Exploring Native American Civilization of Cahokia

           When I lived in Maryland Heights near St. Louis for a few months in 2000, I did not hear about Cahokia mounds across the Mississippi river from St. Louis.  An historical site,  it is also one of the 23 UNESCO sites in USA. I had the opportunity to travel to this place in July of 2015. What I found out was What Chichen Itza and Tikal is to Mayans, Cahokia is to Native Americans, showcasing the sophistication of the Native American civilization called the Mississippian civilization. Cahokia dismantles the popular narrative that Native Americans were primitive. Cahokia shows that the Native Americans were farmers and city planners.  Cahokia is easily accessible from the Interstate I-55. Before I dwell further into my experience, a brief background. 

Climbing the Monks Mound
Monks Mound – Largest Mound among the 120 Mounds in the Cahokia Archaeological site.


                  Cahokia was a Native American civilization which flourished between 700 CE & 1400 CE which developed along the Mississippi river & specialized in Mound building. Cahokia is the largest such civilization at the location of today’s Illinois, USA  The civilization spread from Mississippi river to Tennessee river and is believed to have had trade network all the way to Mexico. Construction of pyramidal mounds on which there might be settlements or burial groups signify this civilization. Cahokia at its peak had 20000 people living and occupying 4000 acres. It is a chiefdom society with about 120 mounds and outlying hamlets and villages. The hamlets and villages was spread across both sides of the Mississippi river including the modern day St. Louis. Many mounds were flattened in constructing the city of St. Louis. So it was previously called as Mound city.  Many of these mounds are used for ceremonial purpose and some mounds were used as Necropolis. Cahokia was surrounded by four 2-mile Palisade walls called stockade walls. People used woodhedge based calendars & sunrise at different times of year. The Native American game of Chunkey was first played in Cahokia. The game involves warriors rolling a disc shaped stone and throwing spears so that the spears are nearer to the stone, when it stops.

Cahokia - City of the Sun
Cahokia – City of the Sun

      Monks Mound

       The largest of the 120 Mounds is the Monk Mound. Monk Mound got its name from the French Trappist monks who lived near here for sometime in 18th century. The Cahokia chieftain  monitored the whole Cahokia from the Monk Mound. It is about 100 feet high (30 meters), 950 feet in length (290 meters) and 836 feet in breadth (255 meters) and covers about 14 acres of space.

Monks Mound - Largest Mound in Cahokia Archaeological site
Monks Mound – from across the road. Largest Mound in the Cahokia Archaeological site. This was the place of the Cahokia chieftans who would view the entire city from the top of the mound.

       Mound 72

       The other significant Mound is the Mound 72 which served as the royal necropolis.  It is about 1/2 mile from Monks Mound. Archaeologists founds the remains of a man in his 40s and considered to an important Cahokian leader as per the materials found near him including sacrificial victims and arrow heads. It may have served as a mound for human sacrificial rituals as per the excavations. The leader was buried on 20,000 marine shell beads arranged in the form of a Falcon, an important motif in Native American culture.  


Trip to Cahokia

            I made a trip to St. Louis and added Cahokia to my itinerary. As I drove from St. Louis and pulled in to the parking lot near the Monk Mound, I can see people jog to the top of the mound, some going through the routine several times. As I walk around, The open space and  the air provided me with a serene atmosphere as I tried to visualize the glorious period of the Native American culture. From the Monk Mound, the skyline of St. Louis is visible with the Arch providing a grand spectacle.

Map of the Cahokia with the St. Louis Arch
Map of the Cahokia with the St. Louis Arch depicted.

            Across the road is the Cahokia Interpretive Center which has a museum, visitor information center, gift shop and a small shop. The entrance of the Interpretive Center is striking with a nifty art work.  The Interpretive Center plays a 15 min video about Cahokia called  “City of the Sun”. I hear it is being played every 1 hour once. The museum has impressive displays including lifesize displays of everyday activities in Cahokia. The lifesize displays include the reconstruction of the Birdman burial with the shell beads.

Birdman or Falcon Warrior = showpiece in Interpretative Center
Birdman or Falcon Warrior – one of the showpieces of the Cahokia Interpretative Center reconstructing the burial of a chieftan.


Lifesize Diorama at Cahokia
Lifesize Diorama displaying the day to day activities of the Cahokia people.


Lifesize Diorama in the museum of the Interpretative Center
Lifsize Diaroma in the museum of the Interpretative Center displaying the everyday life of Cahokia people

              I walk outside, thoroughly satisfied with the trip to Cahokia when I walk across the interpretative Center which has an open field with the Native grass and the pond and the blue skies providing a contrast thoroughly satisfying the photographic appetite in my wife, who was with me throughout the trip.

Pond with the Native Grass
Pond with the Native Grass

              On my way back, I stop the car by the  Mound 72 Woodhenge, the reconstructed timber circles used by the Cahokia Native Americans as “solar calendars”. The eastern and western posts of the timber circles corresponds with the equinox sunrise and sunset. Other timbers correspond to summer solstice sunrise and sunset and winter solstice sunrise and sunset. Archaeological finds confirm the pattern in other Woodhenges of Cahokia.

Cahokia was surrounded by Palisade walls called stockade walls
Cahokia was surrounded by four 2-mile Palisade walls called stockade walls


Woodhenge - the Solar Calendars of Native Americans
Mound 72 Woodhenge, the reconstructed timber circles used by the Cahokia Native Americans as “solar calendars”

                  Amazed with the astronomical and cultural refinement of the civilization and with a renewed respect for the Native American civilization, I returned back  to St. Louis for a night of the July 4th fireworks.



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