Cahokia Mounds (USA)

National landmark in Illinois celebrates the mound-building Cahokia culture

Steve Stephens

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STEVE STEPHENS | DISPATCH  - Climbing to the top of Monk’s Mound can be strenuous, but visitors are rewarded with a grand view.


STEVE STEPHENS | DISPATCH  -  The 100-foot-tall Monk's Mound rises starkly above the flat Mississippi bottomlands at the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site.


STEVE STEPHENS | DISPATCH  -  This large conical mound, one of the so-called Twin Mounds, rises on the opposite side of the Grand Plaza from Monk’s Mound.

Forgetting modernity and entering an ancient world is easy, at least from ground level, at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site. 

In its golden age around A.D. 1100, Cahokia was the center of a vast civilization and a city of some 20,000 residents — the largest pre-Columbian settlement north of Mexico and larger than London or Paris of the day. 

At that time, the ancient town of Cahokia covered about 4,000 acres dotted with more than 100 mounds interspersed with hundreds of pole-and-thatch family dwellings. 

Surrounding the central town was a 2-mile-long defensive log stockade. Vast agricultural fields just beyond supported the residents of the town. 


Today, Cahokia is a National Historic Landmark and a UNESCO World Heritage Site — one of only eight such UNESCO sites in the United States. (The modern-day city of Cahokia, Ill., is about 10 miles southwest of the ancient town.) About 2,200 acres centered on Cahokia’s ancient Grand Plaza are now protected as an Illinois state park. 

Visitors to the historic park will find a comprehensive interpretive center that tells the story of Cahokia as well as more than 70 ancient earthworks — including the largest ever built in the Americas — connected by a series of paths and trails. 

Cahokians had a sophisticated, hierarchical society supported by extensive agriculture. Many of the mounds they built were apparently used for ceremonial purposes and a few for burial of the dead. 

The story of Cahokia, as currently understood, is marvelously detailed at the park’s large, modern interpretive center built in 1989. 

I admit that I had my doubts whether a facility run by a state park system could do justice to a World Heritage Site. But I give credit to the state of Illinois for putting together and operating a first-class museum at Cahokia. 

Visitors can watch an award-winning documentary titled City of the Sun — a 15-minute introduction to Cahokia. The museum also contains a complete life-size re-creation of a small Cahokian village and many artifacts — including weapons, vessels, artwork and jewelry — recovered from digs at the site. 

Some of the exhibits explore the Cahokian influence on other Mississippian cultures; the structures and purposes of the various mounds; Cahokian crafts, tools and art; the history of archaeology at the site; and modern threats to, and efforts to save, Cahokia. 

Like so many of the ancient earthworks across the Midwest, including Ohio, many of the mounds at Cahokia succumbed to the plow and bulldozer, to farmers, town planners and highway engineers. Major mounds and sites associated with the Cahokian culture were destroyed with the growth of modern St. Louis and East St. Louis. 

But Cahokia itself was vast — and, fortunately, a bit off the path of progress — so many of the site’s mounds remained intact in whole or part. The most impressive is the 100-foot-tall Monk’s Mound, the largest ancient earthen structure in the Western Hemisphere. Many of the mounds have been excavated by researchers and archaeologists in recent years and have yielded a still-evolving portrait of the Cahokian culture. 

Among the most fascinating discoveries at Cahokia were made in ridge-topped burial mounds, unique to this culture. The mounds contained the remains of prominent individuals surrounded by the victims of apparent mass human sacrifice. In one such burial, a male leader was bedecked with elaborate ceremonial garb including a huge cape made of 20,000 shell beads. Nearby were the bodies of dozens of young women, seemingly sacrificed at the time of the leader’s death and buried with him. 

Many archaeologists think Cahokia was the epicenter of a cultural “big bang” that overtook and supplanted many of the religions and cultural practices of the surrounding peoples during the 11th to 14th centuries — before the city was abandoned for reasons still unknown. 

Archaeologists are still debating the meaning of many of the finds at Cahokia, where digs and analyses are ongoing. But there’s no doubt that the site was the hub of a highly organized and structured society with cultural, political and religious influence that spread for hundreds of miles up and down the Mississippi Valley and perhaps further. 

To really appreciate the site, a visitor must venture out of the interpretive center and into Cahokia itself. 

Several trails crisscross the site, including a 6-mile nature/culture hike passing through the park’s more remote areas. Most visitors, though, will find plenty to explore on the three interpretive trails that each take about 30 minutes to walk and that lead to some of the most prominent sites. Audio and booklet guides to the hikes are available at the interpretive center. 

All trails eventually lead to the 14-acre Monk’s Mound, which dominates the site now as it did 1,000 years ago. 

Monk’s Mound was named in modern times for a group of 19th-century French Trappist monks who located briefly near the mound. In ancient times, the mound was a ceremonial center and the site of the principal chief’s home. Today, visitors can climb up modern steps to the top of the structure for a commanding view of the surrounding Mississippi bottomlands. 

South across the 40-acre Grand Plaza, the center of Cahokian town life, several other large ancient mounds are visible. 

To the west is the re-created “Woodhenge,” which, like its stone counterpart in England, was a huge circle apparently constructed as an astronomical calendar. Cahokians oriented evenly spaced red cedar posts to align with the sun at certain important times such as the spring and autumn equinoxes. 

Just 2 miles beyond Woodhenge and the park boundary, though, is a huge mound that appears, at first glance, to be a twin to Monk’s Mound. (I was actually fooled on my first visit and almost got off on the wrong freeway exit.) 

Closer inspection reveals that this structure is actually much larger — and is alive with bulldozers and dump trucks near the top. That distant “mound” is actually the Milam Landfill, the final resting place of thousands of tons of the debris and detritus of modern metropolitan St. Louis. Also visible beyond the landfill is the Gateway Arch and the skyline of downtown St. Louis, just 9miles from Cahokia across the Mississippi River. 

Whatever the lessons — if any — to be taken from the juxtaposition of ancient and modern here, it’s true that archaeologists are happy that the citizens of Cahokia left a lot of their own detritus to be discovered 1,000 years later. The finds have led to a greater understanding of a fascinating and unique culture that might otherwise have been forgotten. 

What the archaeologists of A.D. 3012 will make of us is anyone’s guess — but they’ll probably know where to dig.