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Ancient Cahokia Mounds on their way to national historic park designation

Ancient Cahokia Mounds on their way to national historic park designation

Efforts are underway to urge Congress to designate the Cahokia Mounds , and similar sites in St. Louis, Illinois, as a national historic park or a national monument, which would give the ancient Native American mounds more protection. The Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site covers more than 2,000 acres, making it the most sophisticated prehistoric civilization north of Mexico. An additional 1,500 acres surrounding it are also part of the prehistoric site but are not afforded the same level of historic protection. A new study titled ‘The Mounds – America’s First Cities’, presents justification for national historic park status.

Cahokia was once composed of a collection of agricultural communities that reached across the American Midwest and Southeast starting around 800 AD and flourishing between the 11 th and 12th century. It is a striking example of a complex chiefdom society, with many satellite mound centres and numerous outlying hamlets and villages. It was also a place where Native Americans made pilgrimages for special spiritual rituals linked to the origin of the cosmos.

It is believed that Cahokia may have been home to around 20,000 people at its peak and boasted some 120 mound, the largest of which is a ten-story earthen colossus known as Monk’s Mound. The giant mound is the largest prehistoric earthwork in the Americas, covering over 5 hectares and standing 30 metres high. An estimated 22 million cubic feet of earth was used to build the mound between the years of 900 and 1,200 A.D.

An artist’s rendition of Cahokia Mounds in 1150 AD. Photo credit: Cahokia Mounds Museum Society and Art Grossman.

Unfortunately, the relentless development of the 20th century took its own toll on Cahokia. Farmers flattened the second biggest mound for fill in 1931, and the site was irreversibly damaged to give way to a gambling hall, housing subdivision, an airfield, and numerous roads. Nevertheless, many of its central features survived and steps have been taken to prevent any further destruction of what is now the largest archaeological site in the United States.

There is still very little that is known about Cahokia, as there are no written records detailing the daily lives of the ancient mound builders. Only a tiny percentage of the site has been excavated, but when excavation work has taken place, archaeologists have been stunned by what they have found. Before and during the construction of the Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge (New Mississippi River Bridge), which began in 2010, archaeologists uncovered more than 1,500 ancient Native American homes — estimated to have housed 5,000 people over the years. Other finds included storage pits, refuse pits, food-processing areas, sweat lodges and other aspects of the culture.

The proposal put forward for national historic status, which was released March 19 by the Heartlands Conservancy, states, “The preservation of the greater mounds community — the Mississippian mounds — are a national responsibility.” The plans are currently under consideration.

Featured image: The Cahokia Mounds. Photo credit: Don Burmeister and Ira Block


    Monks Mound

    Monks Mound is the largest Pre-Columbian earthwork in the Americas and the largest pyramid north of Mesoamerica. The beginning of its construction dates from 900–955 CE. 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. [1] This makes Monks Mound roughly the same size at its base as the Great Pyramid of Giza (13.1 acres / 5.3 hectares). The perimeter of its base is larger than the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan. As a platform mound, the earthwork supported a wooden structure on the summit.

    Unlike Egyptian pyramids which were built of stone, the platform mound was constructed almost entirely of layers of basket-transported soil and clay. Because of this construction and its flattened top, over the years, it has retained rainwater within the structure. This has caused slumping, the avalanche-like sliding of large sections of the sides at the highest part of the mound. Its designed dimensions would have been significantly smaller than its present extent, but recent excavations have revealed that slumping was a problem even while the mound was being made. [2]


    Cahokia Sprawled Over Five Square Miles

    Like cities in other parts of the world, Cahokia, which sprawled over an area of about five square miles, developed in a highly desirable spot. The settlement was situated along a flood plain that provided fertile soil for agriculture, with nearby hickory forests to provide wood and other raw materials as well as wildlife to hunt, according to Lori Belknap, site manager for the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site.

    Cahokia also had convenient access to the nearby Mississippi River, which its residents𠅊 people known as the Mississippian culture—navigated in large dugout canoes. “It likely was a trading center,” Belknap says.

    Like a modern city with suburbs, Cahokia’s outer edge was a residential area, consisting of houses made from sapling frames lined with clay walls and covered by prairie grass roofs. Further inside was a log palisade wall and guard towers, which protected a central ceremonial precinct of the site, including Monks Mound, the Grand Plaza and 17 other mounds. More than 100 mounds extended more than a mile outside the wall in all directions. Some served as bases for what probably were important community buildings, while other cone-shaped mounds functioned as burial sites. Still others apparently were markers that delineated the city’s boundaries, according to Belknap.

    At the center was the 100-foot-tall Monks Mound, the largest earthen mound in North America, which had four terraces and a ramp or stairway leading up from the ground. From the top of the mound, one could take in a panoramic view of Cahokia and its surrounding realm.

    One of the most remarkable things about Cahokia is that it appears to have been carefully planned around 1000 A.D., with a rectangular-shaped Grand Plaza whose core design mirrors the native vision of the cosmos, according to archaeologist Thomas Emerson. From the beginning, the city’s builders had “grandiose visions of what Cahokia would be,” Emerson explains. “It did not grow by slow accretion through time.”

    The events that led to the deliberate building of Cahokia and the rapid growth of its population remain unclear. 𠇊 religious prophet? The immigration of a foreign elite group? The introduction of maize?” Emerson says. “The options seem endless, but we have few answers right now.”

    Cahokia’s decline, which began around 1250 or 1300, and culminated in the site’s abandonment by 1350, are similarly mysterious. A recent study suggests the settlement’s demise was linked to climate change since a decrease in rainfall would have affected the Mississippians’ ability to grow their staple crop of maize. Others think that the sheer size and diversity of the Cahokian population may have led to irreconcilable rifts.

    “It was a large population, composed of immigrants from the midcontinent who brought very different practices and beliefs to the city,” Emerson says. “The management of differences requires a strong social and political consensus within a group. If that consensus collapses, societies will fragment into their smaller groups that existed based on kinship, ethnicity, religious beliefs, residential propinquity, shared economic goals, etc.”


    Cahokia

    Cahokia is a modern-day historical park in Collinsville, Illinois, enclosing the site of the largest pre-Columbian city on the continent of North America. The original name of this city has been lost – Cahokia is a modern-day designation from the tribe that lived nearby in the 19th century – but it flourished between c. 600-c. 1350 CE.

    The city seems to have initially grown organically as more people moved into the region (at its height, it had a population of over 15,000 people) but the central structures – the great mounds which characterize the site – were carefully planned and executed and would have involved a large work force laboring daily for at least ten years to create even the smallest of the 120 which once rose above the city (of which 80 are still extant). The city flourished through long-distance trade routes running in every direction which allowed for urban development. There was a wide plaza for merchants, a residential area for the common people and another for the upper-class, a ball court, a playing field for the game known as Chunkey, fields of corn and other crops, solar calendar of wooden poles, and the mounds which served as residences, sometimes graves, and for religious and political purposes.

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    For many years, it was thought that the people of Cahokia “mysteriously vanished” but excavations from the 1960’s to the present have established that they abandoned the city, most likely due to overpopulation and natural disasters such as earthquakes and floods, and that it was later repopulated by the tribes of the Illinois Confederacy, one of which was the Cahokia. In the present day, Cahokia is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and ongoing archaeological site covering 2,200 acres (890 ha) visited by millions of people from around the world every year.

