It’s the 11th century. Imagine a city as big as any other civilized city of its time, even bigger than London at this same time in history, stretching across the midwest of the United States from the Mississippi River. It is also the most technologically advanced city of its time in its region, with nearly 20,000 people living there at any one time. You could even get a caffeinated drink there if you wish… though scientists believe that it was used to induce ritual vomiting! Situated along the Mississippi River, across from the city of St. Louis, the ancient city of Cahokia once stood proudly for an estimated 150 years of glory.
Today, there is mostly modern development over the ancient Cahokia site. You can still visit this ancient civilization, however, with a trip to Cahokia Mounds Historical Site.
Did Cahokia Have Its Own Version of Stonehenge?
In the early 1960’s, excavations in the area to create the interstate accidentally uncovered several large oval-shaped pits that seemed to be in concentric circular patterns. The theory is that large wooden stakes were used inside these pits to help track the motion of the sun, thereby tracking the calendar year. With further study, it was determined that red cedar was likely used in these patterns. Thus the name “Woodhenge” was born.
As the sun tracks throughout the seasons, it is also interesting to note that the wooden posts marking the important dates of the year, such as the sunrise of the two equinoxes, point toward the important locations of Cahokia as well. The 7 foot posts are also have thought to point toward offertory pits within the city, which would have been utilized on other important calendar days.
A Burial Mound That Reaches 100 Feet Tall?
Cahokia is also home to the “Monks Mound,” a 100 foot tall mound that was given its name not because monks are buried within it, but because they lived near it centuries ago. Unlike other ancient burial grounds for the native peoples of North America, however, Monks Mound appears to be primarily a temple site instead of primarily a burial site. Investigators have found postholes dug in the top terrace of the mound, creating the theory that a temple once adorned the top of the mound itself.
Monks Mound has four terraces and it is considered to be the largest man-made mound in the United States. Projections on the mound, leading to the top throughout the four levels of terracing, are thought to have been ancient stairwells, thus fortifying the theory that this was a temple site. Though a modern roadway was built through this mound in the 1800’s because a gentleman decided he wanted to live on the top of it, much of the mound is still intact and helps visitors get a glimpse of what Cahokia used to be like.
A Stockade Once Protected Over 80 Different Mound Sites
Cahokia also had a two-mile stockade that archaeologists believe was rebuilt at least three times. Though there is no evidence that the city was ever attacked, because the wall cuts through what are thought to be residential areas, it is thought that attacks were often thought to be imminent. This is backed up by the fact that the stockade also contained bastions, first round, then square, where archers could help to defend the city. Some believe the stockade may have also served as a social barrier as well.
Looking at the remains themselves, scientists have determined that there were at least two different social classes living in Cahokia. There were some people who ate lots of meat, while others seemed to have a scavenger’s diet. There were likely three different social classes in total: priests, the wealthy/leadership, and everyone else.
You Can Visit Places Where Human Sacrifice Took Place
Two mounds in Cahokia in particular, Mounds 52 & 72, are thought to be the burial locations of ritual human sacrifice. Some think that the mound location is where the sacrifice took place, though with the existence of wooden stretchers in the mounds, it may have taken place at Monks Mound as well. Over 300 people are thought to have been sacrificed over the years of Cahokia’s existence, with many of them being sacrificed at the death of an important person within the city.
Are You Ready To Explore Cahokia?
You can explore these sites and see many of the artifacts that have been recovered from this ancient city with a visit to the Cahokia Mounds Historical Site. It is is located in Collinsville, Illinois off of Interstates 55/70 and 255. Cahokia Mounds is just fifteen minutes east of St. Louis, Missouri. Entrance to Cahokia Mounds is free of charge, although a donation of $7 for adults, $5 for seniors, $2 for children, or $15 for families is suggested.
The grounds are open from 8am to sunset every day, with the exception of 7 holidays throughout the year. The Interpretive Center, which is where many of the artifacts can be seen, is open Wednesday-Sunday from 9am to 4pm throughout most of the year, except from May thru October when it is open every day. Guided tours are available, as well as audio tours for those who bring an iPod or other MP3 player. The audio tours have an additional charge to the suggested donation.
For more information, be sure to check the official Cahokia Mounds website.