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Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site (UNESCO/NHK)

Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site (UNESCO/NHK)

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Cahokia Mounds, some 13 km north-east of St Louis, Missouri, is the largest pre-Columbian settlement north of Mexico. It was occupied primarily during the Mississippian period (800—1400), when it covered nearly 1,600 ha and included some 120 mounds. It is a striking example of a complex chiefdom society, with many satellite mound centres and numerous outlying hamlets and villages.

Source: UNESCO TV / © NHK Nippon Hoso Kyokai
URL: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/198/


Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site

Learn about one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites located right here in Illinois.

by Amber Holst in Outdoors, Family Fun, Activities
June 06, 2018

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By Amber Holst of Concierge Preferred Imagine an ancient Native American settlement where people built pyramids, constructed solar observatories and, yes, even practiced human sacrifice. You’d have to travel to Mexico to see that, right? Nope.

Imagine an ancient Native American settlement where people built pyramids, constructed solar observatories and, yes, even practiced human sacrifice. You’d have to travel to Mexico to see that, right? Nope. It’s right here in Southern Illinois, and the ancient civilization’s massive remains stand as one of the best-kept archaeological secrets in the country.

So Much More than Dirt Mounds

Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in Collinsville uniquely illustrates America's past, both pre-Columbian and post-“discovery.” The site, one of 24 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the U.S., preserves the history of a city that existed long before Columbus stumbled onto our continent.

This planned city covered six square miles dotted with 120 earthworks, 70 of which remain on the site’s 2,200 acres today. The community began around 700AD as a cluster of small settlements by the people of the Mississippian cultural tradition and by 1150 the population had exploded to anywhere from 20,000 in most estimates to as high as 50,000 in others. To put this in perspective, London's population was around 20,000 during that same period.


The lost ancient megacity of the United States

The Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site is the site of a pre-Columbian Native American city (which existed c. 1050–1350 CE) directly across the Mississippi River from modern St. Louis, Missouri. This historic park lies in southwestern Illinois between East St. Louis and Collinsville.

Things are quieter these days at Cahokia, now a placid Unesco site. But towering, earthen mounds there hint at the legacy of the largest pre-Columbian city north of Mexico.

Seventy of Cahokia’s original mounds are protected within the Unesco World Heritage Site

A cosmopolitan whir of language, art and spiritual ferment, Cahokia’s population may have swelled to 30,000 people at its 1050 AD peak, making it larger, at the time, than Paris.

It’s what Cahokia didn’t have that’s startling, writes Annalee Newitz in their recent book Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age. The massive city lacked a permanent marketplace, confounding old assumptions that trade is the organising principle behind all urbanisation.

“Cahokia was really a cultural centre rather than a trade centre. It still boggles my mind. I keep wondering ‘Where were they trading? Who was making money?’,” Newitz said. “The answer is they weren’t. That wasn’t why they built the space.”

Newitz isn’t alone in their surprise. Assumptions that commerce is the key to urban life long shaped a Western view of the past, explains archaeologist Timothy Pauketat, who has studied Cahokia for decades.

“It’s definitely a bias that influenced earlier archaeologists,” he said. When excavating cities in Mesopotamia, researchers found evidence that trade was the organising principle behind their development, then turned the same lens on ancient cities across the globe. “People thought that this must be the basis for all early cities. It’s led to generations of looking for that kind of thing everywhere,” Pauketat said.

Built on the cusp of water and land, Cahokia may have been a spiritual crossroads

They didn’t find it in Cahokia, which Pauketat believes may instead have been conceived as a place to bridge the worlds of the living and the dead. For many cultures with roots in ancient Cahokia, “water is this barrier between the world of the living and the world of the dead,” Pauketat said. Sprawling across a landscape that combines solid earth with patches of the swamp, Cahokia may have served as a kind of spiritual crossroads.

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“It’s a city built to straddle water and dry land,” Pauketat said. Living residents settled in the driest spots, while burial mounds rose up in wetter places. Lidar scans of the site have revealed elevated causeways linking the “neighbourhoods” of the living and the dead, physical walkways that literally joined the realms.

And if living at the cusp of the two worlds sounds rather sombre, Cahokians seem to have seen their hometown as a festive place. In Four Lost Cities, Newitz writes that Cahokia’s planners crafted structures and public spaces devoted entirely to mass gatherings, places where individuals would be swept up by the joy of collective experiences. The most spectacular of all was the 50-acre Grand Plaza, where 10,000 or more people could come together for celebrations in a monumental space flanked by earthen pyramids.

