Cahokia Mounds: History & Map

Instructor: Ian Aebel

Ian Aebel is a historian, researcher, educator, and writer with a Ph.D. in History and M.S.T. in College Teaching.

Cahokia Mounds are a complex of earthen hills built by Native American tribes from the Mississippian culture. The amazing city that surrounded the mounds in shrouded in mystery.

Origins of the Mounds

Have you ever been the recipient of a nickname you felt did not suit you at all? Cahokia Mounds, an ancient series of man-made hills built by Native Americans starting about 1,300 years ago, were part of one of the largest cities in in the world, Cahokia. By 1250, Cahokia had a population of about 40,000, more than London at the time! Only after the United States gained independence would Philadelphia be larger. Located across the Mississippi River from present-day Saint Louis, Missouri and near the town of Collinsville, Illinois, the city got its name because seventeenth-century French explorers found the Cahokia tribe nearby. Its real name remains a mystery.

We think the people who built Cahokia and the mounds disappeared at some point around 1400. Archaeologists have studied the mounds and learned a great deal about Mississippian culture, a Native American mound building people who lived mostly in the eastern portions of North America between about 800 and 1600 C.E. As such, we know more than ever before about the mounds and their people.

Map of the Area Surrounding Cahokia Mounds (Cahokia is Marked A)
Map of Cahokia Mounds Area

The major mounds of the Cahokia Mounds system are spread out across about a 6 square-mile region, but mounds can be found throughout the Mississippi and Ohio River valleys. The culture around Cahokia was especially prevalent and many other mounds were built around the region. Unfortunately, many early European settlers and U.S. citizens did not recognize the mounds for what they were and destroyed them. Indeed, today if you walk western Illinois farmers' fields in the fall after they are plowed, you will likely find Native American artifacts, such as arrowheads and broken pottery. Thankfully, Cahokia Mounds has been designated a State Historic Site, as well as a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site, so the mounds will be preserved and studied for years to come.

Detail of Cahokia Mounds Complex (Marked A on Previous Map)
Detail of Cahokia Mounds Complex

Most Important Mounds

Originally, the Cahokia Mounds complex encompassed about 120 mounds, but only 80 are still around today. Some were destroyed by farmers, others were lost to erosion and other natural phenomena, and a few were torn apart during the construction of Interstate 70, which was built in the 1950s and 1960s.

Monks Mound in the 1920s
Monks Mound in the 1920s

The biggest mound is Monks Mound. At over 100 feet, it is the largest earthen construction in North America outside of Mexico. Named after the monks who once made their home there, Monks Mound and the country surrounding it is a favorite for hikers and sightseers. Steps lead to the top, where you can view a picturesque landscape of other mounds and the Saint Louis skyline. Local high school football coaches often take their players to run up and down the steps!

Historical Rendering of Monks Mound
Historical Rendering of Monks Mound

Another interesting mound is called Mound 72. Archaeologists excavated the mound from 1967 to 1971, finding that it was actually 3 mounds that had been built around the year 1000. It contained evidence of human sacrifice, containing almost 60 people, mostly young women, with their head and hands severed. More than 270 people were buried there, including one very important individual buried beneath a bird-man creature made out of 20,000 beads!

Excavated Skeleton at Cahokia Mounds
Excavated Skeleton at Cahokia Mounds

Bird-man creatures were common in Mississippian culture; if you drive on the Great River Road through Alton, Illinois, you can see a modern rendition of a legendary petroglyph, or a prehistoric picture carved into a rock, of the Piasa (Pie-uh-saw) bird. This bird-man was described by a seventeenth-century French explorer and is an example of the type of creatures Native Americans in Cahokia believed to exist. This belief was very similar to Europeans imagining dragons roamed the world.

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