The United States’ oldest great civilization

Posted: October 9, 2012 in Did You Know?, Interesting News, Uncategorized, World

In grade school when we studied Native American history, I remember learning about many tribes – but I don’t recall learning of Cahokia, a now-extinct civilization near Collinsville, Illinois. First established around A.D. 600 and inhabited by a unique indigenous people, Cahokia was a civilization of about 50 communities over 2,200 acres. They built 120 earth mounds – some over ten stories tall – in the largest prehistoric earthen construction site north of Mexico. The Cahokians were advanced people who did not appear to be related to any major known Native American tribes. By 1250, Cahokia’s population rivaled Paris and London; at its peak in A.D. 1300, Cahokia numbered 40,000 people. It wasn’t until 1800 that a U.S. city would finally surpass that number. After A.D. 1300 the population declined for unknown reasons, and the city would lie vacant for another century before the Europeans arrived.

Perhaps what makes Cahokia so fascinating is how little we know about it. Despite being advanced for a Native American people, they did not leave written records; instead we have symbols on pottery, stone, and wood – but no Rosetta stone. Since we have no written records or translations, the city’s original name is still unknown. The Cahokia name was actually given to the area in the late 1600’s, named for the Native Americans that settled nearby centuries later. (Click thumbnails to enlarge)

Cahokia Mounds

The most striking feature of Cahokia is the earthen mounds. Experts believe thousands of workers moved an estimated 55 million cubic feet of earth over a span of several decades. Technology being what it was for the day, the people carried earth up each mound in woven baskets, making multiple trips each day.

The largest is called Monks Mound and is assumed to have been the center of the Grand Plaza of Cahokia – the plaza itself occupying 40 acres. Monks Mound is 92 feet (28 m) high, 951 ft (290 m) long, 836 ft (255 m) wide, and covers 14 acres. The top of Monks Mound had a large, flat reinforced area which historians believe was home to a massive 5,000 square-foot temple some 50 ft high. This temple was thought to have been the residence of the paramount chief and was said to be visible from anywhere in Cahokia.

Of the 120 earthen mounds the Cahokians constructed, only 80 remain today. Unfortunately farming and industrialization of the area has taken its toll: an estimated 40 mounds have been leveled or razed over the last 200 years for various reasons. Of the 40 since-razed mounds, 29 have been located by archaeologists.


The second most significant feature of Cahokia was the Woodhenge. Not as well-known as the English Woodhenge (2 miles from Stonehenge), the America interpretation seemed to serve the same purpose. Archaeologists who discovered the Woodhenge during an excavation noted the wood posts symbolized the earth and the four cardinal directions, with a pattern that seemed to follow the sun. The Woodhenge was discovered adjacent to Monks Mound, and some time later another Woodhenge was discovered by Mound 72.

Mound 72 just might be the most significant archaeological discovery at the site. During an excavation, remains were discovered: a man in his 40s experts believe might have been an important Cahokian chief. Below his burial site experts found more than 250 other skeletons, around 62% of which are believed to have been sacrificial killings or ritual executions. This was estimated due to countless males missing hands and skulls, more than fifty 21 year-old women found in neatly-separated layers, and finally a mass burial grave with over 40 men and women who appear to have been violently killed. In fact evidence supports some were alive when they were buried, attempting to claw their way out of the mass of dead bodies.

More recently, excavations around Mound 34 have discovered a Cahokia copper workshop – significant because prior to this discovery, experts did not definitively know how early copper technology starting appearing around the United States.


Perhaps the most mysterious part of Cahokia was how it came to end: we simply don’t know. The primary hypotheses are erosion from over-hunting and deforestation, invasion from outside peoples, disease, or abandonment due to political collapse. The civilization was known to prosper for nearly 800 years, so it’s not absurd to suggest the land was unable to support the civilization at some point; farming would have been tough on exhausted land, trees would have been sparse, and pollutants from very crude copper operations would eventually poison the surrounding soil. Suggestions of defeat through invasion are possible but less likely considering little was found by archaeologists suggesting that Cahokia was engaged in any warfare, and more mass graves would have been discovered had the entire population been killed during a siege.

We may never know what happened in Cahokia, but given its important place in our land’s history I think we should understand the significance of this civilization. It’s one of only 21 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the United States and is the largest archaeological site in the country.

…and to think so few have ever heard of it.


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