“It’s hard to capture the intensity, the grandeur, the multi-dimensionality of an event like that,” Pauketat said. For days, food and drink would be carried into the city, where a phalanx of cooks fed people arriving for the festivities. Stockpiles of wild game, berries, fruits and vegetables became shared feasts. Visitors would sleep in temporary housing or the homes of friends, heading to the plaza for dances, blessings and other events.

Archaeological work is ongoing at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site

On the plaza, the crowd’s buzzing energy turned to a collective roar when spectators bet on bouts of chunkey. The game kicked off when a player rolled a stone disk across the smooth surface of the ground. Taut with focus, hundreds of athletes hurled their spears even as the stone still bounced and rolled. The winner was the one whose spear stuck nearest to the chunkey stone, like a massive game of bocce played with deadly projectiles. Towering poles lining the Grand Plaza may have provided another spectacle of athletic grace, Pauketat said. He imagines men may have climbed the poles or tied themselves in for soaring, airborne dances, a ritual still practised in some Maya parts of Mesoamerica. “In the Mesoamerican ceremony, you have these big, tall cypress poles put in, and four guys who dress up as bird men and fly around those poles,” he said. “We’ve got those poles at Cahokia.”

Shell beads, feathers and fine leather caught the sunlight as everyone donned their most elaborate costumes for such events, Pauketat explained. Cahokians loved a palette of red, white and black people styled their hair into elaborate buns, mohawks and plumes. Tattoos adorned some bodies and faces. When the parties ended, Cahokians swept waste into pits that now serve as accounts of what the citizens ate and drank together. A decade ago, analysis of pottery beakers archaeologists found at Cahokia revealed biomarkers for a species of holly, known as yaupon, that’s the only caffeinated plant native to North America. Cahokians, it seems, kept the festivities going in part by catching a buzz. And since the native range of yaupon is hundreds of miles from the city site, we know they put significant effort into obtaining it.

The largest pre-Columbian city north of Mexico, Cahokia mingled art, spirituality and celebration

That, in turn, may have cemented the plants’ place in ritual life. “Part of their value is in the difficulty of acquiring them,” said anthropologist Patricia Crown, who led the analysis of the beakers. “You had to have the networks to be able to get the substance if it was really important to your religious system. Today, the site of ancient Cahokia is preserved as Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, a Unesco World Heritage Site where archaeological work is ongoing. Seventy of the original mounds are protected there, and a long staircase leads to the summit of Monks Mound, with views across the Grand Plaza. Toting audio guides, visitors walk a 10km path winding through grassland, forest and wetlands.

The ancient ruins of Cahokia are close to the US city of St Louis, Missouri

Once again, as in ancient times, a constellation of tall poles aligns with the rising sun to measure passing seasons. The onsite interpretive centre features recreated scenes of life here, along with displays of stone tools and pottery shaped by skilled Cahokian hands.

They fit right into American history

Modern life is not far away: Cahokia is framed by a middle-American sprawl of interstate highways and suburbia. But it wasn’t modern development that ended Cahokia’s thrilling story.

Eventually, Cahokians simply chose to leave their city behind, seemingly impelled by a mix of environmental and human factors such as a changing climate that crippled agriculture, roiling violence or disastrous flooding. By 1400, the plazas and mounds lay quiet.

Tall poles aligned with the rising sun measured seasons in Cahokia’s heyday

When Europeans first encountered the remarkable mounds at Cahokia, they saw a lost civilisation, explains Newitz in Four Lost Cities. They wondered if some faraway people had built Cahokia, then disappeared, taking with them the brilliant culture and sophistication that had once thrived in the soil of the Mississippi bottomland, where the earth is enriched by riverine floods. But the people of Cahokia, of course, didn’t disappear. They simply left, and with them, Cahokia’s influence wove outward to far-flung places, where some of their most beloved pastimes are cherished to this day.

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The yaupon they loved to drink is making a mainstream comeback as a sustainable, local tea that can be harvested from the forest. Chunkey – Cahokia’s favourited game – never went away either. In some Native communities, it has attracted a new generation of young athletes and is on the roster with stickball and blowguns at Cherokee community games.

But it’s more than that. Cahokians loved to kick back over good barbecue and sporting events, a combination that, Newitz noted, is conspicuously familiar to nearly all modern-day Americans. “We party that way all across the United States,” they said. “They fit right into American history.


Visiting Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site

Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site is located east of St. Louis, MO, in Collinsville, IL off Interstates 55-70 and 255, and Illinois 111.

