AskDefine | Define Cahokia

Extensive Definition

This article is about a Native American culture. For the modern city located about ten miles to the southeast, see Cahokia, Illinois.
Cahokia is the site of an ancient Native American city near Collinsville, Illinois, across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, Missouri in the American Bottom floodplain. The site is composed of a series of man-made earthen mounds. Cahokia is the largest archaeological site related to the Mississippian culture, and the term "Cahokian" is sometimes used to describe that culture. The Mississippians developed advanced societies in eastern North America before the arrival of Europeans.

World Heritage Site

Cahokia Mounds was designated a National Historic Landmark on July 19, 1964, and listed on the National Register of Historic Places on October 15, 1966. Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site was designated a World Heritage Site in 1982. The park protects 2200 acres (8.9 km²), and is the focus of ongoing archaeological research. This is one of only twenty World Heritage Sites in the United States designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).


Cahokia was first settled around 650 during the Late Woodland period, but mound building did not begin there until about 1050 at the beginning of the Mississippian cultural period. The site was abandoned before 1400. The inhabitants left no written records, and the city's original name is unknown. The name "Cahokia" refers to an unrelated clan of Illiniwek people living in the area when the first French explorers arrived in the 1600s, long after Cahokia was abandoned. The living descendants of the Cahokia people are unknown, although many Native American groups are plausible contenders.

Monk's Mound

Monk's Mound is the central focus of this great ceremonial center. A massive structure with four terraces, it is the largest man-made earthen mound in North America. Facing south, it stands about 100 feet (30.5 m) high with a base 1,037 feet long and 790 feet wide (316 by 241 m). The Travel Channel has referred to it as the "world's largest pyramid."
Excavation on the top of Monk's Mound has revealed evidence of a large building — perhaps a temple or the residence of the paramount chief — that could be seen throughout the city. This building was about 105 feet long and 48 feet wide, and stood about 50 feet high. "Woodhenge," a circle of posts used to make astronomical sightings, stood to the west of Monk's Mound. The name is taken from Stonehenge, as this structure marked solstices, equinoxes and other astronomical cycles. Archaeologists discovered Woodhenge during excavation of the site. They found that the structure was rebuilt several times during the urban center's roughly 300-year history.
The east and northwest sides of Monk's Mound were subjected to two large backhoe excavations in August 2007 as an attempt to stabilize the threat of erosion.

Urban landscape

A 19 hectare (190,000 m²) plaza spreads out to the south of Monk's Mound. The flat, open terrain in this area was originally thought to reflect Cahokia's location on the Mississippi's alluvial flood plain, but soil studies showed that the landscape was originally undulating and had been expertly levelled by the city's inhabitants. The Grand Plaza of Cahokia measured . Along with the Grand Plaza to the south, three other very large plazas surround Monks Mound to the east, west, and north.
A wooden stockade with a series of watchtowers at regular intervals formed a two-mile long enclosure around Monk's Mound and the Grand Plaza. Archaeologists found evidence of the stockade during excavation of the area and indications that it was rebuilt several times. The stockade seems to have separated Cahokia's main ceremonial precinct from other parts of the city.
Beyond Monk's Mound, as many as 120 more mounds stood at varying distances from the city center. To date, 109 mounds have been located, 68 of which are in the park area. The mounds are divided into several different types — platform, conical, ridge-top, etc. — each of which may have had its own meaning and function. In general terms, the city center seems to have been laid out in a diamond-shaped pattern approximately a mile (1.6 km) from end to end, while the entire city is five miles across east to west.

Ancient city

Cahokia was the most important center for the peoples known today as Mississippians whose settlements ranged across what is now the Midwest, Eastern, and Southeastern United States. Cahokia maintained trade links with communities as far away as the Great Lakes to the north and the Gulf Coast to the south. Pottery and stone tools in the Cahokian style were found at the Silvernail site near Red Wing, Minnesota.
At the high point of its development, Cahokia was the largest urban center north of the great Mesoamerican cities in Mexico. Although it was home to only about 1,000 people before ca. 1050, its population grew explosively after that date. Archaeologists estimate the city's population at between 8,000 and 40,000 at its peak, with more people living in outlying farming villages that supplied the main urban center.
If the highest population estimates are correct, that would mean that Cahokia was larger than any city in the United States until about 1800 when Philadelphia's population grew beyond 40,000.

Prestige burial

During excavation of Mound 72, a ridge-top burial mound south of Monk's Mound, archaeologists found the remains of a man in his 40s who was probably an important Cahokian ruler. The man was buried on a bed of more than twenty thousand marine-shell disc beads arranged in the shape of a falcon, with the bird's head appearing beneath the man's head and its wings and tail beneath his arms and legs. The falcon warrior, or "birdman," is a common motif in Mississippian culture, and this burial clearly has powerful iconographic significance.
A cache of arrowheads in a variety of different styles and materials was found near the grave of this important man. Separated into four types, each from a different geographical region, the arrowheads demonstrate Cahokia's extensive trade links in North America. Over 250 other skeletons were also recovered from Mound 72 (some so poorly preserved it was not possible to identify their gender). Four young male skeletons were missing their hands and heads and a mass grave of over 50 women around 21 years old with the bodies arranged in two layers separated by matting were found. all thought to be human sacrifice. Another mass burial contained 40 men and women who appear to have been violently killed with some thought to be buried alive as the position of their fingers suggested they were trying to dig themselves out. The relationship of these other burials to the central burial is unclear, though, and it is unlikely that they were all deposited at the time. Wood in several parts of the mound has been radiocarbon-dated to between 950 and 1000 C.E.

Cahokia's decline

Cahokia was abandoned a century or more before Europeans arrived in North America in the early 1500s. Environmental factors such as over-hunting and deforestation have been proposed as explanations. Another possible cause is invasion by outside peoples, though the only evidence of warfare found so far is the wooden stockade and watchtowers that enclosed Cahokia's main ceremonial precinct. Due to the lack of other evidence for warfare, the palisade seems to have been more ritual than military. Diseases facilitated by the large, dense urban population are another possible cause of decline. However, many recent theories propose political collapse as the primary reason for Cahokia’s abandonment.


Further reading

Maps and aerial photos

Cahokia in German: Cahokia
Cahokia in Spanish: Sitio Histórico Estatal de los Túmulos de Cahokia
Cahokia in Esperanto: Cahokia
Cahokia in French: Cahokia
Cahokia in Italian: Cahokia
Cahokia in Hebrew: קהוקיה
Cahokia in Japanese: カホキア
Cahokia in Polish: Cahokia
Cahokia in Portuguese: Sítio Histórico Estadual dos Cahokia Mounds
Cahokia in Finnish: Cahokia
Cahokia in Swedish: Cahokia Mounds
Cahokia in Turkish: Cahokia
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