Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site

World Heritage Site #110: Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site
Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site: My 110th UNESCO World Heritage Site

From the World Heritage inscription for Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site:

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.

Cahokia 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. Cahokia 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.

Overview

The Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site is a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in Collinsville, Illinois. It is located east of the Mississippi River and St. Louis, Missouri. These mounds are also among the most popular tourist destinations in Illinois. These mounds are ruins of the former large American Indian cultural and urban complex. This society flourished during the 1000 and 1350 AD. The entire site – that encompasses these mounds, homes and farms – span 4,000 acres in land area.

Important Facts: Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site

Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site

Interested in visiting Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site? Here are a few facts that you need to know:

  • These man-made mounds were built during the 700 to 1400 AD.
  • During the peak of this civilization, it was estimated that it had 10,000 to 20,000 in population. At some point, it was believed that the population rose to 40,000.
  • There were 120 mounds in total that were built but only 80 of these remain at the historic park in Illinois.
  • The site of the mounds is considered as one of the most important archaeological sites in the region. It provides a glimpse into the culture of pre-Columbian cities.
  • The site is currently administered by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency along with the Cahokia Mounds Museum Society. Visitors are welcome to visit the site.
  • There are two types of mounds in the site, each of which serve their own unique function. Platform mounds have buildings on top of them while conical mounds are built for burial purposes.

About the Cahokia Mounds

The Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site is the site of a pre-Columbian native city located near the Mississippi River, which is now the modern day St. Louis in Missouri. This historic park was established to protect this rich cultural heritage in the area. The historic park was much larger during its heyday than what is represented in the protected area today. This site is composed of over 120 man-made earthen mounds that vary in terms of size, shape and function.

Aside from being a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site is also a National Historic Landmark. Hence, this site was designated for state protection. It is the biggest collection of prehistoric earthen mounds north of Mexico.

The Monks Mound is the largest structure in this collection of mounds at the site. It was also the central part of this prehistoric city. This massive platform mound is made with four terraces and rises up to 10 stories high. It took several centuries to completely build this mound in order to make it higher and wider. This mound was named for the Trappist monks that resided in this mound for a short period of time. There were excavations done on the top of this mound that produced a large collection of archaeological evidence.


View the complete list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the United States.

View the list of all of the UNESCO World Heritage sites I have visited on my travels.

Last updated: Aug 1, 2017 @ 8:58 pm

14 Replies to “Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site”

  1. 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. 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!

  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. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

    1. 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.

  10. 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.

    1. 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.

Comments are closed.