  • Address: 30 Ramey Dr, Collinsville, IL 62234
  • Website: cahokiamounds.org
  • Hours: The grounds are open daily from dawn until dusk and the Cahokia Mounds Museum & Interpretive Center is open Wednesday through Sunday from 9 am to 5 pm.
  • Admission: Admission is free, but there’s a suggested donation of $7 for adults, $5 for seniors, $2 for children, and $15 for families.

Find a hotel near Cahokia Mounds Illinois: Booking.com | Hotels Combined | Read Reviews at TripAdvisor

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Mississippi River Country’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites

These UNESCO World Heritage Sites tell the story of the Mississippi River region, its land and its people. Plan your visit today.

From remnants of once-massive Native American civilizations to natural wonders that showcase the wild beauty of the United States, UNESCO World Heritage Sites help tell the story of the region, its land, and its people. Here’s a closer look at the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Mississippi River Country.

Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, Illinois

This site, which once covered nearly 16 square kilometers and contained 120 earthen mounds, was the largest pre-Columbian settlement north of Mexico. The area was occupied mainly from A.D. 800 to 1200 and may have had a population as high as 20,000 people. The highlight of the site is Monks Mound, the largest prehistoric earthwork in North or South America, which rises 30 meters above the ground. Visitors to the site can take a self-guided tour of the mounds and learn about the history of the region at the Interpretive Center, which features educational exhibits and public programs.

Getting there: Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site is a 25-minute (35km) drive from St. Louis Lambert International Airport in St. Louis, Missouri.

Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky

Mammoth Cave, located in central Kentucky, is the most extensive cave system in the world, with more than 450km of surveyed passages within the park’s boundaries, and 125km more outside the park. The cave system is home to nearly every type of cave formation and more than 130 species of plants and animals. In addition to cave tours of various lengths and difficulty levels, the park is a popular spot for camping, hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, fishing, swimming, and canoeing and kayaking.

Getting there: Mammoth Cave is a 1-hour, 20-minute (145km) drive from Louisville International Airport in Louisville, Kentucky, and a 1-hour, 30-minute drive (160km) from Nashville International Airport in Nashville, Tennessee.

Frank Lloyd Wright Sites, Wisconsin and Illinois

A collection of buildings designed by the iconic American architect Frank Lloyd Wright have been named to the UNESCO World Heritage List. There are eight buildings on the list and four of them are in Mississippi River Country. The buildings include the Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois the Frederick C. Robie House in Chicago, Illinois Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin and the Herbert and Katherine Jacobs House in Madison, Wisconsin. While some sites are not open for public tours, Taliesin welcomes visitors. It was Wright’s home, studio, school, and 325-hectare agricultural estate.

Getting there: The sites are driving distance from Chicago O’Hare International Airport. Taliesin is the furthest from the airport: it’s about 2 hours and 35 minutes away. Madison is about 2 hours from Chicago-O’Hare. Another option: Fly into the Dane County Regional Airport in Madison.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

UNESCO named Great Smoky Mountains National Park—which straddles the border of Tennessee and North Carolina—as a World Heritage Site in 1983 as an example of an ecologically rich and diverse landscape, reflecting how the area looked before human contact. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most-visited National Park site in the United States and is home to more than 3,500 plant species, including nearly as many species of trees (130) as there are in all of Europe. The Smoky Mountains are also home to many endangered animal species, including the greatest variety of salamanders in the world. The park is a popular destination for camping, hiking (including part of the Appalachian Trail) and auto tours.

Getting there: There are three main entrances to the park—Gatlinburg and Townsend in Tennessee and Cherokee in North Carolina. Townsend is a 45-minute drive and Gatlinburg is a 1-hour drive from nearby Knoxville, Tennessee, home to McGhee Tyson Airport the cities are each about 3 hours from Nashville International Airport. The closest airport to Cherokee is Asheville Regional Airport, about an hour away Charlotte Douglas International Airport in Charlotte is about 3 hours away (both located in North Carolina)

Poverty Point World Heritage Site, Louisiana

Located in northeastern Louisiana just a short drive from the Mississippi River, Poverty Point is home to a collection of earthen monuments that were constructed more than 3,000 years ago by the native hunter-gatherers who lived in the area. The central mound at the site is one of the largest constructed earthen mounds in North America, and the scale of the construction was not topped for more than 2,000 years—even though the area’s settlers did not have modern tools or domesticated animals. Today, visitors can take guided tours of the site, watch demonstrations, and visit the museum. Poverty Point is also home to picnic areas and more than 6.5 kilometers of hiking trails.

