Mounds Full of Wonder: Cahokia Has It All
Did you know that Illinois was once home to the largest prehistoric native civilization north of Mexico? And did you also know that at around 1,000 A.D., the population of this great civilization dwarfed that of London, England?
Yes, Illinois has its tales to tell and Cahokia Mounds is one of them.
This World Heritage UNESCO site (the only one in the Great lakes Region) and historical U.S. Landmark sits in southwest Illinois in the city of Collinsville and not far from the Mississippi River.
What is Cahokia Mounds?
A fantastic civilization rose up in the Mississippi floodplain over 1,000 years ago near present day Collinsville. The people who lived here built hundreds of ceremonial and burial mounds, including a 100-foot tall pyramid like mound. They created a scientific marvel now called Woodhenge. There were even four 2-mile long palisade walls built to enclose prominent public spaces within a huge marvel of a city.
The details of day-to-day life is this native culture are a mystery, as are the reasons for the civilization’s eventual decline around 1300 A.D. Much of life in and around Cahokia Mounds remains shrouded in mystery and riddles.
So take a journey with us to what was once one of the greatest civilization in North America and see for yourself why Cahokia Mounds has a story to tell.
Travel Back in Time
Use your imagination and travel back 1,200 years into early Mississippian culture and the beginnings of Cahokia Mounds as we know it today. A world class Interpretive Center is tucked between the mounds on the 2,200 acre state historic site. Housed inside the center are displays of what historians and archeologists believe represent the Mississippian Indian culture. Life sized dioramas of natives hunting, cooking, playing games and trading are scattered throughout the building.
There are also life size replica homes. The Mississippians who lived in the area were accomplished builders who created practical homes and monumental public works buildings. Much of the artifacts on display are also replicas and represent items found in archeological excavations.
There are clues to life in the sophisticated and highly developed Mississippian society. Shell beads suggest there was strong trade relationships with other native cultures from as far away as the Gulf of Mexico, the Appalachians, the Great Lakes and more. Hunting, fishing and farming largely supported the population of this enormous city.
Around 1050 A.D. Cahokia became a regional center with a complex chiefdom a population explosion of sorts as people left smaller villages to settle in the larger cultural center. By 1200 A.D. it is believed as many as 20,000 people lived in the area.
Why Create Mounds
The largest prehistoric earthen structure in what is now the continental United States is the centerpiece of Cahokia Mounds. Monks Mound, built between 900 and 1200 A.D., towers over the area at 100 feet tall. And yes, it really did take 300 years to build! The mound was built in a pyramidal shape, contains two terraces and covers more than 14 acres. That took some work to create. It is believed that laborers carried bags of dirt on their backs to build Monks Mound. A massive building once stood on the mound and it is likely the principal chief lived there, conducted ceremonies, and governed the region.
You can climb the two terraces of Monks Mound and enjoy breathtaking views of the area. (Many locals use the steps at Monks Mound for exercise and can be seen running of walking up and down the steps repeatedly!) On clear days, downtown St. Louis is visible from the top of the mound.
Over 100 mounds were built at Cahokia and 72 are currently protected on the state historic site.
Did You Say Woodhenge?
The Mississippians created their own sun calendars called Woodhenges. Think Stonehenge but with red cedar posts. A total of five circular sun calendars have been partially uncovered in Cahokia. Each circle had a different diameter and a number of large, evenly spaced red cedar posts. The circles are impressive examples of science and engineering and helped determine the changing seasons and ceremonial dates.
Take time to check out the special sunrise observances held at Woodhenge held near the spring and fall equinoxes and the winter and summer solstices.
Make It An Adventure
Okay, a day exploring Cahokia Mounds can bring on an appetite. Luckily, Collinsville is just a few miles away and has some great dining choices. Check out Ravanelli’s for great fried chicken or Bert’s Chuck Wagon for all-you-can-eat comfort food. Sloan's Pub House, known for it's Ooey Gooey Downtown Burger is another great dining option. Daily lunch, dinner and drink specials are available.