    The Mississippian Culture & Mounds

    The modern-day designation Mississippian Culture refers to the Native American people who inhabited the Mississippi River Valley, Ohio River Valley, and Tennessee River Valley, primarily, but were spread out in separate communities all the way down to present-day Louisiana as well as points north and east. The two best-known are the Adena Culture (c. 800 BCE-1 CE) and the Hopewell Culture (c. 100 BCE-500 CE) whose tribes inhabited modern-day Virginia, West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and Indiana. The names of both are modern-day designations: Adena was the name of the 19th century Ohio Governor Thomas Worthington’s estate outside Chillicothe, Ohio where an ancient mound was located and Hopewell was the name of a farmer on whose land another, later, mound was discovered.

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    Although the communities seem to have been diverse in crops grown and crafts produced, they all built large earthen mounds which served religious purposes in elevating the chiefs, who may also have been priests, above the common people and closer to the sun, which they worshipped as the source of life. The ruler of the city called himself "Brother of the Sun" and worked with the priests in honoring all the gods and spirits of the unseen world. The religious beliefs of the Mississippian peoples, as well as Native Americans in general, are summarized by scholar Alan Taylor:

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    North American natives subscribed to “animism”: a conviction that the supernatural was a complex and diverse web of power woven into every part of the natural world. Indeed, Indians made no distinction between the natural and the supernatural. In their minds, spiritual power was neither singular nor transcendent, but diverse and ubiquitous. Their world was filled with an almost infinite variety of beings, each possessing some varying measure of power. All living things belonged to a complex matrix that was simultaneously spiritual and material. Indeed, spirit power could be found in every plant, animal, rock, wind, cloud, and body of water – but in greater concentration in some than others. (18)

    It is thought that the Mississippian peoples built their mounds to focus spiritual power in a central location in their communities. The priests or priest-kings who performed rituals on these mounds were believed to be able to harness this power to protect the people and ensure regular rainfall and bountiful harvests. The earliest mound dated thus far is the Ouachita Mound in Louisiana which was built over 5,400 years ago and later mounds have been discovered from Ohio down to Florida and the east coast to the Midwest. No one knows what these people called themselves, but they are frequently referred to as “Moundbuilders” since their culture is characterized chiefly by the mounds they left behind. Scholar Charles C. Mann describes the variety of the mounds:

    Most of the earthworks were shaped like big cones and stepped pyramids, but some were sculpted into enormous birds, lizards, bears, long-tailed “alligators” and, in Peebles, Ohio, a 1,330-foot-long serpent…None of the mounds cover burials or contain artifacts or show signs of use. Indeed, they seem to have [had] little purpose. (290-291)

    Mann emphasizes the seems because, as he explains, the mounds “testify to levels of public authority and civic organization” because “building a ring of mounds with baskets or deerskins full of dirt is a long-term enterprise” requiring a central authority capable of delegating tasks and overseeing aspects including logistics, food supply, housing, and work shifts (291-292). The authority figures of the Adena and later Hopewell cultures were also responsible for the cultivation of tobacco which was used in religious rituals which took place at the top of these mounds, out of sight of the people, or on artificial plateaus created in the center or below the mound where public rituals were enacted.

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    Rise of Cahokia & the Great Mound

    The Hopewell Culture is the immediate predecessor to the people who built Cahokia but the two are not thought to have been the same. One notable distinction is in the crops they grew. The Adena/Hopewell cultivated barley, marsh elder, may grass, and knotweed, among others while the people of Cahokia had discovered corn, squash, and beans – the so-called “three sisters – and cultivated large crops of all three. Cahokia is thought to have begun as just another small village, one of many, located between a forest and a river on a wide plain conducive to agriculture. How it developed is unknown but archaeologists who have worked at the site claim it was most likely the construction of the largest mound – known as Monk’s Mound today – that brought people from other communities to the new city.

    The religious authorities are thought to have sent out word that they were going to build a great mound and, according to one view, people from many different regions came to participate according to another, the central authority conscripted workers from other communities as forced labor. This second theory has been challenged, however, in that there is no evidence of enslaved peoples at the site. Mann cites geographer and archaeologist William Woods of the University of Kansas, who has excavated at Cahokia for over 20 years, in describing the construction of the great mound:

    Monks Mound [so-called for a group of Trappist monks who lived nearby in the 18th and 19th centuries] was the first and most grandiose of the construction projects. Its core is a slab of clay about 900 feet long, 650 feet wide, and more than 20 feet tall. From an engineering standpoint, clay should never be selected as the bearing material for a big earthen monument. Clay readily absorbs water, expanding as it does. The American Bottom clay, known as smectite clay, is especially prone to swelling: its volume can increase by a factor of eight. Drying, it shrinks back to its original dimensions. Over time, the heaving will destroy whatever is built on top of it. To minimize instability, the Cahokians kept the slab at a constant moisture level: wet but not too wet. Moistening the clay was easy – capillary action will draw water from the floodplain, which has a high water table. The trick is to stop evaporation from drying out the top. In an impressive display of engineering savvy, the Cahokians encapsulated the slab, sealing it off from the air by wrapping it in thin, alternating layers of sand and clay. The sand acts as a shield for the slab. Water rises through the clay to meet it, but cannot proceed further because the sand is too loose for further capillary action. Nor can the water evaporate the clay layers atop the sand press down and prevent air from coming in. In addition, the sand lets rainfall drain way from the mound, preventing it from swelling too much. The final result covered almost fifteen acres and was the largest earthen structure in the Western Hemisphere though built out of unsuitable material in a floodplain, it has stood for a thousand years. (296-298)

    Since the Cahokians had no beasts of burden and no carts, all of the earth used in building Monks Mound had to be hand-carried. As the mound contains approximately 814,000 cubic yards of earth, this would have been a monumental building project requiring a large labor force and it is thought the influx of these workers led to the development of the city. After Monks Mound was completed, or while it was ongoing (as it is thought to have been built in stages), other mounds were constructed as well as temples such as the one which once topped Monks Mound. Some of these mounds had residences of the upper-class built on their flat tops, others served as burial sites (as in the case of the famous tomb of the ruler known as Birdman, buried with 50 sacrificial victims) and the purpose of still others is unknown.

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    Daily Life & Leisure

    Although the Cahokians left no written record of their lives, artifacts, grave goods, and later reports from French and Spanish explorers regarding Native American traditions of the region shed some light on the people’s daily lives. Mann provides an overview of the city at its height:

    Canoes flitted like hummingbirds across its waterfront: traders bringing copper and mother-of-pearl from faraway places hunting parties bringing such rare treats as buffalo and elk emissaries and soldiers in long vessels bristling with weaponry workers ferrying wood from upstream for the ever-hungry cookfires the ubiquitous fishers with their nets and clubs. Covering five square miles and housing at least fifteen thousand people, Cahokia was the biggest concentration of people north of the Rio Grande until the eighteenth century. (297-298)

    Additionally, there would be the workers on the mounds, the merchants in the plaza, copper workers making plates, bowls, and pipes, basket weavers at work, women tending the children and the crops, and loggers going back and forth between the city and the forest harvesting trees for lumber for the construction of homes, temples, other structures, and the stockade which ran around the city, presumably to protect it from floods. It is unlikely the stockade was built for defense since there was no other community in the area with the strength or numbers to mount any kind of assault on Cahokia. Astrologer-priests would have been at work at the solar calendar near Monks Mound known as Woodhenge, a wooden circle of 48 posts with a single post in the center, which was used to chart the heavens and, as at many ancient sites, mark the sunrise at the vernal and autumnal equinoxes as well as the summer and winter solstice.