Getting there: Poverty Point is a 1-hour, 45-minute drive (170km) from Jackson-Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport in Jackson, Mississippi, and approximately 4 hours (400km) from Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport in Louisiana.


Cahokia Mounds

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Cahokia Mounds, archaeological site occupying some 5 square miles (13 square km) on the Mississippi River floodplain opposite St. Louis, Missouri, near Cahokia and Collinsville, southwestern Illinois, U.S. The site originally consisted of about 120 mounds spread over 6 square miles (16 square km), but some of the mounds and other ancient features have been destroyed. Some 70 mounds are preserved in Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site. Established in 1979 and encompassing 3.4 square miles (8.9 square km), it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1982.

Cahokia was first occupied in ad 700 and flourished for approximately four centuries (c. 950–1350). It reached a peak population of as many as 20,000 individuals and was the most extensive urban centre in prehistoric America north of Mexico and the primary centre of the Middle Mississippian culture. The area was later named Cahokia (meaning “Wild Geese”) for a group of Illinois peoples that inhabited the area in the 18th century.

Skilled administrators and a large labour force were needed to plan, build, and maintain the site. It was laid out with clearly defined zones for administrative and ceremonial functions, elite compounds, residential neighbourhoods, and even suburbs—all with similar orientation on the cardinal directions. Among the largest features are an enormous central plaza encompassing nearly 40 acres (16 hectares) and numerous immense earthworks, including the pyramidal Monks Mound (built between 900 and 1200), the largest prehistoric earthen structure in the Western Hemisphere, which rises to 100 feet (30 metres), covers more than 14 acres (6 hectares), and contains more than 25 million cubic feet (700,000 cubic metres) of earth. The seat of governance for Cahokia, Monks Mound is believed to have housed a building some 100 feet long, nearly 50 feet (15 metres) wide, and 50 feet tall. Materials excavated at the site indicate that the city traded with peoples from as far away as the Gulf of Mexico, the Appalachians, the Great Lakes, and the Rocky Mountains.

Although there were some specialists within Cahokia’s society, most members were engaged in agriculture, with corn (maize) as the central focus. The city was favourably located on a major local tributary of the Mississippi River. Nearby were diverse habitats, including expanses of open water and marshes that provided fish, the most important protein source for the populace. Most importantly, the largest zone of high-quality soils in the local region was located immediately to the east. There, on the floodplain and along its bordering alluvial fans, large corn outfields were situated. Within the city itself, multicrop infields and house gardens were situated on soils that had been enriched by prior human occupation. Although this mixed agricultural strategy was successful for dispersed populations in the region, it ultimately proved unsuitable for the much denser population at Cahokia.

The site and its hinterland declined and were eventually abandoned, probably because of environmental degradation, although it has been suggested that disease, climatic change, societal stress, and warfare may have been contributing factors. The population placed substantial demands on wood resources for fuel and construction and, during the initial centuries of the city’s occupation, cleared the forests upstream of the site. The denuded watershed produced greatly increased rates of runoff, erosion, and unseasonable summer flooding in Cahokia’s fields, causing crops to fail and overall production to decline. The economic and social consequences were disastrous, probably leading to starvation, loss of faith in leadership, increased competition for land, and regional warfare. During that period, the inhabitants constructed a series of palisaded wooden fortifications through enormous effort—clear evidence of external threats that previously had not existed. The city was slowly abandoned, and its occupants moved to the east, south, and west, where they were most likely assimilated by other Native American groups.


Cahokia Mounds national park status legislation reintroduced

Cahokia, near present-day St. Louis, was the largest prehistoric city in North America at its peak by 1150 A.D. It is well known for its mounds, including the prominent Monks Mound. Legislation to make the site part of the National Park System has been introduced at the federal level.

William R. Iseminger | Hearst Illinois Show More Show Less

U.S. Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, talks during a 2019 press conference at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in Collinsville announcing the introduction of legislation to make the Mounds part of the National Park System. The legislation did not move forward during the last Congress, and on Monday Bost and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, announced it would be reintroduced. Bost was standing in front of a mural depicting the ancient city of Cahokia at its zenith at about C.E. 1200.

U.S. Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, talks during a 2019 press conference at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in Collinsville announcing the introduction of legislation to make the Mounds part of the National Park System. The legislation did not move forward during the last Congress, and on Monday Bost and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, announced it would be reintroduced. The mural depicts the city’s residents playing a game called Chunkey.

