Imagine traveling about ten miles outside your city and exploring the ruins of another city that existed there1,000 years earlier. It’s easy to imagine in some parts of the world, but is it possible in the US?
The “Cahokia Mounds” site in Collinsville, IL (about ten miles east of St. Louis) is exactly that—the remains of a city at the center of an agricultural, copper-age civilization that peaked in about 1100 AD. This UNESCO Global Heritage site was once the most sophisticated Native American city north of Mexico that archaeologists know about, and it’s a must-see for anyone curious about a time before page one of their US History textbook.
The site’s name is a bit misleading—the Cahokia were Native Americans who lived here when French explorers arrived in the 1600s, and may not have been closely related to the mound-builders. While fascinating ancient burial mounds can be found around the world, this is much more than a burial site.
The largest mound, called “Monks Mound” because it was briefly home to a monastery, is about 100 feet high and covers nearly fourteen acres. It is made up of layers built during different periods, and once served as a platform for a large wooden structure, believed to have been a temple and/or the home of the city‘s ruler. The field that surrounds it was once a grand plaza surrounded by neighborhoods of thatched-roofed houses. A grand staircase once led to the top of the mound, and visitors can climb a new staircase in approximately the same position as the original.
According to a 2007 study, at its peak in about 1100, the city had 10,000-15,000 residents, which would make it about the same size as London at that time. It was at the center of a cluster of farms and outlying villages that may have been home to up to 40,000.
If you’re having a hard time visualizing a thriving city in this quiet, grassy park, check out the Cahokia Mounds Museum, which offers videos, models, and exhibits exploring what archaeologists have inferred about daily life here. You can also see actual artifacts collected at the site and an important clue about the mound-builders’ mythology. The Museum also offers guided tours of the site in the summer and materials for self-guided tours. Depending on when you visit, you may also have a chance to try an augmented reality experience they are developing, which will allow visitors to see ancient features superimposed on the real site using a smartphone or tablet.
In addition to Monks Mound, the site has about 80 other mounds, many of which are worth exploring. Mound 34 was the city’s copper workshop, where artisans made masks and earrings believed to have been used for religious rituals. Mound 72 was the burial mound of a young couple in their 20s who were apparently important in the community as they were buried on a bed of 20,000 seashells in the shape of a falcon. Like most burial mounds, it is made up of many layers and the remains of about 250 people have been found here.
The city also had its own version of Stonehenge or other ancient calendar monuments found around the world. Visitors can check out a reconstructed version of “Woodhenge,” a series of standing timber circles aligning with astronomical events such as equinoxes.
After 1200, Cahokia’s population began to decrease, and it was completely abandoned by about 1300. Archaeologists have ideas about what happened—there is evidence of floods here, for example—but no clear answers.
In the 19th century, when US settlers began moving west, they did not believe Monks Mound or other large ancient structures could have been built by the ancestors of Native Americans, and archaeologists tried to prove that they were built by non-native people such as Vikings, or by an extinct mystery race. By the early 20th century, it was clear that the mound-builders were part of what archaeologists call the “Mississippian” culture, the ancestors of most Native American groups in the central and eastern US. A century later, many Americans still believe that Native Americans never built cities. If you know someone like that, be sure to bring them with you to the Cahokia Mounds.
Cover Photo: Tim Vickers, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.