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    Leisure activities included a ball game which was similar to modern-day lacrosse and another known as Chunkey (also given as tchung-kee) in which two players held carved, notched sticks and a “chunkey stone”, a round stone disk smoothed and polished, sometimes engraved, which was rolled in front of them. As the disk began to wobble and come to rest, the players would throw their sticks, trying to land as close to the stone as possible. Whichever player was closest scored a point and the notches on the sticks indicated how high or low that point was. The first player to score 12 points was the winner. Only males were allowed to play Chunkey, but anyone could wager on a game and it seems these bets were often high. Losers, both of the bets and the game, took both so seriously that they sometimes killed themselves rather than live with the shame.

    Causes for Abandonment

    As the largest urban center on the continent, Cahokia became a center of religious devotion and trade. At its height, based on artifacts excavated, the city traded as far north as present-day Canada and as far south as Mexico as well as to the east and west. The clergy seem to have separated from the political authority at some point and established a hereditary priesthood which continued to conduct services on top of Monks Mound as well as on the artificial plateau below and these were thought to attract visitors to the city to participate.

    The success of Cahokia led to its eventual downfall and abandonment, however, as overpopulation depleted resources and efforts to improve the peoples’ lives wound up making them worse. The city’s water supply was a creek (Canteen Creek) which the Cahokians diverted so it joined another (modern-day Cahokia Creek), bringing more water to the city to supply the growing population. The merging of the two streams also allowed woodcutters to send their logs downstream to the city instead of having to carry them further and further distances as the forest receded due to harvesting.

    With tree cover and root systems dwindling upland from the city, heavy rains had nothing to absorb them and so ran into the creeks and streams, causing flooding, especially of the now-merged creeks, which destroyed crops. The stockade built to protect the city from floods was useless since the merged creeks brought the water directly into the city and so homes were also damaged.

    Recognizing their mistake, the Cahokians began replanting the forest but it was too little too late. The clergy, who were held responsible for the peoples’ misfortunes as they had obviously failed to interpret the will of the gods and placate them, initiated reforms, abandoning the secretive rituals on top of Monks Mound for full transparency in front of the populace on the plateau but this effort, also, came too late and was an ineffective gesture. The clergy, who were all of the upper class and, as noted, had established a hereditary system of control, seem to have tried to save face and retain power instead of admitting they had somehow failed and seeking forgiveness and this, coupled with the other difficulties, seems to have led to civil unrest.

    An earthquake at some point in the 13th century toppled buildings and, at the same time, overpopulation led to unsanitary conditions and the spread of disease. Some scholars now believe that people were repeatedly invited to take up residence in the city to replace those who had died and graves containing obvious victims of human sacrifice suggest that the people were becoming desperate for help from their gods (although human sacrifice was practiced earlier as seen in the tomb of the ruler referred to as Birdman). Evidence of civil war or at least large-scale social unrest suggests some sort of violent clash c. 1250 CE and although attempts were made to repair the damage done by floods and the earthquake, whatever central authority had maintained order previously seems to have fallen apart by c. 1350 CE the city had been abandoned.

    Conclusion

    When the mounds of Cahokia were first noted by Europeans in the 19th century, they were regarded as natural formations by some and the work of various European or Asiatic peoples by others. Mann notes:

    Nineteenth century writers attributed the mound complexes to, among others, the Chinese, the Welsh, the Phoenicians, the lost nation of Atlantis, and various biblical personages. A widely touted theory assigned authorship to Scandinavian emigres, who later picked up stakes, moved to Mexico, and became the Toltecs. (289-290)

    As with the Maya when they were “discovered”, European and American writers refused to believe the mounds were created by Native Americans even though one of the greatest American intellectuals of the 18th century, Thomas Jefferson, had examined the mounds and proclaimed them of “Indian origin”.

    The great mystery of who the builders had been was amplified by the question of where they had gone. The “mysterious” disappearance of the people of Cahokia is still discussed by some writers and video producers in the present day. There is no mystery to their disappearance, however, nor was the site permanently abandoned in c. 1350 CE.

    Recent work done at Cahokia shows conclusively that the city was reinhabited by the tribes of the Illinois Confederacy. Doctoral student A.J. White of University of California, Berkeley, spearheaded the team which established that Cahokia was repopulated by the 1500’s and maintained a steady population through the 1700’s when European-borne disease, climate change, and warfare finally led to the decline and abandonment of the city, although some people continued to live there up into the early 1800’s. These people, however, had no idea who had built the mounds, leaving the question open for speculation.

    Although Cahokia was known to 19th century scholars, no professional excavation of the site was attempted until the 1960’s and, since then, archaeological work there has been ongoing. As noted, Cahokia today is a UNESCO World Heritage Site open to the public with an interpretive center and museum, walkways and stairs between and on the mounds, and events held to commemorate, honor, and teach the history of the people who once lived there.


    Cahokia: Mystery of the Mounds

    Located near St. Louis in Collinsville, IL, the Cahokia Mounds are a set of ancient earthen mounds often credited to Native Americans who were known as the ‘Mound Builders’.

    The Mound Builders were ancestors of the natives alive at the time of the first settlements, and they’re believed to have been more advanced and intelligent than their descendants.

    Native tribes reportedly attributed the mounds to their ancestors, the Mound Builders, which hints at an interesting erased chapter in North American history.

    We have no real way of knowing who the Mound Builders were or how they constructed so many impressive earthworks, and for now, we can only guess.

    The largest of the Cahokia Mounds is known as Monk’s Mound and stands at over 100 feet high and 775 feet wide.

    Modern day Monk’s Mound. A road cuts through the Cahokia site, but visitors can ascend the staircase that leads to the top of the 100 ft. mound.

    The name was given to it because of French Trappist monks who farmed it in 1809 1 , well after the civilization responsible for the mounds had abandoned them.

    Little Is Known About Cahokia

    I live near the mounds, and to me, the most fascinating thing about them is how little we know about them or the civilization that built them. Because of the complex manner in which they were designed, historians and archaeologists are still baffled about their origin.

    Theories abound, from gods appearing and building the mounds to the more common theory that an ancestor Mound Builder race is responsible.

    The only way we could really know, besides through extensive excavation and research, is if we took a step back in time and witnessed their construction.

    Who Were the Mound Builders?

    Troy Taylor at Prairie Ghosts writes that relics from the Mound Builders are scattered across the United States 1 . Cahokia wasn’t the only ancient American civilization to build mounds, but theirs are among the most notable – especially Monk’s Mound.

    Early explorers took these strange manmade mounds as signs of the presence of an advanced civilization that had long vanished 1 . Plenty of artifacts were left behind, including pottery, beautiful stone pipes and copper effigies of birds and serpents 1 .

    The Cahokia Birdman tablet is one of many unique pieces of art uncovered at the mounds by archaeologists. Credit: flickr.com

    It didn’t take long for theories to be proposed about who built the mounds. Some claimed they were the work of Vikings 1 , some Phoenicians from Tyre, an ancient city 1 , and some the lost tribes of Israel 1 .

    As I mentioned, the natives themselves attributed the mounds to a great civilization that had come before them. This could explain why so many interesting theories exist about who built them wild theories are inevitable with any mystery.

    Perhaps the settlers weren’t satisfied with the natives’ explanation and felt there was another, more mystical force at work, or perhaps the natives were right and a more intelligent race – their ancestors – built the mounds.

    Link Discovered Between Mound Builders and Still-Living Natives

    In 1839, ethnologist Samuel G. Morton produced evidence that skulls retrieved from the burial mounds matched the skulls of recently deceased natives 1 . This effectively linked the ancient Mound Builders with the natives who were still alive at the time.

    Morton theorized that the Mound Builders were early ancestors of the natives 1 . Until 1881, his theory was largely rejected 1 .

