The ancient city of Cahokia in Illinois was the center of an advanced civilization from about 700 to 1400 A.D. Covering six square miles and home to up to 20,000 people, it was the largest prehistoric city north of Mexico. It ruled over a large area and had trade networks stretching across North America.
Dozens of mounds dot the site, atop which the people built temples and homes for the elite. Cahokia’s artisans made fine work like these worked copper plates typical of the Mississippian culture that created Cahokia.
Cahokia’s importance is recognized by it being designated a state historic site and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It makes a good day trip from St. Louis and has an excellent interpretive center. You can also climb up some of the mounds to get a sweeping view of the site.
Now archaeologists have discovered one of its suburbs in a derelict neighborhood of East St. Louis. It’s not much to look at today. The excavation is taking place between a derelict meatpacking plant and an abandoned strip club. Back in the day, though, it was a prosperous suburb of an important city with more than a thousand dwellings and earthen pyramids just like those of Cahokia.
Now there are plans to build a new bridge across the Mississippi at this spot. It’s hoped that the bridge will bring desperately needed visitors and investment from St. Louis, Missouri, into this part of East St. Louis, Illinois. Archaeologists are feverishly working ahead of the bulldozers to learn about this important period of America’s. They’d like to see at least some of the land preserved for a historical park but are pessimistic about their prospects.
[Image courtesy Herb Roe]
We tend to associate ancient civilization with places like the Pyramids in Egypt and the ruins of Italy and Greece. But we happen to have some impressive and scenic ruins of ancient culture right here in the United States. Not far from St. Louis lies Cahokia Mounds, a massive ancient monument that at the peak of its power rivaled the medieval cities of Europe.
Not only is Cahokia Mounds one of only eight cultural World Heritage Sites in the United States, it’s also among the more astonishing untold stories of the history of North America. From around the year 650 until 1400, Cahokia was the crown jewel of the Mississipian culture, a religious and cultural center that was largest city north of Mexico.
Within the 2200 acre grounds lie the remains of over 100 earthen mounds, the largest of which, Monk’s Mound, rises over 100 feet high and covers 14 acres. In a part of the country that tends to be mostly flat, Cahokia’s highest mound makes for an imposing geographic reference, dominating the nearby landscape. During your visit to Cahokia, take the opportunity to wander the giant earthen mounds spread across the site and visit the fantastic museum that tells the story of the mysterious Mississippian people.
Cahokia represents a significant part of our country’s indigenous history that lies before us in plain view, waiting to be discovered. Just like the Native American words that give many of our states and cities their names, it’s a history that is at once blatantly obvious yet easily obscured. It’s only when we begin to dig beneath the surface and uncover the true stories of places like Cahokia that we can start to understand the history of this great place we now call the USA.