Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site
8 miles from St. Louis and along Route 40 sits an archaeological treasure- just outside of Collinsville, Illinois. The Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1964 and as a World Heritage Site in 1982. Yet this site gets about 250,000 visitors a year compared to the 4 million that visit the St. Louis arch.
When I told St. Louis natives that I had taken the kids there to visit and it was pretty spectacular- I was met with a real curiosity- most had never even heard of it, much less visited. As a recovering student of archaeology (participating in a dig remains on my bucket list!), I am fascinated with ancient cultures, especially Latin American ones and how they lived and died. I realize I am not the norm. But still- the whole place retains a real air of mystery.
Here’s a little bit about this sacred place and if you ever get the chance to visit St. Louis or Illinois- GO! You won’t regret it.
Sitting across from the Mississippi River, Cahokia Mounds covers 2,000 acres and is considered the largest pre-Columbian settlement north of Mexico. It was occupied primarily during the Mississippian period (800–1400). Primary features at the site include the 3.5 square mile Monks Mound, the largest prehistoric earthwork in the Americas. Its base covers over 14 acres and rises in 4 terraces to a height of 20.5 meters. The modern day stairs are built in the same way as the ancient peoples would have walked up the mound. It is believed that this mound was built in stages over a 200-300 year period. It is called Monks Mound because in the early 1800’s, Trappist monks lived across the road and had planned to build a monastery on top of the mound. They planted gardens and fruit trees but their plans were derailed and they were forced to return to France.
The ancient peoples of Cahokia Mounds were known as the Mound Builders and their original population was thought to have been only about 1,000 until about the 11th century when it expanded to tens of thousands. As with many other ancient structures, how these people built such complicated mounds is a mystery but here’s what we do know. The mounds were made primarily of earth. The soil was dug with tools made of stone, wood or shell and transported on people’s backs in baskets to the construction site. There were about 120 mounds but the locations of only 109 have been recorded. Most of the mounds were used for ceremonies but some were also used for burial purposes.
Stockades were found at this site and they have been reconstructed so we can imagine what it was like. There were four stockades built around the center of the city. There’s also a presence of bastions which indicates a defensive function as well- an interior line of defense. Bastions were like guard towers with raised platforms inside where warriors could stand to launch arrows against attackers. They would have had to use rope lashings and other posts to support the platform. It’s estimated that about 15-20,000 logs were used to build each stockade. They would have had to cut, trim, transport and erect the logs.
They built houses in rows around open plazas. They had agricultural fields and were known to have traded with tribes in Minnesota. They used plants for food, dyes, medicines, clothing, and roof thatching. No one knows the name of the real city and the name Cahokia is that of an unrelated tribe that was living in the area when the first French explorers arrived in the late 17th century. During excavation, the bodies of nearly 300 people- most of them young women were discovered. They are thought to have been human sacrifices.
After 1200 A.D. there was a decline in the population and gradually the entire site was abandoned. Theories for that decline are the ones we are all familiar with- climate change, war, disease, drought but the truth is unknown.
Here’s the real mystery. Despite what we know today of its significance as a cultural and economic center and powerhouse in the middle of America, there is no mention of the city in Native American folklore or stories among the Osage, Omaha, Ponca and Quapaw tribes. Archaeologists believe that something truly terrible happened at this site- something that all tribes wish to forget. What exactly that is- we shall never know.