    It was finally accepted when the Smithsonian Institute started a special investigation into the mounds 1 , which was led by Illinois archaeologist Cyrus Thomas, a critic of Morton’s theory and advocate of the lost race theory 1 .

    After examining thousands of unearthed artifacts over a period of seven years, Thomas changed his stance and accepted Morton’s theory that the Builders were the natives’ ancestors 1 .

    Larger Than London

    Troy describes Monk’s Mound as a 16-acre stepped pyramid that shows signs of having been rebuilt several times 1 . Buried remains of an ancient temple sit just under the mound’s summit 1 . Personally, I’d love to explore them just to see what I could find.

    Approximately 20,000 people once lived in the city of Cahokia.

    Cahokia was larger than London in its heyday 1 , but besides locals and tourists who come to check it out, it’s empty today.

    Fortunately, Monk’s Mound is preserved along with a few others and you can visit them at the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, where you can also visit a wonderful museum.

    Approximately 20,000 people once lived in the city of Cahokia 1 , and they lived inside of a wooden stockade that surrounded their homes, buildings and main mounds 1 . The city thrived from 700 AD until reaching a steady decline around 1300 1 . It had been abandoned by around 1500 1 .

    Approximately 20,000 people once lived in the city of Cahokia, and they lived inside of a wooden stockade that surrounded their homes, buildings and main mounds. Credit: pinterest.com

    There used to be more than 120 Cahokian mounds scattered throughout the land 1 , but many have been destroyed over the years. Only 106 have been recorded 1 , but thankfully, 68% of them are preserved inside the boundaries of the State Historic Site 1 .

    What Caused Cahokia’s Demise?

    According to some archaeologists, the Natchez Indians of the Lower Mississippi Valley were the last surviving descendants of the Mound Builders 1 .

    They worshipped the sun 1 , which could explain the mounds’ ritualistic purpose as well as the Woodhenge built on the site 1 .

    A depiction of Woodhenge in ancient Cahokia. Credit: pinterest.com

    Cahokia’s Woodhenge consists of 48 wooden posts that make up a 410 ft. diameter circle 1 , and it can determine the exact date of all four equinoxes by lining up the central observation posts with specific perimeter posts during the sunrise 1 .

    A modern day recreation of Woodhenge at the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site. Credit: jqjacobs.net

    Some have suggested that the Mound Builders abandoned their civilization because of overcrowding and a lack of food or other resources 1 , as well as contamination of the water supply 1 .

    Others have theorized that a complete breakdown of the Cahokian civilization was to blame 1 .

    The Natchez, perhaps the last descendants of the Mound Builders, were already severely declining when the first settlers arrived 1 .

    The French would eventually wipe them out completely during a series of wars along the Mississippi 1 . If the genocide of an entire tribe of people weren’t bad enough, this particular tribe was our only potential link to the Mound Builders.

    The Mound Builders: An Ancient, Highly Intelligent Race?

    After researching a nearly century-old newspaper article posted to Facebook by Beverly Bauser, Coordinator for Madison County IL GenWeb, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the history of my community is closely linked with the history of Cahokia.

    As I mentioned, my town is a short drive from the Cahokia Mounds.

    The small, tight-knit towns that comprise my community are all refinery towns, built up by Standard Oil in the early 1900s.

    Smaller outlying mounds have been discovered here throughout the past few hundred years, and one such mound still stands perfectly accessible in a public park here in Roxana, IL.

    A number of these mounds that used to stand in my community were eventually dug up. One dig uncovered something strangely absent from history books, leaving one to wonder why kids across the country were never told about it in school.

    The year was 1918. During construction of an oil refinery in Roxana – one of many that still operate here – the crew started digging at a mound which sat on newly purchased refinery property planned to be used for employee housing 2 .

    While digging, the crew reportedly uncovered skeletons that could’ve only belonged to a highly intelligent ancient race 2 because the skeletons were noticeably different from those of the natives at the time 2 .

    The refinery property in Roxana, IL, where the bones were discovered. I grew up near this refinery, and I still live near it. I see it almost every day along with about three other refineries.

    The site where this took place, gated refinery property, just happens to be across the street from the public park with the aforementioned accessible mound.

    This fascinates me because this mound was in my hometown and, again, the refinery they were constructing is in use today.

    Hardly any more information can be found about the discovery beyond what was offered in my source, the 1918 newspaper article obtained by Beverly Bauser.

    An aerial view of the Wood River refinery in Roxana, IL. Credit: townnews.com

    The ‘Bearded and Robed God’

    Legend tells of a ‘bearded and robed god’ visiting the civilization known as the Mound Builders and building massive mounds while inspiring them to live in love and harmony with the land 1 .

    It also tells of an eventual degeneration within the culture they soon descended into war and ritual sacrifice 1 .

    Despite that the history behind them is mostly unknown, the Cahokia Mounds are believed by many to be a source of powerful energy 1 .

    Because of this, more than a thousand people gathered at the top of Monk’s Mound in August 1987 for the harmonic convergence, a global meditation event that coincided with a powerful planetary alignment 1 .

    The event was designed to spread peace across the world 1 .

    The Investigations of T.J. Ramey

    Now, we’ll take a look at an 1899 article from a local Illinois newspaper, The Alton Telegraph, which reports on the death of the then-current owner of Monk’s Mound and shares some history.

    Once again, I would’ve never found this old article if it weren’t for Madison County IL GenWeb Coordinator Beverly Bauser, who recovered it and posted it to their Facebook page with a historical picture and drawing of the mounds.

    The article explains the owner’s belief that the mounds were constructed by ‘a people with a much higher order of intelligence’ 3 . It begins by informing readers that the funeral of the mound’s owner, Hon. T.J. Ramey, had taken place that day 3 .

    Ramey was described as the ‘agent of a number of scientific institutions’ 3 , and the article explains that he had been ‘digging and delving’ into the mound to produce results he intended to be posthumously published 3 .

    He often claimed that the natives of his time weren’t involved at all with constructing the Cahokia Mounds or any throughout the country 3 . He also believed the mounds were intended for various purposes beyond burial 3 .

    He knew the builders had profound knowledge of geometry 3 , because the figures on the inside are built on geometrical lines 3 .

    The 1899 article describes Monk’s Mound as bearing resemblance to the Egyptian pyramids 3 , because within it lie terraces, rooms, halls and various other wonders that all contain ancient relics 3 .

    Limestone Brought to Monk’s Mound from Distant Bluffs

    Ramey was able to prove that Monk’s Mound wasn’t built from earth taken from nearby adjacent hollows or low places 3 the thousands of tons of inside material were somehow brought from bluffs miles away 3 .

    Bluffs near Alton, IL. Credit: riverbills.com

    Bluffs can be found near Alton, IL, which is near my town but far enough away from the Cahokia Mounds to make you wonder how the material was transported.

    It’s assumed that the material was sent on the river in boats – despite Alton being far from the mounds, all it would take to get there is a boat ride on the Mississippi.

    The river was a lot wider back then 3 , and this probably made it easier to transport the materials by boat. However, the fact that limestone from the bluffs was added to the mounds at all is, in my opinion, fascinating.

    Ramey Wanted His Discoveries to Go Down in History

    Ramey was once offered $100,000 for the tract on which Monk’s Mound stands, but he refused because his work was not yet done 3 .

    Ramey requested his findings be reviewed and edited by the ‘highest scientific institutions of the country’ once he was gone.

    He wouldn’t let the mound pass into anyone else’s hands for any amount of money as he was well-off and too deep into his work with the mound to give it up 3 .

