Cahokia Mounds

Monks Mound in Cahokia

Photo Monks Mound at Cahokia is an imposing pre-Columbian earthwork structure in North America. Even the name of the tribes who built Cahokia is unknown. However, the name of this large settlement was invented relatively recently. The mounds and the city are surrounded by mysteries, and rather dark, associated with bloody wars and mass sacrifices. How the city appeared and why the residents left it, as if fleeing from the disaster that suddenly fell on him from the sky, and remains unknown to this day.

The Cahokia Mounds are a group of large earthworks located in the Mississippi River Valley in the United States, in what is now Illinois. These structures were created by the Cahokia Indians who inhabited the area between 800 and 1500 AD.

The Cahokia Mounds are grave structures in which chiefs and other dignitaries of the Indian tribe were presumably buried. Each mound had its own shape and size, with some reaching up to 30 meters in height and up to 300 meters in diameter.

The Cahokia Mounds are considered some of the most impressive and significant monuments of ancient Indian culture in North America. They were recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982. Today, the Cahokia Mounds are a tourist attraction and attract thousands of people from all over the world who want to learn more about Cahokia Indian history and culture.

Monks Mound in Cahokia

Cahokia is the largest group of ancient earth mounds north of Mexico known to exist in the Americas today. It is the largest archaeological site of the Mississippian culture of the 6th-13th centuries, and was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1982 as a major achievement of ancient human civilization.

Cahokia consists of 109 barrows (discovered to our time) located in a fertile river valley and built (namely “built,” not simply poured) by the hands of the North American predecessors of the current Indians. The uniqueness of the complex is that it was a city in the full sense, not a simple settlement with tepees. By the mid-11th century it was the largest in all of North America.

Little is known about the life of the mysterious people who built Cahokia. Scientists believe that the number of citizens reached 40 thousand people, and at that time it was a kind of record for the Indian country. Philadelphia was the first city in the United States to achieve a similar population in the 1780s.

Some idea of the culture and religion of Cahokia is given by the tomb of an Indian chief found by archaeologists in one of the mounds. The body rested on seashells shaped like a bird: the falcon and man-bird are indispensable attributes of Mississippian culture. Much more unusual is what was found near the burial site. First, a large collection of arrowheads from all over North America, from various Indian tribes, indicating the extent of the Cahokian trade connections. Second, several mass graves of young men, boys and girls, with traces of violent death, evidence of human sacrifice.

Cahokia is known to have prospered from the copper trade and the manufacture of hoes, the only agricultural tool of ancient North Americans.

The first Europeans to see the burial mounds of Cahokia were French missionaries in the 17th century. The missionaries were unable to obtain information from the local Indians as to when the tumuli began: the Indians simply did not know of them and viewed them as natural mounds. It is assumed that they were not descendants of the Indians who had lived there: the latter had left in the 14th century before Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1492.

The exact reason for the flight of the townspeople is unknown, and here science again enters the realm of speculation. Paleoclimatologists claim that the cause was the disappearance of the forests due to the onset of drought. Zoologists have no doubt that the inhabitants of Cahokia did not know their limits in hunting and wiped out all the wildlife in the area. Epidemiologists are certain that epidemic diseases are to blame.

Since the original name of the town is lost in time, the French gave the place the name Cahokia, using the self-name of the tribe of Indians who lived there, which in any case is in no way related to the builders of the town. This tribe was part of the Illino Indian Confederacy, along with the Peoria, Cascascaquia, Michigamea, and Tamaroa tribes. They retained nothing of the Cahokia builders: the Illinois lived in clans and worshipped carved pillar totems.

The mounds of Cahokia are in the Midwestern United States, near the town of Collinsville, Illinois, on the banks of the Mississippi River, opposite the city of St. Louis. It is an area of the Central Plains surrounded by rolling prairies.

Archaeological excavations in Cahokia have long been conducted, and they have allowed a fairly accurate reconstruction of the structure of the city and even the ensemble of individual structures.

The mounds of Cahokia have a special structure. The most important part of the complex is the Monks Mound ceremonial center. It is the most massive pre-Columbian earthwork structure in North America, rivaled only by the Aztec pyramids in Central America. The mound has four tiers and is now equipped with a concrete staircase, which replaced a wooden staircase that once existed. The structure is most likely the foundation of a larger structure, most likely a temple. Presumably the temple was 15 m high and could be seen from everywhere in the town. In front of the temple there was a square for popular gatherings, human sacrifices and the game of “chanqui”.

