. This strange silence has led some experts to theorize that
something particularly dreadful happened at the site, for which the other
tribes wished to forget.
Many people still consider the Cahokia
site to be a sacred place and
Native Americans and metaphysical
Cahokia is a
source of powerful psychic energy.
Mounds State Historic Site was designated a National Historic Landmark in
1964 and as a World Heritage Site in 1982. The site features a variety of special events,
craft classes, lecture series, tours and other programs year round. Cahokia Mounds
is located just outside of
Illinois, a short distance off Interstates 55/70
and 255, along Route 40. The highway runs through the center of the area
separating Monk’s Mound from the Interpretive Center.
Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site
30 Ramey St
of America, updated August, 2012.
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Artists rendition of Cahokia Mounds
in 1150 A.D., courtesy
Mounds Museum Society and Art Grossman.
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