Scott Cousins | Hearst Illinois Show More Show Less

An effort to establish national park status for Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site and related areas has started again with the reintroduction of companion bills in the U.S. House and Senate.

State Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, have introduced legislation to establish national park status for Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site. The Cahokia Mounds and Mississippian Culture National Historic Park would include mounds in Madison, St. Clair and Monroe counties, as well as Sugarloaf Mound in St. Louis. The park would be jointly managed between the park service and local stakeholders.

Local groups have been working since 2016 to move this forward, and in 2019 Bost introduced legislation to establish the national historic park.

However, the bill was never brought to a vote.

On Monday Bost and Durbin announced the reintroduction of the bills in the new session of Congress.

&ldquoSouthern Illinois is home to one of American history&rsquos greatest civilizations,&rdquo Bost said in a written statement. &ldquoCahokia was the largest city and center of the ancient Mississippian people. Cahokia and the associated mounds sites in the region are a critical part of our history and incorporating them into our national park system will help us preserve this history for generations to come.&rdquo

&ldquoCahokia Mounds is an important natural, archaeological, and culture landmark that represents the indigenous peoples and landscapes that once made up America&rsquos first cities in the Western Hemisphere,&rdquo Durbin said in a written statement. &ldquoWith this bill to update the site&rsquos historical designation, we can take another step forward in recognizing Cahokia Mounds as the cultural asset it is and offer the necessary protections to ensure the site is protected for generations to come.&rdquo

Cahokia Mounds was the center of the North American mound-building culture, reaching its height by about C.E. 1200. However, within 200 years the city and surrounding villages were largely abandoned for unknown reasons.

Today about 70 mounds, ranging from Monk&rsquos Mound, or the Temple Mound, to many smaller mounds over the 2,200 acre park.

Over the years many of the mounds in the St. Louis region have disappeared. In St. Louis, historically known as &ldquoMound City,&rdquo only Sugar Loaf Mound remains.

Other areas include Mitchell, East St. Louis and Fairmont City, where work on the Stan Musial Bridge prompted archaeological excavations in the former National City Stockyards. The work resulted in major finds and for several years was the largest archaeological dig in the United States.

According to archaeologists, the significance of the area is most Native Americans along the Mississippi River would have never seen more than 50-100 people, a small farming community or village, at one time. Traveling along the river, they would have come to the area between present-day St. Louis and East St. Louis, and discovered a town of about 3,000 on the west side of the river, and a town of about 5,000 on the east. Going east they would have entered Cahokia, with about 15,000 people.

Cahokia Mounds is run by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. If the historic park designation is approved, the entire park would be jointly run by state, local and federal agencies.

The Belleville-based Heartlands Conservancy began pushing for the designation in 2016 through its &ldquoThe Mounds: America&rsquos First Cities&rdquo initiative.

&ldquoI appreciate the dedication of HeartLands Conservancy and all of our state and local leaders who have been working tirelessly to make this effort a reality,&rdquo Bost said.

&ldquoThese companion bills are nearly identical to the bills from 2019 and seek to elevate Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and several surrounding mound sites as a unit of the National Park system using a partnership model,&rdquo said Mary Vandevord, president and CEO of the Heartlands Conservancy. &ldquoThe bills further seek to provide access to Indigenous people for spiritual practices and expressions.

&ldquoWe would like to thank the senator and representative for their leadership and persistence in ensuring Cahokia Mounds and the Mississippian Culture receive the national recognition this sacred landscape deserves,&rdquo she added.

In 2019 both Madison and St. Clair counties passed resolutions in support of the designation.

In addition to its state historic site status, Cahokia Mounds is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a National Historic Landmark, and is on the National Register of Historic Places. According to some archaeologists, this entire region from the Koster Site near Kampsville to Cahokia Mounds is considered as archaeologically significant as the Nile Valley in Egypt.


The Mysterious Pre-Columbian Settlement of Cahokia

Cahokia was the largest pre-columbian settlement north of Mexico. It collapsed centuries before Europeans arrived in the region. What happened?

Ever heard of Cahokia? The Cahokia Mounds in Collinsville, Illinois, are the remains of the largest pre-Columbian settlement north of Mexico. By some estimates, Cahokia was more populous than London in the twelfth century. Today it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and State Historic Site. There are 120 mounds—the largest, Monks Mound, covers 17 acres. Other examples of these monumental constructions used to be found in nearby East St. Louis and across the Mississippi in St. Louis (once nicknamed the Mound City) these were largely destroyed in the nineteenth century.