    He firmly believed his investigations into Monk’s Mound would go down in history and create a monument to his memory that would ‘last longer than any gravestone’ 3 . Again, he also asked for his findings not to be published until after his death.

    He requested his findings be reviewed and edited by the ‘highest scientific institutions of the country’ once he was gone, before being released to the public 3 .

    One can only imagine the kind of editing that took place once those institutions got their hands on Ramey’s findings, and his well-meaning request could be the reason we don’t know more about the mounds today.

    Check out the Mounds!

    I highly recommend checking out the Cahokia Mounds if you’re interested in mysterious ancient structures with an unknown history.

    You can visit the mounds and stand atop the massive Monk’s Mound, and if you do, take some time to ponder the mystery behind this ancient site.

    Climbing up the steps up to the top of Monk’s Mound and looking out over the land from the top is an experience you won’t forget. Credit: panoramio.com

    Climbing up the steps up to the top of Monk’s Mound and looking out over the land from the top is an experience you won’t forget, and while you’re there, consider the fascinating discoveries that have yet to be made.

    The mounds boggle the mind and the history behind them is as cloudy as the rest of North America’s ancient history, which makes them all the more appealing to seekers of truth and lovers of mystery.


    New study debunks myth of Cahokia’s Native American lost civilization

    Image courtesy of Cahokia Mounds Historic State Site. Painting by William R. Iseminger.

    A UC Berkeley archaeologist has dug up ancient human feces, among other demographic clues, to challenge the narrative around the legendary demise of Cahokia, North America’s most iconic pre-Columbian metropolis.

    In its heyday in the 1100s, Cahokia — located in what is now southern Illinois — was the center for Mississippian culture and home to tens of thousands of Native Americans who farmed, fished, traded and built giant ritual mounds.

    By the 1400s, Cahokia had been abandoned due to floods, droughts, resource scarcity and other drivers of depopulation. But contrary to romanticized notions of Cahokia’s lost civilization, the exodus was short-lived, according to a new UC Berkeley study.

    UC Berkeley archaeologist A.J. White digs up sediment in search of ancient fecal stanols. (Photo by Danielle McDonald)

    The study takes on the “myth of the vanishing Indian” that favors decline and disappearance over Native American resilience and persistence, said lead author A.J. White, a UC Berkeley doctoral student in anthropology.

    “One would think the Cahokia region was a ghost town at the time of European contact, based on the archeological record,” White said. “But we were able to piece together a Native American presence in the area that endured for centuries.”

    The findings, just published in the journal American Antiquity, make the case that a fresh wave of Native Americans repopulated the region in the 1500s and kept a steady presence there through the 1700s, when migrations, warfare, disease and environmental change led to a reduction in the local population.

    White and fellow researchers at California State University, Long Beach, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Northeastern University analyzed fossil pollen, the remnants of ancient feces, charcoal and other clues to reconstruct a post-Mississippian lifestyle.

    Their evidence paints a picture of communities built around maize farming, bison hunting and possibly even controlled burning in the grasslands, which is consistent with the practices of a network of tribes known as the Illinois Confederation.

    Unlike the Mississippians who were firmly rooted in the Cahokia metropolis, the Illinois Confederation tribe members roamed further afield, tending small farms and gardens, hunting game and breaking off into smaller groups when resources became scarce.

    The linchpin holding together the evidence of their presence in the region were “fecal stanols” derived from human waste preserved deep in the sediment under Horseshoe Lake, Cahokia’s main catchment area.

    Fecal stanols are microscopic organic molecules produced in our gut when we digest food, especially meat. They are excreted in our feces and can be preserved in layers of sediment for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

    Because humans produce fecal stanols in far greater quantities than animals, their levels can be used to gauge major changes in a region’s population.

    A.J. White and colleagues paddle out onto Horseshoe Lake. (Photo courtesy of A.J. White)

    To collect the evidence, White and colleagues paddled out into Horseshoe Lake, which is adjacent to Cahokia Mounds State Historical Site, and dug up core samples of mud some 10 feet below the lakebed. By measuring concentrations of fecal stanols, they were able to gauge population changes from the Mississippian period through European contact.

    Fecal stanol data were also gauged in White’s study of Cahokia’s Mississippian Period demographic changes, published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal. It found that climate change in the form of back-to-back floods and droughts played a key role in the 13th century exodus of Cahokia’s Mississippian inhabitants.

    But while many studies have focused on the reasons for Cahokia’s decline, few have looked at the region following the exodus of Mississippians, whose culture is estimated to have spread through the Midwestern, Southeastern and Eastern United States from 700 A.D. to the 1500s.

    White’s latest study sought to fill those gaps in the Cahokia area’s history.

    “There’s very little archaeological evidence for an indigenous population past Cahokia, but we were able to fill in the gaps through historical, climatic and ecological data, and the linchpin was the fecal stanol evidence,” White said.

    Overall, the results suggest that the Mississippian decline did not mark the end of a Native American presence in the Cahokia region, but rather reveal a complex series of migrations, warfare and ecological changes in the 1500s and 1600s, before Europeans arrived on the scene, White said.

    “The story of Cahokia was a lot more complex than, ‘Goodbye, Native Americans. Hello, Europeans,’ and our study uses innovative and unusual evidence to show that,” White said.

    Co-authors of the study are Samuel Munoz at Northeastern University, Sissel Schroeder at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Lora Stevens at California State University, Long Beach.


    Study Says Cahokia, America's First City, Was a Melting Pot

    The teeth of ancient inhabitants indicates that massive immigration may have driven the city's explosive growth.

    A thousand years after the Native American city known as Cahokia sprouted on a floodplain east of modern-day St. Louis, Missouri, the story of its explosive birth and precipitous decline remains one of America's great mysteries. (Read "Cahokia: America's Forgotten City" in National Geographic magazine.)

    But a new study published in the Journal of Archaeological Science may shed fresh light on how this city of thousands—perhaps 20,000 or more—formed in a matter of just 50 years.

    By examining the strontium content of teeth from the remains of 87 ancient Cahokians and comparing it to the strontium signatures of local fauna, a team led by Thomas Emerson of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has concluded that at least one-third of Cahokia's residents immigrated from areas outside the floodplain known as the American Bottom.

    How did they reach this conclusion, and what might this mean for our understanding of Cahokia? In an interview earlier this week, writer Glenn Hodges posed these questions to Emerson, who is also the Illinois State Archaeologist.

    First of all, how do strontium signatures work?

    Essentially, it works under the principle that you are what you eat. Strontium is in the bedrock across the world. It dissolves into the water supply, the water is absorbed by animals and plants, humans consume the animals and plants, and the strontium moves into their bones and teeth.

    Strontium varies by the kind of bedrock, and that's what allows us to use strontium to tell where somebody was raised. To determine the signature for Cahokia, we used small mammals that probably never moved more than a mile from where they were born—squirrels, rabbits, etc.

    So you take that animal data as a baseline, and compare it to the strontium in people's teeth.

    Yes. There's one set of teeth that matures when you're about five or six, and there's a second set that matures between six and sixteen. So we're looking at people whose infant teeth indicate they were living in a different place, but by the time they became teenagers they were living in Cahokia. Once you move beyond that 16-18 age group, we can't recognize immigrants anymore.

    How did you extrapolate from 87 individuals to one-third of the population?

    You have to assume that your sample is representative. We accessed almost all the individual remains that are held in institutions. The population available for testing is just that small.

    So if one-third of your sample immigrated in their youth, the actual proportion of immigrants might be higher? Because you've got to figure that these kids came with parents who already had all their adult teeth.

    Yes. So the numbers are probably higher. We just have no way to get at that right now.

