Exploring the Cahokia Mounds

Exploring the Cahokia Mounds

It was Spring break, I heard the excitement in my kid’s voice about the road trip we were taking. Warm weather is always fun for so many reasons, road trips being one of them. Driving along the Mississippi river, we stopped to explore Cahokia Mounds as part of our little adventure on Route 66.

Fresh air and travel does something to our soul. There is comfort and joy in getting off the hamster wheel of life and traveling to see new places, meeting new people, learning about a different cultures.

In my blogpost today, I am going to share all about our trip to the Cahokia mounds. For those of you planning your road trips in the midwest region during warmer weather, here’s another place of interest with historical significance to add to your itinerary this summer.

What is Cahokia and why is it historically significant?

Cahokia refers to the location where Mississippian culture thrived before European explorers landed in the Americas.

The mounds of Cahokia are listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. The ruins of this sophisticated native civilization are preserved at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in Collinsville, Illinois.

Who discovered Cahokia?

The Cahokia Mounds were discovered by French explorers in the 1600s. At the time they were inhabited by the Cahokia people, hence the mounds were named after them.

Since then the mounds have been frequently excavated.

Cahokia People

Why was Cahokia so important?

Cahokia was the largest city built by this Native American civilization.It was the most influential urban settlement of the Mississippian culture, which developed advanced societies across much of what is now the central and southeastern United States, beginning more than 1,000 years before European contact.

Cahokia city then

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.  

At the vast plaza in the city’s center rose the largest earthwork in the Americas, the 100-foot Monks Mound.

Why was the Mississippian village of Cahokia so important?

The village was dedicated to the Holy Family. After it was discovered, Cahokia became one of the largest French colonial towns in Illinois in the country. 

Cahokia had become the center of a large area for trading Indian goods and furs.

The flourishing city of Cahokia then

Cahokia was the largest city ever built north of Mexico before Columbus and boasted 120 earthen mounds.

Mound Building

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 us of their previous existence, an existence which is still shrouded in mystery.

Wood Henges

One of the most dramatic finds is that some Cahokia’s 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 “Wood henge,” in deference with England’s Stonehenge, also a solar calendar.

Instead of stone, Cahokia’s 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.

Wood Henge

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.

How old is Cahokia?

Covering more than 2,000 acres, Cahokia is the most sophisticated prehistoric native civilization north of Mexico. Best known for large, man-made earthen structures, the city of Cahokia was inhabited from about A.D. 700 to 1400.

Who lived in the largest mound of Cahokia?

Monks Mound

The largest man-made earthen mound in the North American continent, is Monks Mound (Mound 38) at the Cahokia site.

It received its name from the group of Trappist Monks who lived on one of the nearby mounds. and who are believed to have farmed the terraces in the early 1800’s.

It is a stepped pyramid which covers about 16 acres and one which was apparently been 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.

Monk’s Mound (now) from a distance

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.

Why is Monk’s mound such a remarkable monument?

Monks Mound was constructed as the symbolic center of Cahokia. At its peak, A.D. 1050 to 1100, Cahokia may have been home to as many as 15,000 people. 

Monks Mound is the largest earthwork In North America.

Monk’s Mound

How tall is the Cahokia mound?

Located at the Cahokia Mounds UNESCO World Heritage Site near Collinsville, Illinois, the mound size was calculated in 1988 as about 100 feet (30 m) high, 955 feet (291 m) long including the access ramp at the southern end, and 775 feet (236 m) wide.

An aerial view of the Monk’s Mound

How many steps are in the Cahokia mounds?

The mound is 100 feet tall, with around 155 steps. A parking lot is near by and the historic site has about 12 miles of trails.

Why did Cahokia’s build mounds?

The various cultures collectively termed “Mound Builders” were inhabitants of North America who, during a 5,000-year period, constructed various styles of earthen mounds for religious, ceremonial, burial, and elite residential purposes.

Monk’s Mound

Cahokia Interpretive Center and Museum

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.

Cahokia Mounds Museum of Heritage

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.

Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site

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.

The Evidence of a forgotten culture

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.

Since they considered animal spirits to be auspicious, their cooking utensils too were carved with the symbolism.

The Beaver Effigy Bowl

The Mississippians

 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.

Cahokia (then)

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 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.

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

Daily Life and Designated Duties

Every day Life of Illiniwek Indians (Scenes from the Museum of Heritage )

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

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).

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

Grandmother tends the baby inside the hut, grandfather passes along the traditions of the clan, through stories while older children and adults took care of the harder work.

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

Children playing

A little girl chasing her brother who is running away with her rag doll

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

A Granary in a barn, to store food grains 

Sweat Huts : This one exhibit, tickled me pink, an ancient day sauna so to speak ! The picture below is that of a typical Sweat huts where 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.

In the picture, 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 ? )

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.The meat for eating, hide for clothes & keeping themselves warm , bone for making ornaments & farm tools for cultivation.

What language did the Cahokia speak?


The Cahokia were an Algonquian-speaking Native American tribe and member of the Illinois Confederation.

What religion did the Mississippians have?

