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Cahokia Mounds

Category: Museums
General Info
30 Ramey St
(618) 346 6516
Cahokia Mounds preserves the remains of the central section of the only prehistoric Indian city north of Mexico. Covering about 4,000 acres, the Cahokia site was first inhabited around 700 A.D. and grew to a population of about 20,000 by 1100 A.D. Sixty-eight of the original one hundred and twenty entirely earthen mounds are preserved within the historic area. At the center is Monks Mound, which at one hundred feet is the largest prehistoric earthen mound in the New World. Cahokia Mounds has been designated a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational and Scientific Organization and a National Historic Landmark by U.S. Department of Interior. The site features a variety of special events, craft classes, lecture series, tours and other programs year round.Cahokia MoundsThe remains of the most sophisticated prehistoric Indian civilization north of Mexico are preserved at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site. Within the 2,200-acre tract, located a few miles west of Collinsville, Illinois, lie the archaeological remnants of the central section of the ancient Indian city that is today known as Cahokia.The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1982 designated Cahokia Mounds a World Heritage Site for its importance to our understanding of the prehistory of North America. Cahokia Mounds is managed by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.Ancient CahokiaAccording to archaeological finds, the city of Cahokia was inhabited from about A.D. 700 to 1400. At its peak, from A.D. 1l00 to 1200, the city covered nearly six square miles and had a population as great as 20,000 in extensive residential sections. Houses were arranged in rows and around open plazas, and the main agricultural fields lay outside the city.The site is named for a subtribe of the Illini Indians-the Cahokia-who occupied the area when the French arrived in the late 1600s. What its ancient inhabitants called the city is unknown, since the city existed before European contact. Instead, archaeological investigations and scientific tests have provided what is known of the once-thriving Indian community.The fate of the prehistoric Cahokians and their city is unknown. Depletion of resources probably contributed to the city's decline. A climate change after A.D. 1200 may have affected crop production and the plant and animal resources needed to sustain a large population. War, disease, social unrest, and declining political and economic power may have also taken their toll. A gradual decline in population began sometime after A.D. 1200, and by 1400, the site had heen abandoned.The Indian CulturesCahokia Mounds was first inhabited about 700 A.D. by prehistoric Indians of the Late Woodland culture. Living in compact villages, they hunted, fished, gathered wild food plants, and cultivated gardens.From the summit of Monks Mound, chiefs once looked across the broad central plaza to the Twin Mounds. Deceased nobles were prepared for burial in the temple atop the flat-topped mound for interment in the adjacent conical mound. Temples, homes of the elite, and burials were associated with more than 100 other manmade mounds. Houses with pole walls and grass-thatched roofs were clustered within and beyond the 15-foot-high stockade wall. (Photo: National Geographic Society)Between A.D. 800 to 1000 another culture emerged, called Mississippian (Woodland and Mississippian are names assigned by archaeologists; they are not tribal names) . Mississippians developed an agricultural system with corn, squash, and several seedbearing plants (sunflower, marshelder, lambsquarter, maygrass, knotweed, little barley) as the principal crops. The stable food base, combined with hunting, fishing, and gathering of wild food plants, enabled them to develop a very complex community with a highly specialized social, political, and religious organization. Cahokia became a regional center for the Mississippian culture after A.D. 900, with many outlying hamlets and villages, and major satellite towns near the modern communities of Mitchell, Dupo, Lebanon, East St. Louis, and St. Louis.The MoundsOriginally there were more than 120 mounds, but the locations of only 109 have been recorded. Many were altered or destroyed by modern farming and urban construction. About 68 are preserved in the historic site boundaries.The mounds are made entirely of earth. The soil was transported on people's backs in baskets to the mound construction site. Most mounds show evidence of several construction stages. The digging left large depressions called borrow pits, which can still be seen in the area. The Indians moved more than 50 million cubic feet of earth was moved by the Indians for mound construction alone.Cahokians constructed three types of mounds. The most common was the platform mound, whose flat top served as a base for ceremonial buildings or residences of the elite. Two other types of mounds-conical and ridgetop-apparently were used for burials of important people or to mark important locations. The mounds were principally used for ceremonial activities; only a few were used for burials. Most Cahokians were probably buried in cemeteries, not in mounds.Monks MoundThe great platform mound at Cahokia -Monks Mound- is the largest Indian Mound north of Mexico and the largest prehistoric earthen construction in the New World. An estimated 22 million cubic feet of earth composes Monks Mound. It was built in several stages, mostly between A.D. 900 and 1200.Monks Mound was named for the French Trappist monks who lived nearby in the early 1800s. Monks Mound's base covers more than 14 acres, and it rises in four terraces to a height of 100 feet. A massive building - 105 feet long, 48 feet wide, and about 50 feet high - stood on the summit. There the principal ruler lived, conducted ceremonies, and governed the city.Mound 72Excavation of a small ridgetop mound - Mound 72 - revealed nearly 300 ceremonial and sacrificial burials, mostly of young women, in mass graves. The main burial appears to be a male ruler about 45 years of age, laid on a blanket of more than 20,000 marine shell disc beads. Near him were the remains of others sacrificed to serve him in the next life and a large cache of grave offerings. The skeletons of four men with their heads and hands missing were found near the largest sacrificial pit, which held the skeletons of 53 women between the ages of 15 and 25. Several other mass burials were also uncovered.The StockadeThe center of the city was surrounded by a 2-mile-long stockade - a wall of posts set in trenches, with projecting bastions (guard towers) every 70 feet. The stockade was constructed four times, and each construction took nearly 20,000 logs. Built for defense, it would also serve as a social barrier, segregating the more sacred precinct and the elite who lived there. Several sections of the stockade have been reconstructed.CenterWoodhengeArchaeological excavations have partially uncovered remains of four, and possibly five, circular sun calendars that once consisted of large, evenly spaced log posts. Those calendars, called Woodhenges because of their functional similarity to Stonehenge in England, were probably used to determine the changing seasons and certain ceremonial periods important to an agricultural way of life. Constructed about A.D. 1000, they were an impressive example of Indian science and engineering.
Special programs are scheduled at Woodhenge for equinox and solstice sunrises; contact the site for specific dates and times Hours: Interpretive Center: 9:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m. Grounds: Summer: 8:00 a.m. - 9:00 p.m. Spring/Fall: 8:00 a.m. - 7:00 p.m. Winter 8:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m. Closed: Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year's Day, M.L. King, Presidents Day, Veterans Day, and General Election Day. Directions: Cahokia Mounds is located near Collinsville, Illinois. Take I-255 north from I-64 or south from I-55/70 to the Collinsville Road exit 24. Go 2 miles west on Collinsville Road to the Interpretive Center. From St.Louis , take I-55/70 east 6 miles to State Route 111, Exit 6, go south to light (Collinsville Road), then east 1.5 miles to the Interpretive center.