    Do you have any idea where the immigrants were from, or do you only know that they're not from the Cahokia area?

    Our level of research right now is confined to identifying immigrants. To understand where they came from, we have to greatly expand the database of strontium throughout the mid-continent, and that research has not been done yet.

    Is that research anywhere on the horizon?

    Yes, it is. We started it in 2009 with preliminary work, and now we're looking to expand that database.

    How long do you think it will take to get a useable database?

    Probably two to three years. It's basically getting the right kind of samples and getting them processed. Of course, we have to get the money to do it, but the research is fairly simple.

    So how does this change the picture we have of Cahokia? Wasn't it already thought that immigration was a factor in its explosive growth?

    It depends on who you talk to. There's still a group of archaeologists thinking in pretty traditional terms—yeah, there were some immigrants, but it was pretty much a homogeneous population getting larger.

    But when you start thinking about Cahokia as multiethnic and probably multilinguistic, with massive population growth and nucleation [forming around a central area], you have to ask: What sort of social, religious, and political organization do you need to actually make that function? When people don't have anything in common, how do you create unity?

    In terms of research, it's a sea change. Now we can look at Cahokia in comparison with the growth of cities all over the world. From other areas we know that's how cities grow, by immigration. I don't care if you're looking at Roman London, or Delhi, or some of the big Chinese cities, they're actually nucleations of dissimilar people.

    So this kind of takes Cahokia out of this romantic mythology of the Indian past, and shows how these people were facing the same kind of problems as people all over the world do when you begin to urbanize. It allows you to do cross-cultural comparisons with a lot more validity.

    So you're really talking about expanding the scope of Cahokia research, and connecting it with this larger body of scholarship?

    There are basically two schools of thought. One is based on very localized interpretations and perspectives of Cahokia, and the other sees Cahokia as a player in international research.


    ‘Its decline is a mystery’

    During its prime, Cahokia would have bustled with activity. Men hunted, grew and stored corn, and cleared trees for construction. Women tended to the fields and homes, made pottery, wove mats and fabrics, often performing work and social activity in the small courtyards and gardens outside each grouping of homes.

    Sacred meetings and ceremonies – the city’s purpose – took place on the plazas and in buildings inside the palisade. “There was a belief that what went on on Earth also went on in the spirit world, and vice versa,” says James Brown, a professor emeritus of archaeology at Northwestern University. “So once you went inside these sacred protocols, everything had to be very precise.”

    The Mississippians oriented Cahokia’s centre in a true east-west fashion, using site lines and the positions of the sun, moon and stars to determine direction accurately. West of Monk’s Mound, a circle of tall posts used the position of the rising sun to mark the summer and winter solstices and the spring and fall equinoxes. The posts were re-erected and dubbed Woodhenge by archaeologists who began researching the area in 1961.

    Excavations since the 60s have yielded fascinating information about this ancient city. Scholars have found artistic stone and ceramic figurines Brown was part of team that discovered a small copper workshop adjacent to the base of one of the mounds. “Inside was a fireplace with coals, where copper could be pounded out and annealed,” he says. “They pounded it out, heated it to allow the crystals in the cooper to realign, and when they quenched this in water, you’d have something that resembled an ornament, a bead.”

    The Cahokia site covered an area of nine square miles. Illustration: Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site

    Archaeological work has also discovered a mound containing mass burials. While the extent of it is debated, it appears the Mississippians may have conducted ritual human sacrifices, judging by what appears to be hundreds of people, mostly young women, buried in these mass graves. Some were likely strangled others possibly died of bloodletting. Four men were found with their heads and hands cut off another burial pit had mostly males who had been clubbed to death.

    The people of Cahokia themselves may have both doled out and received a lot of this violence, since researchers have found no specific evidence of warfare or invasion from outsiders. Emerson says he has excavated other Native American sites that were filled with arrowheads left behind by war by comparison, at Cahokia there were almost none. “It’s interesting,” he adds. “At Cahokia the danger is from the people on top not other people [from other tribes or locations] attacking you.”

    But William Iseminger, archaeologist and assistant manager at Cahokia Mounds, points out there must have been some continuing threat to the city, whether from local or distant sources, that necessitated it being built and rebuilt four times between 1175 and 1275. “Perhaps they never were attacked, but the threat was there and the leaders felt the need to expend a tremendous amount of time, labour and material to protect the central ceremonial precinct.”

    The story of Cahokia’s decline and eventual end is a mystery. After reaching its population height in about 1100, the population shrinks and then vanishes by 1350. Perhaps they had exhausted the land’s resources, as some scholars theorise, or were the victims of political and social unrest, climate change, or extended droughts. Whatever, the Mississippians simply walked away and Cahokia gradually was abandoned.

    Tales of Cahokia don’t even show up in Native American folklore and oral histories, Emerson says. “Apparently what happened in Cahokia left a bad taste in people’s minds.” The earth and the mounds provide the only narrative.


    Cahokia Mounds WHS

    Cahokia Mounds is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1982 on the basis of two criteria of outstanding universal value: “it bears a unique [and] exceptional testimony to … a civilization which … has disappeared” (iii) and it is “an outstanding example of a type of building, architectur[e] [and] landscape which illustrates [a] significant stage in human history” (iv). As it does for most of the archaeological sites on the World Heritage List, UNESCO has sponsored this brief video introduction: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3vN4S1jFUp0


    See World Heritage designation plaque in upper right.

    Cahokia Mounds was the largest settlement in prehispanic America north of the Basin of Mexico. It covered 3,200 acres. There were residential neighborhoods, plazas, temples, astronomical observatories and the great Monks Mound.

    Cahokia was a bustling city that erupted onto the Middle Mississippi Valley landscape ca. 1050 AD through dramatic social and political events. Cahokia Mounds was a planned site that significantly altered the native cultural patterns that preceded it. Not only did it attract tens of thousands of people to dwell there, it was a pilgrimage center as well with a religion that archaeologists are reconstructing, a religion that spread out from Cahokia across the Midwest, down the Mississippi River and west. With this large geographical area there was exuberant trade in many different kinds of goods. Cahokia’s rapid expansion has been called “a great civilizing social movement” by Timothy Pauketat, a major Cahokia scholar and current director of the Illinois Archaeological Survey. But this “big bang” did not last. Only one hundred years the waning of Cahokia began.

    When Cahokia and the Mississipian world collapsed ca. 1200 AD, the great earthen mounds remained on the landscape. Thus, when early Anglo settlers began moving into the lands of the descendant native peoples, they promulgated a “myth of the moundbuilders”, arguing that the “simple” tribes they saw could not possibly have built the mound-marked landscape. Eventually, that fiction was overturned by indisputable evidence that the (then) contemporary Indians were related. The remarkable archaeological survey of Ephraim George Squier and Edwin Hamilton Davis published in their Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley (Smithsonian Institution, 1848 — this was the first publication of the Smithsonian!) gives us an idea of what the Europeans first saw, before they erased so much of the Indigenous past from the surface. 48 maps. 207 engravings. Although Ohio’s earthworks dominate the volume, Cahokia is mentioned with the indication of other smaller mounds nearby and across the river at St Louis. The book can be read online though the Gutenberg Project: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/49668/49668-h/49668-h.htm

    Today most of Cahokia’s mounds are gone – although Monks Mound still towers. Unlike sites elsewhere such as Machu Picchu, Teotihuacan and Petra, a mind-boggling visual “wow” is missing, notwithstanding what archaeologists have determined was there. Thus, the interpretive center at Cahokia Mounds plays an especially important role.



    It is a superb museum with compelling dioramas, artifact exhibitions, maquettes, maps and other illustrations that truly help the visitor appreciate the significance of the site.