Mississippian religion was a distinctive Native American belief system in eastern North America that evolved out of an ancient, continuous tradition of sacred landscapes, shamanic institutions, world renewal ceremonies, and the ritual use of fire, ceremonial pipes, medicine bundles, sacred poles, and symbolic weaponry

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.

The Medicine Man’s Hut

What did Mississippians eat?

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.

 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.

Corn, beans, squash, sunflowers, goosefoot, sump weed, and other plants were cultivated. They also ate wild plants and animals, gathering nuts and fruits and hunting such game as deer, turkeys, and other small animals. 

Mississippian people also collected fish, shellfish, and turtles from rivers, streams, and ponds

Check the gourd dipper for catching Mussels

Trade Links

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.

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.

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.

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.

What caused the collapse of Cahokia?

Archaeological studies reveal that the decline of the ancient city may have been caused by the increased flooding of the Mississippi River.

No one really knows how the city disappeared and the people perished, perhaps illness, water borne diseases or invasions.

Yet, during its time it was one of the bigger cities that ever flourished, even bigger than the present day London is what the books say.

The Back Story

The Monk’s Mound, is in two levels. It covers 16 acres, rises 100 ft and was topped by a massive 5,000 square ft building another 50 ft high.

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.

The strong winds were picking up speed as we climbed the 150 odd steps to the top.Warning signs to keep off during thunder storm were posted all along the way.As we climbed, I thought about the people who built it carrying soil in woven baskets and the work that went into creating this place of dwelling.

It was a steep climb, luckily it was a nice sunny day. .Clearly I was out of breath, racing with my kid to the top of the Monk’s Mound.

Had a flash back moment, perhaps, I was my kid’s age ….. during summer holidays along with cousins we would race up the hill known as ‘Parpale Guddae’ in Karkala, South India.Our grand mom packed delicious food for us to take along for the picnic on top of the hill.Amidst laughter & loud chatter we would race up the hill to reach the cave.

The cave on top of the hill held all the mystery for us kids.It was from this cave the King Tippu Sultan, who fought the British rule in India, valiantly lead his secret army through.

The cave on top of Parpale Gudde, Karkala, India
The entryway to the cave
The spot from which the King commanded his army

My childhood imagination those days as I stood in the cave, was colored in wonderment.Imagining what it might have felt like to lead a whole army through the tunnel dug out from the cave to reach a secret destination thrilled me .The fascination for history still continues, though in a different land now.

We reached the top of the mound, the wind was getting stronger, we held on to the railings . Another tourist beside me said, “This place carries a lot of good energy”. I already knew that, could feel it, a feeling that can’t be explained it must be experienced to be understood.

From a distance it looked like a flat topped pyramid, imagine the love, sweat & planning that must have gone into it?

The spirits of our ancestors stays with us much after they are gone, it does not matter which part of the globe you are in.You can feel their energy, surround you coaxing you to go on.Perhaps, the Native American’s knew it too!Standing atop a flat topped ancient mound, which once carried the powers of a vibrant culture, you certainly could feel good energy.

The Bottom Line

Planning for some fun trips with kids this summer? There are so many places to see in the midwest. Go on make some beautiful memories together!

Travel more! Open up to different cultures, you will be surprised at how much we can learn from each other. Broaden your perspective!

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3 years ago

What a fascinating place to explore! I’ve never heard of it. Thanks for all the info.

3 years ago

Great trip!!! Thanks for taking us along this journey!! I bet your family loved it, too.

3 years ago

Wow this place sounds amazing! I have been in southern Illinois many times near the Mississippi but I don’t remember hearing about this.

3 years ago

Love these historical discoveries!

Lisa Manderino
Lisa Manderino
3 years ago

This sounds like a fun place learn some great history!

Stacey Billingsley
3 years ago

I would love to visit this! I’ve driven nearby, but we haven’t stopped. I need to make a trip here soon. My family would love these exhibits.

3 years ago

I love all of the history here. We studied the mound builders in our homeschool last year. Would love to visit here with my kids sometime.

3 years ago

Loved going to the mounds in Chillicothe, OHIO will have to put these on our bucket list!

3 years ago

Very interesting I’ve never heard of Cahokia Mounds before.

Mariah French
3 years ago

Thank you for explaining the history with this! The mounds remind me of burial mounds I visited in South Korea.

Michelle Felux
3 years ago

Wonderful information! I had not heard of the Cahokia before. What rich culture!

3 years ago

So interesting and very well written!

3 years ago

This is within a days drive of us – might be something to explore this summer!

3 years ago

This is neat! Seems like a great place! I think I need to make a visit!

3 years ago

Like Eva, I’m from Ohio and am familiar with the Snake Mounds we have. I love this kind of history! Great job with your very thorough post!

3 years ago

I love learning about new places! Thanks for sharing!

Eva Keller
3 years ago

What a neat place to visit. I grew up in Ohio and we have a few different Indian Mounds that we would go to for field trips. They were always fun to check out.

heather J jandrue
3 years ago

This was all new to me. Very interesting and someone where I would love to see in person.

4 years ago

Great post! I’ve been to many places in the midwest but I have never been able to visit here! Thank you for sharing the history and information.. on my new must-do list!!

4 years ago

Fascinating! I’ve never heard of this place. Thanks for sharing!