Archaeology is a fascinating field that uncovers the mysteries of our past. In the United States of America (USA), there are numerous archaeological sites that have been studied and explored, but none is as significant as the Cahokia Mounds. Located in the American Midwest, the Cahokia Mounds are a complex of earthen mounds and other structures built by the ancient Native American civilization that once inhabited the region. The site offers a glimpse into the lives and culture of the Mississippian people, who built the mounds and lived in the area from about 800 CE to 1400 CE. In this article, we will explore the history of the Cahokia Mounds, their significance, and the ongoing archaeological research being conducted at the site.
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History of the Cahokia Mounds
The Cahokia Mounds are located in what is now known as the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, just east of St. Louis, Missouri. The site covers over 2,200 acres and contains over 80 earthen mounds and other structures. The largest of these mounds, known as Monks Mound, is over 100 feet tall and covers over 14 acres.
The Mississippian culture, which built the Cahokia Mounds, was a pre-Columbian civilization that developed in the central and eastern regions of North America. The people of this culture were known for their extensive agriculture, trade, and social organization. They built large earthen mounds for a variety of purposes, including religious and ceremonial gatherings, elite residences, and defensive structures.
The Cahokia site was first settled around 800 CE, and it quickly grew into a major cultural center, eventually becoming the largest settlement north of Mexico. At its peak, around 1050 CE, it had a population of between 10,000 and 20,000 people. The city was organized around a central plaza, which was surrounded by public buildings, residential areas, and agricultural fields. The site was abandoned by the early 1400s, and the reasons for its decline remain a mystery.
Significance of the Cahokia Mounds
The Cahokia Mounds are considered one of the most important archaeological sites in the USA for several reasons. Firstly, they provide a unique insight into the lives and culture of the Mississippian people. The mounds and other structures reveal aspects of the civilization’s religious beliefs, social organization, and daily life. For example, the large number of burials found at the site suggests that the Mississippian people placed great importance on ancestor worship and had complex burial practices.
Secondly, the site is significant for its size and complexity. The Cahokia site covers a larger area than many medieval European cities, and it was the largest pre-Columbian settlement north of Mexico. The mounds themselves are impressive engineering feats, requiring thousands of workers and millions of baskets of earth to construct. The sheer scale of the site suggests that it was an important center of trade, religious and political power.
Lastly, the Cahokia Mounds are significant for their influence on later Native American cultures. The Mississippian culture spread throughout the eastern United States and had a significant impact on subsequent Native American civilizations. Many Native American tribes today can trace their cultural and religious practices back to the Mississippian people, who once called Cahokia home.
Archaeological Research at the Site
Archaeological research at the Cahokia Mounds began in the early 1900s and has continued to the present day. Early excavations were carried out by the Missouri Historical Society, which uncovered some of the mounds and buildings at the site. In the 1920s, archaeologist Warren K. Moorehead conducted further excavations, which revealed more of the city’s layout and provided greater insight into the daily lives of its inhabitants.
In the 1960s, the site was declared a National Historic Landmark, and the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency took over the management and maintenance of the site. Since then, ongoing archaeological research has continued to uncover new information about the site’s history and significance.
One of the most significant archaeological finds at Cahokia was the discovery of a wooden post hole that contained a birdman figure. This figure is believed to be part of a ceremonial costume worn by a high-ranking member of the Mississippian culture, and it is one of the few surviving examples of Mississippian art. Other excavations have uncovered evidence of extensive trade networks, as well as evidence of human sacrifice and cannibalism, which shed light on the more macabre aspects of the culture’s religious practices.
Preservation and Public Access
The Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site is open to the public and is a popular destination for tourists and school groups. Visitors can explore the site’s numerous earthen mounds and other structures, as well as a museum that contains artifacts and exhibits related to the site’s history and significance. The site also hosts a number of events and festivals throughout the year, including an annual Native American powwow.
Efforts to preserve and protect the site have been ongoing since the 1960s. In addition to managing the site and conducting archaeological research, the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency has implemented a number of measures to protect the mounds from erosion and damage. For example, the agency has planted grass and other vegetation on the mounds to help prevent soil erosion, and it has restricted access to some of the more sensitive areas of the site.
The Cahokia Mounds are a testament to the ingenuity and creativity of the ancient Native American civilizations that once inhabited the region. Their construction and use are still not fully understood, but ongoing archaeological research continues to uncover new information about the Mississippian culture and their way of life. As one of the most significant archaeological sites in the USA, the Cahokia Mounds provide an invaluable window into the past and a unique opportunity to learn about the rich cultural heritage of the Native American peoples who once called this land home.
- Pauketat, T. R. (2009). Cahokia: Ancient America’s Great City on the Mississippi. Penguin.
- Fowler, M. L. (1997). The Cahokia Atlas: A Historical Atlas of Cahokia Archaeology. University of Illinois Press.
- Emerson, T. E., & Lewis, R. B. (1991). Cahokia and the Hinterlands: Middle Mississippian Cultures of the Midwest. University of Illinois Press.
- Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. (2017). Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site. Retrieved from https://www2.illinois.gov/dnrhistoric/Experience/Sites/Southwest/Pages/Cahokia.aspx