    Watch this interview with Site Superintendent Lori Belknap to understand the challenges and accomplishments involved in managing this great site.

    Long time site archaeologist, William Iseminger, offers his insight into the archaeological history of Cahokia in this interview. And read his article about five decades of public interpretation at Cahokia.

    One of the most interesting museological aspects of the interpretive center is its representation of the work of archaeologists and the museum’s contraposition of the professional philosophy of archaeologists in contrast to the cosmology of native peoples, leading to two very different interpretations of Cahokia.

    Also interesting is how the museum negotiates the NAGPRA prohibition about the display of Native American human remains. The maquette of Cahokia’s most famous burial appears to finesse the issue.

    A major initiative is underway to expand the national significance of Cahokia Mounds by having it become a unit of the U.S. National Park Service. This effort is being led by Heartlands Conservancy in coordination with political leaders (Republican Congressman Mike Bost and Democrat Senator Dick Durbin among others), community advocacy associations and Native American tribal groups. If approved, the site would be managed as a partnership between the NPS and the local groups that have enthusiastically pushed for this designation. An important issue to watch is not the obvious improved protection of the site but also the economic and social development that NPS-inspired tourism could and should bring to Collinsville (where it is located) and the entire nearby Illinois Metro-East area. Or will Saint Louis remain the primary beneficiary?

    Watch this interview with political scientist, Dr. Robert Pahre, about National Parks and the Cahokia site: https://mediaspace.illinois.edu/media/t/1_sipqc7nf

    Other important Mississippian civilization archaeological sites in Illinois have been excavated by archaeologists over the years. One of the most interesting of those sites is Emerald Mounds near Lebanon:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iwAjxvL6Y4c
    Although there is little to see on the surface, it would be very exciting to visit if there were a state-of-the-art interpretive center.

    Among the tragedies that befell the Indian peoples of Illinois was their final expulsion in 1830 under President Andrew Jackson. This was the culminating blow in a process of forced attrition that had been happening for many decades. The government’s Indian Removal Act lumped all tribes east of the Mississippi together and sent them across the river, mostly to Oklahoma. Various contemporary Native American tribes are intensely interested in Cahokia Mounds, drawing a historical connection between themselves and the Mississippian people who built the massive site. The Chickasaw, Peoria and Osage among them trace their ancestry to the Mississippian people who created Cahokia and its extraordinary native world. (Read these articles: https://www.stltoday.com/suburban-journals/illinois/osage-people-claim-link-to-sugarloaf-mound/article_92735709-aef6-5c18-b03d-c09aa3be9b48.html AND https://news.stlpublicradio.org/arts/2019-10-01/native-american-tribes-support-national-park-status-for-cahokia-mounds)

    Finally, in 2015 the Champaign-Urbana symphony orchestra performed an original piece by composer Brain Baxter entitled “Cahokia”, which chronicles the rise and fall of the ancient prehistoric metropolis in southern Illinois: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WmiXGu8LjfE

    KEY REFERENCES
    Cahokia Mounds Museum Society . Cahokia. City of the Sun. (1992) – popular
    Emerson , Thomas E. Cahokia and the Archaeology of Power. (University of Alabama Press, 1997) – academic
    Pauketat , Timothy R. and Thomas E. Emerson. Cahokia. Domination and Ideology in the Mississippian World. (University of Nebraska Press, 1997) – academic
    Chappell , Sally A. Kitt. Cahokia. Mirror of the Cosmos. (University of Chicago Press, 2002) – popular
    Pauketat , Timothy R. Ancient Cahokia and the Mississippians. (Cambridge University Press, 2004) – academic


    Cahokia: Mystery of the Mounds

    Located near St. Louis in Collinsville, IL, the Cahokia Mounds are a set of ancient earthen mounds often credited to Native Americans who were known as the ‘Mound Builders’.

    The Mound Builders were ancestors of the natives alive at the time of the first settlements, and they’re believed to have been more advanced and intelligent than their descendants.

    Native tribes reportedly attributed the mounds to their ancestors, the Mound Builders, which hints at an interesting erased chapter in North American history.

    We have no real way of knowing who the Mound Builders were or how they constructed so many impressive earthworks, and for now, we can only guess.

    The largest of the Cahokia Mounds is known as Monk’s Mound and stands at over 100 feet high and 775 feet wide.

    Modern day Monk’s Mound. A road cuts through the Cahokia site, but visitors can ascend the staircase that leads to the top of the 100 ft. mound.

    The name was given to it because of French Trappist monks who farmed it in 1809 1 , well after the civilization responsible for the mounds had abandoned them.

    Little Is Known About Cahokia

    I live near the mounds, and to me, the most fascinating thing about them is how little we know about them or the civilization that built them. Because of the complex manner in which they were designed, historians and archaeologists are still baffled about their origin.

    Theories abound, from gods appearing and building the mounds to the more common theory that an ancestor Mound Builder race is responsible.

    The only way we could really know, besides through extensive excavation and research, is if we took a step back in time and witnessed their construction.

    Who Were the Mound Builders?

    Troy Taylor at Prairie Ghosts writes that relics from the Mound Builders are scattered across the United States 1 . Cahokia wasn’t the only ancient American civilization to build mounds, but theirs are among the most notable – especially Monk’s Mound.

    Early explorers took these strange manmade mounds as signs of the presence of an advanced civilization that had long vanished 1 . Plenty of artifacts were left behind, including pottery, beautiful stone pipes and copper effigies of birds and serpents 1 .

    The Cahokia Birdman tablet is one of many unique pieces of art uncovered at the mounds by archaeologists. Credit: flickr.com

    It didn’t take long for theories to be proposed about who built the mounds. Some claimed they were the work of Vikings 1 , some Phoenicians from Tyre, an ancient city 1 , and some the lost tribes of Israel 1 .

    As I mentioned, the natives themselves attributed the mounds to a great civilization that had come before them. This could explain why so many interesting theories exist about who built them wild theories are inevitable with any mystery.

    Perhaps the settlers weren’t satisfied with the natives’ explanation and felt there was another, more mystical force at work, or perhaps the natives were right and a more intelligent race – their ancestors – built the mounds.

    Link Discovered Between Mound Builders and Still-Living Natives

    In 1839, ethnologist Samuel G. Morton produced evidence that skulls retrieved from the burial mounds matched the skulls of recently deceased natives 1 . This effectively linked the ancient Mound Builders with the natives who were still alive at the time.

    Morton theorized that the Mound Builders were early ancestors of the natives 1 . Until 1881, his theory was largely rejected 1 .

    It was finally accepted when the Smithsonian Institute started a special investigation into the mounds 1 , which was led by Illinois archaeologist Cyrus Thomas, a critic of Morton’s theory and advocate of the lost race theory 1 .

    After examining thousands of unearthed artifacts over a period of seven years, Thomas changed his stance and accepted Morton’s theory that the Builders were the natives’ ancestors 1 .

    Larger Than London

    Troy describes Monk’s Mound as a 16-acre stepped pyramid that shows signs of having been rebuilt several times 1 . Buried remains of an ancient temple sit just under the mound’s summit 1 . Personally, I’d love to explore them just to see what I could find.

    Cahokia was larger than London in its heyday 1 , but besides locals and tourists who come to check it out, it’s empty today. Fortunately, Monk’s Mound is preserved along with a few others and you can visit them at the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, where you can also visit a wonderful museum.

    Approximately 20,000 people once lived in the city of Cahokia 1 , and they lived inside of a wooden stockade that surrounded their homes, buildings and main mounds 1 . The city thrived from 700 AD until reaching a steady decline around 1300 1 . It had been abandoned by around 1500 1 .