The Mississippian Culture, as we now call it, coalesced in the American Bottom region from about 600–1400 CE. And then the culture collapsed, well before Europeans came across the ruins. Much remains unknown about Cahokia and the peoples who lived and labored there.

Historian Julie Zimmermann Holt offers this theory: “The archaeological record of Cahokia indicates something more than a chiefdom and more than a ceremonial center. It was a ‘theater of power.‘” The “theater state” is a formulation of anthropologist Clifford Geertz: in such a state, religion and ritual bind together a multiethnic polity. Notably, Cahokia’s Mound 72 has the remains of 250 people, mostly young women, who were sacrificed and then interred there.

“Rituals became the essence of the Ramey State” writes Holt, using the name given this political entity by some archeologists. “The supporters of this state did so not because they were coerced but because they wanted to take part in the drama, a grand cultural experiment unlike anything seen before or after in their world.”

But then what happened? Larry V. Benson, Timothy R. Pauketat and Edward R. Cook offer up a climate change thesis to explain Cahokia’s sudden boom and equally sudden bust. The climate record, as preserved in tree rings and the archaeological record, suggests Cahokia exploded in growth and organization between 1050-1100 in the “one of the wettest 50-year periods during the last millennium.” There was an influx of migrants to the area, particularly the nearby uplands. The population of “downtown Cahokia” is estimated to have been 10,000-15,000 in this period. Agriculture and fishing boomed.

Then it all dried up. Benson et al. write, “Persistent drought [from 1100-1245] seems to have led to the downfall of upland farming if not also to the demise of Cahokia.” Additionally, there are fewer fish remains found for this drought period, suggesting that the lack of rain affected the American Bottom’s once rich freshwater fisheries.

Benson and company also say that around the year 1150, the first of several 3-km-long palisade walls were built around Monks Mound and the Grand Plaza of Cahokia. They consider this evidence of social unrest and conflict, sparked by climate change, concluding, “Persistent drought appears to have led to the downfall of upland farming if not also to the demise of Cahokia.”


The lost ancient megacity of the United States

The Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site is the site of a pre-Columbian Native American city (which existed c. 1050–1350 CE) directly across the Mississippi River from modern St. Louis, Missouri. This historic park lies in southwestern Illinois between East St. Louis and Collinsville.

Things are quieter these days at Cahokia, now a placid Unesco site. But towering, earthen mounds there hint at the legacy of the largest pre-Columbian city north of Mexico.

A cosmopolitan whir of language, art and spiritual ferment, Cahokia’s population may have swelled to 30,000 people at its 1050 AD peak, making it larger, at the time, than Paris.

Seventy of Cahokia’s original mounds are protected within the Unesco World Heritage Site

It’s what Cahokia didn’t have that’s startling, writes Annalee Newitz in their recent book Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age. The massive city lacked a permanent marketplace, confounding old assumptions that trade is the organising principle behind all urbanisation.

“Cahokia was really a cultural centre rather than a trade centre. It still boggles my mind. I keep wondering ‘Where were they trading? Who was making money?’,” Newitz said. “The answer is they weren’t. That wasn’t why they built the space.”

Newitz isn’t alone in their surprise. Assumptions that commerce is the key to urban life long shaped a Western view of the past, explains archaeologist Timothy Pauketat, who has studied Cahokia for decades.

“It’s definitely a bias that influenced earlier archaeologists,” he said. When excavating cities in Mesopotamia, researchers found evidence that trade was the organising principle behind their development, then turned the same lens on ancient cities across the globe. “People thought that this must be the basis for all early cities. It’s led to generations of looking for that kind of thing everywhere,” Pauketat said.

Built on the cusp of water and land, Cahokia may have been a spiritual crossroads

They didn’t find it in Cahokia, which Pauketat believes may instead have been conceived as a place to bridge the worlds of the living and the dead. For many cultures with roots in ancient Cahokia, “water is this barrier between the world of the living and the world of the dead,” Pauketat said. Sprawling across a landscape that combines solid earth with patches of the swamp, Cahokia may have served as a kind of spiritual crossroads.

“It’s a city built to straddle water and dry land,” Pauketat said. Living residents settled in the driest spots, while burial mounds rose up in wetter places. Lidar scans of the site have revealed elevated causeways linking the “neighbourhoods” of the living and the dead, physical walkways that literally joined the realms.

