Exploring the Cahokia Mounds,connecting the past to the present

        Driving down the country side, during our Spring Break ,I listened to the excitement in my kid’s voice, glad that we made the road trip.It was a time for sharing and bonding , stepping out of the routine of the hamster wheel of life.Fresh air and travel does something to people, it brings out the best in us, coz we are relaxed and there is no dead lines to meet.Driving along the Mississippi river, exploring all the historic & fun places, we stopped at the Cahokia Mounds as a part of this adventure trip.

From a distance, we spotted these large earthen mounds,which my kid explained were the “Cahokia Mounds”, he had learnt  all about  in his Social Studies class in school. I remember how excited I was as a kid, to see the Taj Mahal for the first time, until then it was only in the books.There is something about seeing it for “real” that makes you never forget.  Growing up in a different country, I had no previous knowledge of what these mounds signified , their historic or geographic background, so I was equally ,curious to find out what this place might  unravel.

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My kid, continued ” This place is about a long vanished and forgotten culture,who in their time were skilled scholars, tradesmen and astronomers.The only evidence , he said  of what remains of the culture is among the present day Indians or Native Americans”( as they are called here). This intrigued me, coz I had been strangely fascinated with these people I know very little of , ever since I stepped into this country,from what little I knew from friends and books, they had  deep values and traditions they kept very close to their heart people who had a  fascination for nature, worshipped elements of nature,  used wild herbs in treating medical ailments, were sun worshippers, those who treated animals and birds kindly considering them  to be messengers from the Divine…something stuck a chord in me. Back home, we did the same too ! My interest was in knowing more about the people that belonged to that era, while my kid, wanted to find more about the geographical makeup of the land and what made it survive this many years,the soil conditions etc …. together we entered the Interpretive Center  to learn more of the same. It was there that we learned so much about these Cahokia Mounds & the history that surrounds them.Read on….

Cahokia Interpretive Center and MuseumCahokia-Join-3-1500x430

Cahokia Mounds is a National Historic Landmark and designated site for state protection. In addition, it is one of only 21 World Heritage Sites within the United States.


It is the largest prehistoric earthen construction in the Americas north of Mexico. The site is open to the public and administered by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, and is supported by the Cahokia Mounds Museum Society.


 The remains of the most sophisticated prehistoric native 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 settlement that is today known as Cahokia.


Many thousands of years before Christopher Columbus’ ships landed in the Bahamas, a different group of people discovered America: the nomadic ancestors of modern Native Americans who hiked over a “land bridge” from Asia to what is now Alaska more than 12,000 years ago. In fact, by the time European adventurers arrived in the 15th century A.D., scholars estimate that more than 50 million people were already living in the Americas. Of these, some 10 million lived in the area that would become the United States. As time passed, these migrants and their descendants pushed south and east, adapting as they went. In order to keep track of these diverse groups, anthropologists and geographers have divided them into “culture areas,” or rough groupings of contiguous peoples who shared similar habitats and characteristics. Most scholars break North America—excluding present-day Mexico—into 10 separate culture areas: the Arctic, the Subarctic, the Northeast, the Southeast, the Plains, the Southwest, the Great Basin, California, the Northwest Coast and the Plateau.


As the early explorers began to come into the Mississippi Valley, they began to find strange mounds of earth which were man-made and in distinct shapes and designs. The settlers began to look upon these mounds as evidence of a long-vanished and forgotten culture and as they dug into the mounds, they found a wealth of extraordinary artifacts. These remaining antiquities included pottery; beautifully carved stone pipes; intricate stone carvings; and effigies of birds and serpents made from copper and mica

The flourishing city of Cahokia then:nothamermounds

Cahokia was the largest city ever built north of Mexico before Columbus and boasted 120 earthen mounds. Many were massive, square-bottomed, flat-topped pyramids — great pedestals atop which civic leaders lived.Scattered across the region are the relics of a dead and vanished civilization. They have been called the Mound Builders, thanks to the vast monuments of earth which tell of their previous existence…. an existence which is still shrouded in mystery.

 Monk’s Mound :

One of the largest of the Mound Builder sites is located in southwestern Illinois. Near Collinsville is the Cahokia site, which is sometimes called “Monk’s Mound” after Trappist monks who farmed the terraces in the early 1800’s. It is a stepped pyramid which covers about 16 acres and one which was apparently rebuilt several times in the distant past. At the summit of the mound, are the buried remains of some sort of temple, further adding to the mystery of the site.