    Approximately 20,000 people once lived in the city of Cahokia, and they lived inside of a wooden stockade that surrounded their homes, buildings and main mounds. Credit: pinterest.com

    There used to be more than 120 Cahokian mounds scattered throughout the land 1 , but many have been destroyed over the years. Only 106 have been recorded 1 , but thankfully, 68% of them are preserved inside the boundaries of the State Historic Site 1 .

    What Caused Cahokia’s Demise?

    According to some archaeologists, the Natchez Indians of the Lower Mississippi Valley were the last surviving descendants of the Mound Builders 1 .

    They worshipped the sun 1 , which could explain the mounds’ ritualistic purpose as well as the Woodhenge built on the site 1 .

    A depiction of Woodhenge in ancient Cahokia. Credit: pinterest.com

    Cahokia’s Woodhenge consists of 48 wooden posts that make up a 410 ft. diameter circle 1 , and it can determine the exact date of all four equinoxes by lining up the central observation posts with specific perimeter posts during the sunrise 1 .

    A modern day recreation of Woodhenge at the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site. Credit: jqjacobs.net

    Some have suggested that the Mound Builders abandoned their civilization because of overcrowding and a lack of food or other resources 1 , as well as contamination of the water supply 1 .

    Others have theorized that a complete breakdown of the Cahokian civilization was to blame 1 .

    The Natchez, perhaps the last descendants of the Mound Builders, were already severely declining when the first settlers arrived 1 .

    The French would eventually wipe them out completely during a series of wars along the Mississippi 1 . If the genocide of an entire tribe of people weren’t bad enough, this particular tribe was our only potential link to the Mound Builders.

    The Mound Builders: An Ancient, Highly Intelligent Race?

    After researching a nearly century-old newspaper article posted to Facebook by Beverly Bauser, Coordinator for Madison County IL GenWeb, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the history of my community is closely linked with the history of Cahokia.

    As I mentioned, my town is a short drive from the Cahokia Mounds.

    The small, tight-knit towns that comprise my community are all refinery towns, built up by Standard Oil in the early 1900s.

    Smaller outlying mounds have been discovered here throughout the past few hundred years, and one such mound still stands perfectly accessible in a public park here in Roxana, IL.

    A number of these mounds that used to stand in my community were eventually dug up. One dig uncovered something strangely absent from history books, leaving one to wonder why kids across the country were never told about it in school.

    The year was 1918. During construction of an oil refinery in Roxana – one of many that still operate here – the crew started digging at a mound which sat on newly purchased refinery property planned to be used for employee housing 2 .

    While digging, the crew reportedly uncovered skeletons that could’ve only belonged to a highly intelligent ancient race 2 because the skeletons were noticeably different from those of the natives at the time 2 .

    The refinery property in Roxana, IL, where the bones were discovered. I grew up near this refinery, and I still live near it. I see it almost every day along with about three other refineries.

    The site where this took place, gated refinery property, just happens to be across the street from the public park with the aforementioned accessible mound.

    This fascinates me because this mound was in my hometown and, again, the refinery they were constructing is in use today.

    Hardly any more information can be found about the discovery beyond what was offered in my source, the 1918 newspaper article obtained by Beverly Bauser.

    An aerial view of the Wood River refinery in Roxana, IL. Credit: townnews.com

    The ‘Bearded and Robed God’

    Legend tells of a ‘bearded and robed god’ visiting the civilization known as the Mound Builders and building massive mounds while inspiring them to live in love and harmony with the land 1 .

    It also tells of an eventual degeneration within the culture they soon descended into war and ritual sacrifice 1 .

    Despite that the history behind them is mostly unknown, the Cahokia Mounds are believed by many to be a source of powerful energy 1 .

    Because of this, more than a thousand people gathered at the top of Monk’s Mound in August 1987 for the harmonic convergence, a global meditation event that coincided with a powerful planetary alignment 1 .

    The event was designed to spread peace across the world 1 .

    The Investigations of T.J. Ramey

    Now, we’ll take a look at an 1899 article from a local Illinois newspaper, The Alton Telegraph, which reports on the death of the then-current owner of Monk’s Mound and shares some history.

    Once again, I would’ve never found this old article if it weren’t for Madison County IL GenWeb Coordinator Beverly Bauser, who recovered it and posted it to their Facebook page with a historical picture and drawing of the mounds.

    The article explains the owner’s belief that the mounds were constructed by ‘a people with a much higher order of intelligence’ 3 . It begins by informing readers that the funeral of the mound’s owner, Hon. T.J. Ramey, had taken place that day 3 .

    Ramey was described as the ‘agent of a number of scientific institutions’ 3 , and the article explains that he had been ‘digging and delving’ into the mound to produce results he intended to be posthumously published 3 .

    He often claimed that the natives of his time weren’t involved at all with constructing the Cahokia Mounds or any throughout the country 3 . He also believed the mounds were intended for various purposes beyond burial 3 .

    He knew the builders had profound knowledge of geometry 3 , because the figures on the inside are built on geometrical lines 3 .

    The 1899 article describes Monk’s Mound as bearing resemblance to the Egyptian pyramids 3 , because within it lie terraces, rooms, halls and various other wonders that all contain ancient relics 3 .

    Limestone Brought to Monk’s Mound from Distant Bluffs

    Ramey was able to prove that Monk’s Mound wasn’t built from earth taken from nearby adjacent hollows or low places 3 the thousands of tons of inside material were somehow brought from bluffs miles away 3 .

    Bluffs near Alton, IL. Credit: riverbills.com

    Bluffs can be found near Alton, IL, which is near my town but far enough away from the Cahokia Mounds to make you wonder how the material was transported.

    It’s assumed that the material was sent on the river in boats – despite Alton being far from the mounds, all it would take to get there is a boat ride on the Mississippi.

    The river was a lot wider back then 3 , and this probably made it easier to transport the materials by boat. However, the fact that limestone from the bluffs was added to the mounds at all is, in my opinion, fascinating.

    Ramey Wanted His Discoveries to Go Down in History

    Ramey was once offered $100,000 for the tract on which Monk’s Mound stands, but he refused because his work was not yet done 3 . He wouldn’t let the mound pass into anyone else’s hands for any amount of money as he was well-off and too deep into his work with the mound to give it up 3 .

    He firmly believed his investigations into Monk’s Mound would go down in history and create a monument to his memory that would ‘last longer than any gravestone’ 3 . Again, he also asked for his findings not to be published until after his death.

    He requested his findings be reviewed and edited by the ‘highest scientific institutions of the country’ once he was gone, before being released to the public 3 .

    One can only imagine the kind of editing that took place once those institutions got their hands on Ramey’s findings, and his well-meaning request could be the reason we don’t know more about the mounds today.

    Check out the Mounds!

    I highly recommend checking out the Cahokia Mounds if you’re interested in mysterious ancient structures with an unknown history.

    You can visit the mounds and stand atop the massive Monk’s Mound, and if you do, take some time to ponder the mystery behind this ancient site.

    Climbing up the steps up to the top of Monk’s Mound and looking out over the land from the top is an experience you won’t forget. Credit: panoramio.com

    Climbing up the steps up to the top of Monk’s Mound and looking out over the land from the top is an experience you won’t forget, and while you’re there, consider the fascinating discoveries that have yet to be made.

    The mounds boggle the mind and the history behind them is as cloudy as the rest of North America’s ancient history, which makes them all the more appealing to seekers of truth and lovers of mystery.


    Watch the video: Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, Illinois (December 2021).