At a glance it is clear that the Monks Mound is the most important part of the entire archaeological complex of Cahokia. And its size is not an idea of its creators, but a consequence of the rainy climate. The Monks Mound was originally much smaller, but frequent heavy rains constantly eroded it, causing landslides, which simply forced the builders to deviate from the plan and build an earthen mountain of a larger size. Archaeological excavations have shown that the mound was constructed in several stages, from 900 to 1200.

Today, the mystical setting is covered only in English, peppered with Irish, Southerners, and Spanish spoken by newcomers from Mexico. The area was once inhabited by Indian tribes, who spoke dozens of languages, but all languages disappeared along with their speakers when the mass deportation of Indians from these places began as part of the policy of relocating the indigenous population around Cahokia.

The American government was able to negotiate with the chiefs of the larger tribes, but with those tribes who lived in Illinois, things were not so simple. The Northern Indians of what is now Illinois have always been small in number, and in these parts historically, since Cahokia times, each tribe has stood up for itself. The process of treaty-making and deportation was very slow, in groups. The Shawnee, Ottawa, Potawatomi, Sauk, and Fox tribes dutifully signed treaties and moved onto reservations on Indian Territory west of the Mississippi River. Only the Black Hawk chief of the Sauk, Makatavimeshekaka (1767-1838), dared to oppose. In 1832 he assembled a force of a thousand and a half from scattered groups of Sauk and Fawkes, determined to return to his ancestral lands in Illinois. The result of this rebellion was the Black Hawk War. The outcome of the war was a foregone conclusion: without waiting for support from other chiefs, Black Hawk’s band was defeated, with most of the warriors killed or captured.

General Information

  • Location: Midwestern United States.
  • Official designation: Mississippian Archaeological Site (7th-13th centuries).
  • Administrative affiliation: St. Clair County, Illinois, USA.
  • Nearest cities: St. Louis – 318,416 (2013), Collinsville – 2,579 (2010).
  • Language: English.
  • Ethnicity: White Americans – over 70%, and others (African Americans, Native Americans, Asians, and Métis people) – 30% (2010).
  • Religions: Christianity (Catholicism, Baptism, Lutheranism, and Methodism), Buddhism, Judaism, and Islam.
  • Currency: U.S. dollar.
  • Nearest large airport: St. Louis-Lambert International Airport.
  • Total area: 890 hectares.
  • Height above sea level: 156 m.
  • Distance: 26 km southeast of St. Louis.
  • Monks Mound: height: 30 m, length: 291 m, width: 236 m.

Climate and weather

  • Humid continental.
  • Average temperature in January: -3°C.
  • The average temperature in July: +24°C.
  • Average annual rainfall: 800-1000 mm.
  • Relative humidity: 70%.


  • Services: tourism, transport, trade.


  • Historical: Monks Mound, area for meetings and games, Mound 79 (burial of Chief Falcon), Mound 34 (copper workshop), sanctuary-calendar Woodhenge.
  • Cultural: Cahokia Museum and Research Center.

Fun Facts

  • It was in Cahokia that the game of “chanqui,” which later became popular with many Indian tribes, originated. A player would push a stone disc down a slope, and the other participants would throw spears, trying to get as close as possible to the place where the disc was supposed to stop. It was a game of chance with high stakes: people who lost their possessions were sometimes forced to end their lives.
  • The Black Hawk War of 1832 is considered, including in the United States itself, one of the most shameful pages in the history of white settler and Indian conflicts. Black Hawk tried to surrender, but the army opened fire anyway. The chief managed to survive. The Chicago Blackhawks, an NHL professional hockey club, are named after him.
  • Monks Mound was built over a period of years, and material for it was brought in from different places, in different colors and structures. As a result, the mound looked like a giant layer cake.
  • About 25 million m3 of earth was used to build the Monks Mound, which the builders carried in wicker baskets.
  • The workshop found in Mound 34 has been discovered twice. The first time it was found in the 1950s, but it was soon lost again. The second time, scientists were able to discover it as early as 2010.
  • In addition to Cahokia, two other Mississippian centers with giant flat-topped mounds are known in the United States: Aztalan, Wisconsin and Macon, Georgia.
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