What it might have looked like in the past :IMG_9670

An aerial view of the Monk’s Mound (Picture courtesy : The Net)- At presentarticle-2082113-0F56958600000578-274_634x460

  Mound building at this location began with the Emergent Mississippian cultural period, about the 9th century CE. The inhabitants left no written records beyond symbols on pottery, shell, copper, wood and stone, but the elaborately planned community, wood henge, mounds and burials reveal a complex and sophisticated society.
Monks Mound, for example, covers 14 acres (5.7 ha), rises 100 ft (30 m), and was topped by a massive 5,000 square ft (460 m2) building another 50 ft (15 m) high.”At the vast plaza in the city’s center rose the largest earthwork in the Americas, the 100-foot Monks Mound.
  The Mississippians :
                It is generally believed that about 20,000 people once occupied Cahokia, living inside of a wooden stockade which surrounded various pyramids. The site is named after a tribe of Illiniwek Indians, the Cahokia, who lived in the area when the French arrived in the late 1600’s. What the actual name of the city may have been in ancient times is unknown. The site is believed to have existed from 700 A.D. until its decline in 1300. By 1500, it is thought to have been completely abandoned.
Every day Life of Illiniwek Indians : (Scenes from the Museum of Heritage ) :

 Around the great urban center, farmers grew crops to feed the city-dwellers, who included not only government officials and religious leaders but also skilled trades workers, artisans and even astronomers. The city was the center of a trading network linked to other societies over much of North America. Cahokia was, in short, one of the most advanced civilizations in ancient America.

Nature dictated that the settlement rise near the confluence of the Missouri, Illinois and Mississippi rivers. Geographers affectionately call the lowlands that hug the eastern bank of the Mississippi there the “American Bottom.” This fertile strip was carved and flooded summer after summer by torrents of glacial melt-off 10,000 years ago at the end of the last Ice Age.

Trade :

Cahokia was the most important center for the peoples known today as Mississippians. Their settlements ranged across what is now the Midwest, Eastern, and Southeastern United States. Cahokia was located in a strategic position near the confluence of the Mississippi, Missouri and Illinois rivers. It maintained trade links with communities as far away as the Great Lakes to the north and the Gulf Coast to the south, trading in such exotic items as copper, Mill Creek chert, and whelk shells.

Trade flourished with other societies, thru cultivating crops in these fertile lands, bartering was done  as part of the trade,for other goods like carved shell jewelry down the river, or tools used in cultivation.

Mississippians acquired status or privilege by birth or  by achievement. While this sub- chief trading salt for a knife was born into a noble class,the flint knapper has raised his status by making superior  implements.Note the  decoration on the Chief’s kilt, his hair pins, and copper ear spools.The flint knapper is wearing shell beads another sign of status.IMG_9676

Trade links : Gourds and Corn took a predominant role in the food industry along with Mussels used for their meat & shells ,sailing down the Mississippi river for trade through bartering, in long canoes made from tree trunks that were  hand cut  using shells and animal bones as tools.


Check the gourd dipper for catching Mussels 🙂IMG_9664

Since they considered animal spirits to be auspicious, their cooking utensils were carved with the symbolism .Here is a picture of the Beaver Effigy Bowl :IMG_9667

 Daily Life and Designated Duties :

Homes were built with prefabricated sapling walls each topped with a thatched roof.IMG_9675

Men and women had specific duties to perform, while men hunted for food, women planted seeds for cultivation around home & managed home & children :IMG_9674



Grandmother tends the baby inside the hut, grandfather passes along the traditions of the clan, through stories while older children and adults take care of the harder work IMG_9673How beautiful to go back to the roots, I thought, if every member of the household did the role they were designated to 🙂

Children playing around the household, a little girl chasing her brother who is running away with her rag doll ( simple life’s pleasures !)IMG_9672

A young boy drying the meat for preservation during Winter season, while fresh fish is waiting in the basket to be skinned : IMG_9678

A Granary in a barn ,to store food grains IMG_9681

Terracota pots covered with pickled food inside and wrapped with hide to store food for longer periods and tied to the roof with a rope, so  rodents can’t get to it.IMG_9686

Sweat Huts :

This one exhibit, tickled me pink, an ancient day Sauna so to speak ! These were called Sweat huts then, were grown men took their steam bath within the confines of the hut specifically made for this purpose. In this hut they had herbs & essential oils, which were placed on steaming water, for aromatherapy of sorts, the young boy kneeling outside is getting the herbs ready for the grown ups to inhale & be rejuvenated.This was done on a regular basis for ceremonial functions as well as  part of a healing therapy. ( We haven’t changed much since then, have we ? )IMG_9690

The young boy kneeling outside the hut, is placing the hide of the white deer , to not let the steam escape out of the sweat hut.White deer was apparently the most hunted animal, they used every part of the white deer is what  was mentioned, the meat for eating, hide for clothes & keeping themselves warm , bone for making ornaments & farm tools for cultivation.IMG_9691

The Medicine Man’s Hut : The Medicine Man was given great importance since he could heal  physical and ailments of the spirit.In the pots on the floor were the secret concoctions he made for the cure, resting on his hide skin bed.IMG_9687.jpg

As the glaciers receded and rivers shrank to their current size, the 80-mile-wide bottom was exposed. Native Americans who settled there after 700 A.D. considered this easy-to-till land prime real estate for growing corn, since they lacked the steel plows and oxen needed to penetrate the thick sod blanketing the surrounding prairie.

