Ancient Cahokia Mounds

Ancient Cahokia Mounds on their way to national historic park designation

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Efforts are underway to urge Congress to designate the Cahokia Mounds , and similar sites in St. Louis, Illinois, as a national historic park or a national monument, which would give the ancient Native American mounds more protection. The Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site covers more than 2,000 acres, making it the most sophisticated prehistoric civilization north of Mexico. An additional 1,500 acres surrounding it are also part of the prehistoric site but are not afforded the same level of historic protection. A new study titled ‘The Mounds – America’s First Cities’, presents justification for national historic park status.

Cahokia was once composed of a collection of agricultural communities that reached across the American Midwest and Southeast starting around 800 AD and flourishing between the 11 th and 12th century. It is a striking example of a complex chiefdom society, with many satellite mound centres and numerous outlying hamlets and villages. It was also a place where Native Americans made pilgrimages for special spiritual rituals linked to the origin of the cosmos.

It is believed that Cahokia may have been home to around 20,000 people at its peak and boasted some 120 mound, the largest of which is a ten-story earthen colossus known as Monk’s Mound.  The giant mound is the largest prehistoric earthwork in the Americas, covering over 5 hectares and standing 30 metres high. An estimated 22 million cubic feet of earth was used to build the mound between the years of 900 and 1,200 A.D.

An artist’s rendition of Cahokia Mounds

An artist’s rendition of Cahokia Mounds in 1150 AD. Photo credit: Cahokia Mounds Museum Society and Art Grossman.

Unfortunately, the relentless development of the 20th century took its own toll on Cahokia. Farmers flattened the second biggest mound for fill in 1931, and the site was irreversibly damaged to give way to a gambling hall, housing subdivision, an airfield, and numerous roads. Nevertheless, many of its central features survived and steps have been taken to prevent any further destruction of what is now the largest archaeological site in the United States.

There is still very little that is known about Cahokia, as there are no written records detailing the daily lives of the ancient mound builders. Only a tiny percentage of the site has been excavated, but when excavation work has taken place, archaeologists have been stunned by what they have found. Before and during the construction of the Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge (New Mississippi River Bridge), which began in 2010, archaeologists uncovered more than 1,500 ancient Native American homes — estimated to have housed 5,000 people over the years. Other finds included storage pits, refuse pits, food-processing areas, sweat lodges and other aspects of the culture.

The proposal put forward for national historic status, which was released March 19 by the Heartlands Conservancy, states, “The preservation of the greater mounds community — the Mississippian mounds — are a national responsibility.” The plans are currently under consideration.

Featured image: The Cahokia Mounds. Photo credit: Don Burmeister and Ira Block

By April Holloway


I'm surprised to har that the Cahokia Mounds aren't already designated as national monuments? Whenever anyone talks about American archaeology with me, the main names that come up are Cahokia, Pueblo, and maybe others like Kennewick Man and any other word to do with Anasazi, so I would have thought it a given that Cahokia is a National Monument already like Stonehenge is in England. I hope the designation is approved as more protection to any cultural site is a good thing, right?

NikiK's picture

It's a constant issue in MInnesota where there are a great many burial mounds.  Luckily both sides usually work together when a grave is found during construction in a very populated and desirable place to live.  Many of them are protected though and we appreciate the cooperation in making sure they stay that way.  Great story, thanks!

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