And if living at the cusp of the two worlds sounds rather sombre, Cahokians seem to have seen their hometown as a festive place. In Four Lost Cities, Newitz writes that Cahokia’s planners crafted structures and public spaces devoted entirely to mass gatherings, places where individuals would be swept up by the joy of collective experiences. The most spectacular of all was the 50-acre Grand Plaza, where 10,000 or more people could come together for celebrations in a monumental space flanked by earthen pyramids.

The ancient ruins of Cahokia are close to the US city of St Louis, Missouri

“It’s hard to capture the intensity, the grandeur, the multi-dimensionality of an event like that,” Pauketat said. For days, food and drink would be carried into the city, where a phalanx of cooks fed people arriving for the festivities. Stockpiles of wild game, berries, fruits and vegetables became shared feasts. Visitors would sleep in temporary housing or the homes of friends, heading to the plaza for dances, blessings and other events.

On the plaza, the crowd’s buzzing energy turned to a collective roar when spectators bet on bouts of chunkey. The game kicked off when a player rolled a stone disk across the smooth surface of the ground. Taut with focus, hundreds of athletes hurled their spears even as the stone still bounced and rolled. The winner was the one whose spear stuck nearest to the chunkey stone, like a massive game of bocce played with deadly projectiles. Towering poles lining the Grand Plaza may have provided another spectacle of athletic grace, Pauketat said. He imagines men may have climbed the poles or tied themselves in for soaring, airborne dances, a ritual still practised in some Maya parts of Mesoamerica. “In the Mesoamerican ceremony, you have these big, tall cypress poles put in, and four guys who dress up as bird men and fly around those poles,” he said. “We’ve got those poles at Cahokia.”

The largest pre-Columbian city north of Mexico, Cahokia mingled art, spirituality and celebration

Shell beads, feathers and fine leather caught the sunlight as everyone donned their most elaborate costumes for such events, Pauketat explained. Cahokians loved a palette of red, white and black people styled their hair into elaborate buns, mohawks and plumes. Tattoos adorned some bodies and faces. When the parties ended, Cahokians swept waste into pits that now serve as accounts of what the citizens ate and drank together. A decade ago, analysis of pottery beakers archaeologists found at Cahokia revealed biomarkers for a species of holly, known as yaupon, that’s the only caffeinated plant native to North America. Cahokians, it seems, kept the festivities going in part by catching a buzz. And since the native range of yaupon is hundreds of miles from the city site, we know they put significant effort into obtaining it.

Archaeological work is ongoing at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site

That, in turn, may have cemented the plants’ place in ritual life. “Part of their value is in the difficulty of acquiring them,” said anthropologist Patricia Crown, who led the analysis of the beakers. “You had to have the networks to be able to get the substance if it was really important to your religious system. Today, the site of ancient Cahokia is preserved as Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, a Unesco World Heritage Site where archaeological work is ongoing. Seventy of the original mounds are protected there, and a long staircase leads to the summit of Monks Mound, with views across the Grand Plaza. Toting audio guides, visitors walk a 10km path winding through grassland, forest and wetlands.

Tall poles aligned with the rising sun measured seasons in Cahokia’s heyday

Once again, as in ancient times, a constellation of tall poles aligns with the rising sun to measure passing seasons. The onsite interpretive centre features recreated scenes of life here, along with displays of stone tools and pottery shaped by skilled Cahokian hands.

They fit right into American history

Modern life is not far away: Cahokia is framed by a middle-American sprawl of interstate highways and suburbia. But it wasn’t modern development that ended Cahokia’s thrilling story.

Eventually, Cahokians simply chose to leave their city behind, seemingly impelled by a mix of environmental and human factors such as a changing climate that crippled agriculture, roiling violence or disastrous flooding. By 1400, the plazas and mounds lay quiet.

When Europeans first encountered the remarkable mounds at Cahokia, they saw a lost civilisation, explains Newitz in Four Lost Cities. They wondered if some faraway people had built Cahokia, then disappeared, taking with them the brilliant culture and sophistication that had once thrived in the soil of the Mississippi bottomland, where the earth is enriched by riverine floods. But the people of Cahokia, of course, didn’t disappear. They simply left, and with them, Cahokia’s influence wove outward to far-flung places, where some of their most beloved pastimes are cherished to this day.

In 1050 AD, the Native American cosmopolis of Cahokia was bigger than Paris

The yaupon they loved to drink is making a mainstream comeback as a sustainable, local tea that can be harvested from the forest. Chunkey – Cahokia’s favourited game – never went away either. In some Native communities, it has attracted a new generation of young athletes and is on the roster with stickball and blowguns at Cherokee community games.

