Gary is currently in Grand Chute, WI (May 22nd, 2015)

Search Form

World Heritage Site #110: Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site

World Heritage Site #110: Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site

World Heritage Site #110: Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site

From the World Heritage inscription:

Cahokia Mounds is the largest and earliest pre-Columbian settlement north of Mexico. It was occupied primarily during the Mississippian period (800–1350), when it covered over 1,600 hectares (3,950 acres) and included some 120 mounds. It is the pre-eminent example of a cultural, religious, and economic center of the Mississippian cultural tradition, which extended throughout the Mississippi Valley and the south-eastern United States. This agricultural society may have had a population of 10,000–20,000 at its peak between 1050 and 1150. Cahokia is an early and exceptional example of pre-urban structuring.

Cahokian Mounds is a very odd world heritage site. From a historical standpoint, it is perhaps the most significant settlement north of Mexico in North America. Most native peoples in North America were nomadic so there is little in the way of cities or structures for people to visit today. Cahokian Mounds is the closest thing we have to the ruins of an ancient city above the deserts of the Southwest.

On the other hand, very few people know that this place exists, despite the fact that you can see the St. Louis Arch from the top of the mounds. From a tourist standpoint, there is very little to see other than some dirt hills. As a photographer I had no idea what to take photos of. A few grassy hills in a grassy field. That’s it.

This isn’t my proudest photo, but I didn’t really have a lot to work with.

View all the World Heritage Sites I’ve visited.

  • 7 Comments... What's your take?

Get My Free Travel Photography Ebook

Subscribe to my email newsletter to get a FREE 100 page ebook of my favorite travel photos.


  1. Susan says:

    Thanks for this shot, Gary. My parents took me to Cahokia on the way to or from a trip to St. Louis when I was 4 or 5. I was really into Native American culture at the time, and I thought the mounds were really neat, even though the history and significance were mostly lost on me.
    I do remember vividly that the big mound was covered in grasshoppers. I laid on my back and let them jump on me. There’s no way I would do that now!

  2. This Wikipedia article just barely scratches the surface, but it is quick and concise:

  3. Excuse me, but I intended to write “19-year cycle of the Moon”. The Moon rises and sets in different places on the horizon over a 19-20 year cycle. The Indians recorded this in several significant sites, including Fajada Butte and Cahokia.

  4. Hello Gary:

    There were no such stones to use in building such structures as one sees in Mexico, Egypt, in the Mississippi Valley. The Indians used the materials which were in hand. Evident in all Native-made structures of this sort is an awareness of astronomical movements, such as solstices, equinoxes and more, including, most remarkably, a knowledge of the 1-years cycle of the Moon. The Great Serpent Mound in Ohio is a solstice marker of the setting sun, but it also marks the winter solstice and the equinoxes. One of the most remarkable sites is the Octagon Mound near Newark, Ohio, which is a marker for all the heavenly phenomena I have just mentioned. It is as large as the golf course which currently occupies it. The effort to create just this one structure is astonishing, yet the Indians accomplished it within 30 years, using only bone and stone implements .

    Native Americans were semi-nomadic during some of the 11,000 or more years they lived on the American continent, but during this particular period, many, many people were settled and agricultural. There appears to be a relationship with Mexico beyond simple trade. many of the artistic styles are similar . The religious system appears to be the same throughout the Mississippi and on up through Canada, with burials facing West. (There is a serpentine burial at Rice Lake in Ontario which exhibits the same pattern and probably relates to the Ohio Serpent.) Therefore, the system of thought and culture followed the rivers and natural trade routes. Goods traded included copper from the Great Lakes, Macaw feathers from Mexico, shells from the Gulf of Mexico and much, much more.

    There were large and sophisticated settlements along the entire Mississippi, as I have stated. Most are no longer visible, (even the Great Serpent Mound was fully planted with corn when it was purchased for study and preservation) but there is much archaeological evidence and their lines can be seen from the air with infra-red photography. Read Dr. Bradley T. Lepper’s papers, if you wish to learn more. Or just research it online, if you are interested.

    I disagree that Cahokia pales in comparison with Mexican or Southwestern sites. I have visited them all and I find all of them deserving of the greatest respect, Cahokia not least of all.

  5. A postscript: The reason one sees so little evidence of settled Indian cultures in the Middle Ohio Valley and Mississippi is because earthen mounds were plowed under by European settlers, not because most Indians were nomadic. In the Middle Ohio Valley alone, about 200,000 mounds were plowed and otherwise destroyed. But there was an extensive system of settlements in and around the Mississippi with networks communities along all rivers and lakes all the way up into Canada. The Mississippi could very well be said to be the American “Nile” in this regard.

  6. A deeper exploration of this significant site would have offered some lessons on some of the very same issues humans are still dealing with today. Cahokia was the site of an extremely successful and sophisticated culture. The people had a very accurate astronomical observatory at and around Monk’s Mound, which is also remarkable for its state of preservation. This was due to the careful planning that went into the structure of the mounds, allowing for drainage. In its day Monk’s Mound was as tall as a ten-story building. It is the largest earthen structure in the world, not merely a “dirt hill”, and its base is comparable to the Great Pyramid at Giza and larger than the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan.

    The Cahokians produced a variety of corn which provided so much nutrition that they had very high fertility rates. This made for a very powerful nation until the whitetail deer, upon which the population relied for protein, became scarce due to over-hunting, and the area around Cahokia became deforested.

    The people worshipped a fertile goddess, images of which have been found all around the settlement (which was larger than London at the time.) Eventually stockades were built to protect the population from other Indian people, who were less settled, worshipped warrior gods and increasingly engaged in wars with Cahokians. There were most likely internal conflicts as well. But in its height Cahokia was one of the most sophisticated cities on earth, with a complex political structure and flourishing arts.

    • Gary says:

      I don’t disagree with most of what you said. However,

      1) Today it is certainly not the largest earthen structure in the world. Not even close. Today all that remains are grassy hills.

      2) Earthen mounds are really not on the same level with stone structure you find in other parts of the world. The engineering required to build the pyramids or the great wall is totally different than building an earthen mound.

      3) For the most part, North American tribes were nomadic. In other parts of the world with nomadic peoples (Arabia and Central Asia) you also don’t see permanent structures like you find in Europe, Mexico, China, Mesopotamia or India.

      4) I am not arguing about the significance of the site, as it is probably the most significant settlement north of Mesa Verde. Nonetheless, it pales in comparison to what you can find in the American Southwest or in Mexico.

Leave a Reply

You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>