Cahokia arose from this mini-breadbasket as its people hunted less and took up farming with gusto. By all evidence, they ate well. Cultivating corn seemed to be a successful find, they never went hungry  after that, says history.

No one really knows how the city disappeared and the people perished, perhaps  thru illness, water borne diseases,invasions or so, yet during it’s time it was one of the bigger cities that ever flourished, even bigger than the present day London is what the books say.

Wood Henge : One of the most dramatic finds is that some Cahokians were astronomers. Outside the stockade, they built a ring of posts that, when aligned with an outer post, pointed toward the horizon at the exact spot on which the sun rises on the spring and fall equinoxes. Archaeologists dubbed this “Woodhenge,” in deference to England’s Stonehenge, also a solar calendar.

Instead of stone, Cahokians used red cedar posts 15 to 20 inches in diameter and about 20 feet long. Several wood henge’s were built over the centuries, and the third 48-post ring has been reconstructed.cahokia_woodhenge1

Aligned with the key post, the equinox sun appears to rise directly out of Monks Mound. Other posts aligned with sunrise on the summer and winter solstices.

A closer view of the Monk’s Mound, which is in two levels, 100 feet above ground, man made occupying around 16 acres of Land area :Monks_Mound

We then headed to the  Monk’s Mound, which was 100 feet above ground level,heavy winds seemed to surround this place,  along with the other visitors , we climbed the steps one by one. Warning signs to keep off during thunder storm were posted along the way, it was a steep climb, luckily it was a nice sunny day.As we climbed, I thought about the people who built it carrying earth in woven baskets. The top of which was occupied by a temple and the Chief’s abode, those days.To achieve that, thousands of workers over decades moved more than an “estimated 55 million cubic feet of earth in woven baskets to create this network of mounds and community plazas. Monks Mound,  covers 16 acres , rises 100 ft (30 m), and was topped by a massive 5,000 square ft (460 m2) building another 50 ft (15 m) high.”. My kid ran ahead of me, climbing two steps at a time, I was out of breath, suddenly like a flash back, a scene ran thru my mind, I was probably his age, when along with my cousins we climbed the little hills in my grand mom’s place, the joy of which I still carry it in my heart.It was called ,”Parpale Gudde” on top of which there was a hidden cave, from which a tunnel  was made by the Indian King, Tippu Sultan and his army to escape the eyes of the  British, the thrill of knowing the story, standing in the now empty cave hearing water trickle from the sides and imagining the King sitting in one of the earthen high raised platforms & instructing his army, used to give me goose bumps then…some memories you carry for life.

“Parpale Gudde”,Karkala, Karnataka , India :(Picture courtesy – The Net)

Our favorite childhood haunt, the climbing up this hill ,came in handy & so did the excitement of the adventure, during our climb up the Monk’s Mound  .This is the picture of the cave atop the hill called “Parpale Gudde”, now what remains is the raised platform, perhaps where  Tipu Sultan,the  Indian King gave his orders from, to his army.As a kid the thrill of imagining the scene gave us goose bumps to be standing in the same spot where the the King once stoodP2150051



It’s amazing how your loved ones travel with you, in distant lands, yet it’s those memories you carry close to your heart.My kid was laughing as I held on to the railing atop the mound, completely out of breath now, lest I be blown away with the  strong wind that was blowing there.Life has come a full circle, I thought,we carry our ancestors in our hearts and light the way for the future generation to continue the thread that links precious memories,age old traditions,adventures sealed with love.There is no telling what a place will remind you of, but atop the mound, I felt surrounded by my ancestors,whose faith & belief in you never wavered even for an instant.They believed  in the continuation of the love they placed within each one of us.The Native American’s  believed in the continuation of their culture too, deep inside people are people wherever they come from! Some one beside us, told this spot carried a lot of good energy and the Native American’s still believed it to be a sacred spot .How else could I explain that tear that escaped the corner of my eye, standing atop a flat ancient mound, which once carried the powers of a vibrant culture.It is so important to travel and see places, to connect within and am so thankful to my child ,for introducing me to this place, which I never  knew existed till then. Oh, to look at life thru a child’s eyes  and stand in wonder, imagining everything is possible……

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