The largest pre-Columbian settlement in the New World north of Mexico, Cahokia once had about 120 mounds, built for various purposes by the inhabitants of the area. One of these mounds is Monks Mound which, at nearly 100 feet tall, is the largest earthwork in North America from prehistoric times.
Near present-day St. Louis, Cahokia was a center of culture and religion for possibly up to 20,000 people of the Mississippian cultural tradition. At its height in roughly the year 1250, Cahokia was bigger than London. It was first settled around 600 and mounds were built starting about 300 years later. The settlement continued until perhaps as late as the early 15th century when it was abandoned for unknown reasons. Many theories have been proposed for the abandonment, including invasion and warfare, as well as lack of game animals and deforestation as a result of erosion.
Within the ceremonial complex, there was a wooden monument built to mark the equinox and solstice, in much the same way that Stonehenge in England does. The remnants of the wood poles were discovered by archaeologists and a replica has now been built.
The area now encompassing Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in Collinsville, Illinois, has a long and sordid history. In addition to its status as a center of trade and culture, it also existed as a large ceremonial and ritual complex. One mound in particular, Mound 72, shows evidence of hundreds of sacrificial burials. Contained within the mound are 4 male skeletons buried together, all missing their hands and skulls.
Also within this mound, skeletons in a mass grave were found with their fingers extended into the sand surrounding them, suggesting to archaeologists that the people were alive when they were buried and were trying to claw their way through the dead bodies surrounding them. The skeletons in this grave were all from young women, which further suggests that these individuals were not opponents but rather sacrificial victims.
Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982.
Know Before You Go
Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, administered by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, is just eight miles from downtown St. Louis near Collinsville, Illinois, off Interstates 55-70 and 255, and Illinois 111, on Collinsville Road. The interpretive center is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. If you are interested in working on an archeological dig, inquire directly. They have yearly digs where the public can come and work for a few weeks.