A Highway Runs Through The Cahokia Mounds

I visited the Cahokia Mounds and now I can’t stop talking or thinking about the Cahokia Mounds.

Sure, St. Louis is home to the majestic Gateway Arch and the most amazing [free] zoo. People talk about the Botanical Gardens and the Budweiser horses, but can we just take a moment to freak out about the fact that the remains of the largest pre-Columbian Native civilization north of Mexico rest less than 10-minutes from downtown St. Louis?

As you drive along the highway into Collinsville, Illinois, it’s like you are staring at cheesy billboards and industrial facilities one minute and then boom; there are the mounds. To reach Monks Mound on foot from the visitor’s center, one must waltz along a worn, dirt footpath across a grassy field punctuated by mounds and old trees before scampering across a four-lane highway. Motorcycles and semi trucks whiz behind you as you begin climbing the great pyramid.

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It’s strange and sad and beautiful.

Cahokia Mounds is one of only eight World Heritage sites in the United States and home to Monks Mound, the “largest prehistoric earthwork in the Americas” (UNESCO). At its peak, the city of Cahokia was home to about 10-20,000 people in 1050-1200 AD and by the late 1300’s, it was vacant.

No one knows exactly what caused Cahokia’s demise, but researchers suggest many theories. The park’s brochure hypothesizes a combination of climate change, disease, overpopulation, depletion of resources, social unrest, and outside threats. While the stockade that used to encircle the city is no longer visible, archeologists discovered that residents moved and rebuilt the stockade several times during its final years. New clues about the city’s demise surfaced this past May when University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers examined Horseshoe Lake and found evidence that a large flood occurred around 1200 when “the Mississippi river rose more than 33 (10 meters) feet.”

When you visit the Cahokia Mounds, the visitor’s center is a good place to start.

Visitor's center outside

Park volunteers greeted us warmly without being overbearing. They directed us to the completed wetlands exhibit and newly acquired 700-year old canoe with genuine enthusiasm. We wandered through life-size dioramas and displays of artifacts like arrowheads and pieces from a game called Chunkey in which players threw spears at a stone disc.

When you are walking amongst the mounds within eyeshot of a highway and asphalt plant, it’s impossible to tell how expansive the city really was. I liked how this display provides a bird’s-eye view.

inside visitor's center

Visitors can explore the park by follow a paved walking trail that meanders around the mounds. A worn dirt path veers more directly towards Monks Mound.

jake walking mounds

There’s no shade on Monk’s Mound. By the time we reached the top, we were so hot we stumbled.

Monks Mound was literally built by people carrying baskets of dirty and clay. The city’s principal chief ruled and conducted ceremonies from a structure that used to sit at the top. Official park literature clarifies that the name Monks Mound actually refers to Trappist monks who farmed its terraces and lived on an adjacent mound between 1809-1813.

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Halfway to the top of Monks Mound, walking across the first terrace. There is a parking lot on this side of the highway.

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Despite the modern and industrial development surrounding the mounds, the site felt peaceful. The wind gently whistled through the grasses and grasshoppers leapt around each step. We wandered amongst joggers and people on their afternoon walks.

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At the top of Monks Mound.

Monks Mound supported a palace or temple of sorts while other mounds served as burial grounds. University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers began excavating one of six ridgetop mounds in 1967 and found two rulers laid to rest “on top of a platform of approximately 20,000 marine shell beads” organized in the shape of a bird. Researchers also found the remains of four men missing their heads and hands with their arms interlocked, and 53 females.

Another group of 39 people were found in Mound 72. Evidence suggests they experienced violent deaths that differed from the individuals who were buried earlier. Some postulated that the second grave contained captives or tributes from other communities, but new research demonstrates they were, in fact, from Cahokia. Were they political opponents or participants in a rebellion? We may never know. The realty is that less than one percent of this ancient city has been excavated and its residents did not utilize a written language. More clues raise more questions.

I have a difficult wrapping my mind around human sacrifice, but like how O’Hehir weaves in a quote from Timothy Pauketat’s book Cahokia: Ancient America’s Great City On The Mississippi to interpret the discovery as evidence of a metropolitan society whose residents experienced “‘inequality, power struggles and social complexity.’ These people were neither half-feral savages nor eco-Edenic villagers; they had lived and died in a violent and sophisticated society with its own well-defined view of the universe.”

Down the highway from Monks Mound is Woodhenge III, one of five the Mississipians constructed as sun calendars, each in a different size with different numbers of wooden poles. Woodhenge III is reconstructed in its original location, based upon where archeologists found pits laced with red cedar. You can’t miss Maclair Asphalt’s gravel mounds. They border the far half of the woodhenge, making only 40/48 of the original posts reconstructable.

woodhenge sign
According to the mounds’ website, researchers hypothesize these woodhenges functioned as ceremony locations or tools to predict eclipses and align mounds. The park holds sunrise equinox observances at the woodhenge where, “it looks as though Monks Mound gives birth to the sun.”

woodhenge

The Cahokia Mounds is the most fascinating place I’ve visited since moving to St. Louis. We left wondering why we’d never heard of Cahokia before. In his piece “The Sacrifices They Made,” Christopher Orlet describes how field trips to the mounds during grade school were countless and frequent. When something’s in your own backyard, I suppose it’s rather normal, even if it’s the remains of one of the greatest cities in the world.

May we always remain curious.

Travel Tips: There is no admission fee, but suggested donations. Proceeds given to the Land Acquisition Fund help the Cahokia Mounds Museum Society purchase land that is not currently protected. There is no shade around many of the mounds, most particularly at Monks Mound, so if the weather is hot, consider bringing sunscreen, shades, or a hat if you can’t visit in the morning or evening. Bring your own water bottle or change for vending machines inside the visitor’s center. At the time we visited, the cafe was not operating. Respect the mounds by remaining on trails and paths and remember you’re walking through sacred burial grounds.

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12 Comments

  1. This was so interesting. I had absolutely no idea that these existed in the St. Louis area. It is mind boggling to think about the history and how they were built with baskets of dirt. Amazing. Thank you for such a wonderfully detailed post about this wonder that I never would have known about otherwise.

    • Thanks Beth! It’s so fascinating. I have a book on order too that spurred a lot of these articles when it was published in 2009.

  2. Very interesting. I had never heard of these either from my visits there or from my in-laws! Although, there is a fantastic BBQ place called Sawmill BBQ in the current Cahokia, IL!

    • I just re-read your posts! I wish we had had the foresight to stop at Sawmill. The pizza place looks great and isn’t far from us.

  3. I can’t believe you found this place! As a lifelong St. Louisan, I’m embarrassed to say it’s been many decades since I’ve visited this historical site. Your post has peaked my interest and I plan to visit in the very near future. I’m so glad that you moved to St. Louis and that I am able to share in your adventures discovering my hometown!

  4. In view of the number of trips I’ve made to St Louis and my love of history, I can’t believe I’ve never been there. We’ll fix that omission very quickly. Thanks for educating me, Jeni. Sometimes it takes “new eyes.”

  5. Very interesting! I have never heard of these before and I have been to St. Louis (and crossed the river into Illinois) countless times. Thanks for all your research you did for this post!

  6. How cool! I love the mini history lesson and would love to check it out. Preferably on a cooler day 😉

  7. Visit the City Museum in St. Louis!!!

    • Thanks for the suggestion! We thought it was the most unique museum we’ve ever explored. Hopefully we can go again when it’s cooler outside so we can see what’s outside.

  8. Fascinating! Thanks for sharing, I’ve never heard of these clearly complex people.

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