But it’s more than that. Cahokians loved to kick back over good barbecue and sporting events, a combination that, Newitz noted, is conspicuously familiar to nearly all modern-day Americans. “We party that way all across the United States,” they said. “They fit right into American history.


5 Reasons To Visit The Astonishing Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site!

If you’re planning a trip on the Great River Road, a tourist gem resides just outside the city of Collinsville, Illinois. Here you’ll find the remains of the most civilized prehistoric civilization north of Mexico. Dating back to 700 AD, the Cahokia Mounds Historic Site is a preservation of the archaeological remnants of the great civilization of Cahokia, home to the early Mississippians and Native Americans. Here they built over 100 astonishingly large man-made mounds for ceremonial and burial grounds, and 70 of these mounds still exist today for visitors to explore and learn about the history and culture.

Covering over 2,200 acres, a visit to Cahokia Mounds includes walking the grounds and exploring the remaining mounds, which are a sight to see in and of themselves. Visitors also can stop by the Interpretive Center to learn more about the history and the people who inhabited this great civilization.

Here are five reasons to put Cahokia Mounds on the top of the list for your next trip on the Great River Road.

Covering over 2,200 acres, a visit to Cahokia Mounds includes walking the grounds and exploring the remaining mounds, which are a sight to see in and of themselves. Visitors also can stop by the Interpretive Center to learn more about the history and the people who inhabited this great civilization.

Here are five reasons to put Cahokia Mounds on the top of the list for your next trip on the Great River Road.

1. You Can Hike Up To The Top Of Monk’s Mound

Of all the mounds at Cahokia, Monks Mound is the largest, towering over 100 feet, and is the centerpiece of the historic site. Built between 900 and 1200 AD, Monk Mound took 300 years to build to produce the pyramid-shaped earthen structure that covers over 14 acres. In the ancient times of the Cahokia civilization, a massive structure was built on top of the mound, which is speculated to have been the living quarters of the tribe chief and a ceremonial and government building.

Though the structure is no longer atop Monk Mound today, if you’re up for a short trek you can climb the two terraces that lead up either end of the mound. Visitors and locals alike use the area as a good place to walk and jog, so keep in mind bringing a comfortable pair of walking shoes. Once you’ve reached the top you can take in the spectacular and breathtaking views of the area, including the nearby skyline of St. Louis.

2. You’ll Love Stopping By The Interpretive Center

Being a World Heritage UNESCO site and a historical U.S. Landmark, the Interpretive Center at Cahokia Mounds is a world-class facility that provides an interactive look into the early Mississippian culture and its origins. The center promotes the uniqueness of this ancient world by highlighting it as an urban center for religious, political, economic, and culture.

As you step into the center, you are stepping back into the world of the Cahokia civilization. Check out the displays of Mississippian Native American culture with the life-sized dioramas of natives hunting, cooking, playing, and trading. You can also learn about the different types of ancient architecture by exploring the life-sized replica homes.

3. The Mysterious Woodhenges Are Astonishing To Observe

For an exciting sight head west from Monks Mound to another preserved landmark from the Cahokia civilization. Here you will find the Cahokia people’s own sun calendars, which they called Woodhenges. Much like the famous Stonehenge, these Woodhenges helped determine the changing seasons and ceremonial dates.

As you explore the Woodhenges, you can see the science and engineering that went behind building each one. While you can visit them at any time, the site occasionally holds special sunrise observances during the spring and fall equinoxes and the winter and summer solstices that you don’t want to miss.

4. You Can Enjoy The Simplicity Of A Guided Tour

Out of the 2,200 acres that Cahokia Mounds sits on, 800 acres are available to the public to explore and experience. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the sheer amount of things to do at the site, there are many guided tours offered to visitors to help you have the best possible experience.

If you’d like to interact with a tour guide and other visitors, you can take the public tour of either Monks Mound or the Grand Plaza-Twin Mounds mound. During the summer months of June, July, and August, tours are conducted Wednesday through Sunday, and during April, May, September, and October these tours are only available on the weekends. If you would rather explore the site solo or with a group of friends and family, there are plenty of options for self-guided tours. These options include iPod Tours, Nature/Culture Hike Guidebook, Tape Tours, or a Tour Guidebook.


Watch the video: Cahokia Mounds. The Wonder of Illinois. (January 2022).