When we think of ancient lost cities and major archeological sites we typically think outside of America. Maybe we will think of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Machu Picchu in Peru, or the lost mythical City of Atlantis. But the modern United States is not without its own "lost" cities. At its height, Cahokia was one of the world's largest cities (at least larger than contemporary London). Cahokia is one of America's most valuable historical sites and is famous for its many mounds. For the students of history, it means one does not need to travel abroad in the age of Covid to see lost civilizations.

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Cahokia: The Facts

  • Location: Illinois Near Missouri
  • Status: UNESCO World Heritage Listed
  • Peak Population: 14,000-16,000
  • Part Of: Mississippi Culture

History Of Cahokia

The current consensus is that that it was settled around 600 AD and during the Late Woodland period. At around the 9th century AD, the mound-building began. We know that the society was sophisticated and complex from the mounds and burials around the site, but the inhabitants left no written records. While there are no written records, there are however symbols on objects like pottery, shells, wood, and stone.

  • Tip: Cahokia Is a Great Outing For The Whole Family Or Even School Trip

Its believed that all the mounds were built by moving the dirt in woven baskets by hand! This adds up to some 55 million cubic feet of earth. In order for this to happened (in just a few decades), the Cahokia society must have been coordinated. The sites here are all highly planned and organized with all the homes being connected by pathways.

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  • Status: At Its Peak The Largest Settlement North Of Mesoamerica
  • Max Estimate At Peak: 40,000

The city is believed to have peaked in the 11th and 12th centuries. Its prosperity can be attributed somewhat to the city's strategic location on the Mississippi, Illinois, and Missouri Rivers that would have facilitated trade up and down the rivers. It seems that trade was conducted with bartering and not money.

  • Date Of Abandonment: Around 1350 AD

The settlement started to go into decline after the 13th century and was finally abandoned by 1350 or so. We still don't know what led to the site's abandonment but some of the suggestions have included environmental degradation from deforestation, pollution, and overhunting. Or there could have been droughts and increased flooding. But hard evidence to support these hypotheses remains wanting.

  • Fun Fact: We Still Don't Know Why It Was Abandoned

These lead to alternative explanations like political and economic pressures or invasion of other outside groups. It would seem that more defensive watchtowers and stockades were built over time but still, nothing is conclusive. Indeed apart from those defensive structures around the main ceremonial precinct, there seems to be little archeological evidence for violent conflict. One more explanation is disease. But the exact cause or combination of causes remains a mystery.

  • Fun Fact: There Were 120 Mounds

There are no shortages of earthen mounds here. It is believed that the original site covered some 6 square miles and had around 120 mounds. This would have required thousands of works over many years and it's the topic of debate just how centralized this effort was. Were the workers paid by a central government? Enslaved by the central government? Or was there a culture that freely drove the people to build them in a spirit of cooperation without central control? There are so many questions for this fascinating site yet to be answered.

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Monks Mound

Monks Mound was the largest mound in the city and rose to around 100 feet and hosted a massive 5,000 square foot building on top that measured another 50 feet in height. Monks Mound was the central point of Cahokia. It alone contained around 814,000 cubic yards of soil. It is believed that Monks Mound was not built all at once but over a period of centuries and in perhaps 10 different stages. The building that originally topped this impressive structure was quite likely a temple or it could have been the home of the local ruler if the government in Cahokia was that centralized.

Cahokia Woohenge

Another one of the sites of interest in this area is what is called the Cahokia Woodhenge. This was a series of large timber circles and was located 2,790 feet to the west of Monks Mound. It is thought that they were used as a kind of solar calendar. They may have marked the equinox and solstice sunrises and sunsets. These events may have been important for religious observance or farming.

Visiting And Admission

  • Opening Hours: (Interpretive Center) Thursday to Sunday 9.00 am - 5.00 pm
  • Opening Hours: (Grounds) Every Day Dawn To Dusk
  • Admission Fee: Free (Recommended Donation Of $7 For Adults and $2 For Kids)
  • Location: Eight Miles From Downtown St. Louis
  • Website For News And The Latest: Cahokia Mounds.Org

In short, there is much we still don't understand about the Cahokia site and it is one of the great prehistories of North America. It is well worth visiting and seeing this national treasure with the whole family.

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