Most Americans are shocked to learn that their country is home to an ancient pyramid as high as 100 feet. For whatever reason, the history of Cahokia and its Monks Mound pyramid are not taught in schools. But that doesn’t change the fact that, Cahokia was the largest pre-Colombian urban settlement north of the Rio Grande, with a population bigger than London at its peak.
Cahokia started developing in the 10th century and became the most important settlement to the Mississippian people from around 1050. Over the next few centuries, as many as 40,000 people inhabited Cahokia, which took up an area of around 6 square miles (16km2). And throughout their city, the Cahokians built hundreds of mounds.
While the Cahokians left behind no written records, but we know that the city was a thriving trading center. Various materials found at the site come from as far as the Gulf Coast and Great Lakes.
But for some reason, by around the year 1400, the city was mysteriously abandoned. While there’s still a lot we don’t know about the ancient metropolis, the city’s layout reveals a highly advanced knowledge of astronomy and geometry.
Today, despite its relative obscurity, getting to the Cahokia mounds is easy. The site can be visited by driving east from St. Louis, where a tour around the mounds shouldn’t take more than half a day.
Who Were the Mississippians?
The Mississippian culture lasted from around 1000 – 1500 AD. Remnants of their cities can be found throughout nearly a dozen states across the eastern half of the US.
The culture is named as such because it mostly developed around the Mississippi River Valley. But no other settlements come close to the size or importance of Cahokia, located in present-day southwest Illinois.
There are various Mississippian cultures and subgroups, with the culture who built Cahokia being categorized as ‘Middle Mississippian.’ Nevertheless, Cahokia was a relatively diverse metropolis, where people from around North America gathered for work and trade.
The Mississippians relied heavily on agriculture, with much of their most important crop being corn. Like Mesoamerican cultures to the south, the Mississippians also placed a heavy emphasis on rain and rain-related deities.
Another thing the Mississippians liked to do was built mounds, though they were hardly innovators of the tradition. In fact, Native Americans had been building mounds for at least 1,000 years before the Mississippians came along. Yet in the past, areas comprising of many mounds were mostly used for rites and rituals but were not habituated.
But this changed with the Mississippians who built cities around their mounds, with large pyramidal mounds playing a vital role in their urban landscape.
Approaching Cahokia from St. Louis, I first encountered one of Cahokia’s most sacred sites about half a mile (850m) west of the ancient city center. The area, now commonly referred to as Woodhenge, consists of a circle of posts which functioned as a viewing center for astronomical phenomenon.
The wooden posts there today, obviously, are recent additions. And according to archaeologists, the post holes were rebuilt as many as five times between 1100 and 1200. The overall size of the circle was enlarged each time, though the posts in place today represent the circle’s third incarnation, which is 410ft in diameter.
In the very center of the circle was another pole, where observers would stand to watch the sunrise on special occasions. For example, every year on the morning of the spring equinox, the sun would rise directly over the lower tier of the Monks Mound pyramid.
Meanwhile, the pole in the circle at 30.8 degrees left of center marked the summer solstice sunrise position. And another pole at the same angle to the right of center marked the winter solstice sunrise position.
As mentioned above, Cahokia’s central and most prominent pyramid is known as Monks Mound. But, as we’ll go over below, that’s definitely not what the ancient Cahokians would’ve called it!
The largest earthwork in the Americas, Monks Mound covers an area of over 14 acres. And archaeologists estimate that it consists of over 22 million cubic feet of earth. Nobody knows for sure how it was built, but some suspect it was all done by hand, with locals carrying countless baskets of dirt from around the area.
But not all at once. Monks Mound was built in several stages, beginning around the year 950. And the final stage was completed around the year 1200, just before the city’s decline. Obviously, such a massive, ongoing project likely had a purpose beyond keeping the local townsfolk busy.
But why go so far to build such a big pile of dirt? As we’ll go over below, Monks Mound played a central role in the Mississippian vision of the cosmos.
Before climbing up the pyramid itself, I first encountered a series of wooden posts near the parking lot. The city of Cahokia, in fact, was entirely bordered by a massive wooden wall. According to estimations, the whole thing required up to 20,000 trees! Obviously, the posts here represent just a small example of what the wall probably looked like.
At various intervals along the wall were bastions which likely came in handy for defense. But we don’t how frequently the Cahokians were at war. The walls may have also delineated the sacred space of central Cahokia, which possibly functioned as a living ‘temple city.’ Or, it may have served multiple functions.
Arriving at the base of the mound, I started to understand how monumental the earthwork really is. Enlarged several times throughout its history, the original ramp up the pyramid would’ve been lined on either side with posts. And while we don’t know for sure, it’s probable that only the elite would’ve been allowed to use it.
The first tier of Monks Mound is flat and spacious, and evidence suggests that various buildings once stood here. They were likely used by priests for special ceremonies, as it was here that the sun would be seen rising from Woodhenge at each equinox. Interestingly, there’s also a small additional mound here built on the southwest corner.
While Cahokia was still around, it’s unclear if anyone would’ve lived on the mound permanently. But more recently, this level of Monks Mound was indeed home to some permanent inhabitants.
In the 1730’s, French priests built a cabin for themselves on the spot as they preached to nearby Native American tribes. And for this reason, the pyramid as we know it today is called Monks Mound. Archaeological excavations, in fact, wouldn’t even take place until the 20th century.
Walking along the first tier of the pyramid, I ascended the next set of stairs to the top of the mound. Today, the very top is a flat, empty platform with little more than a pathway and a bench. But here, a thousand years ago would’ve stood Cahokia’s largest building, as wide as big as 104 by 48 feet.
What’s more is that a large post, possibly as high as 40 feet, arose directly from the center of the pyramid’s summit. Given the frequent storms that pass through the area, the central post of Monks Mound would’ve attracted frequent lightning strikes (even today, a sign warns visitors to stay away during storms).
This would’ve been quite the spectacle for the civilian population watching from down below. As archaeologist William F. Romain points out, bolts of lightning striking with the post would’ve symbolized the connection between the earth and heavenly realms, if only for a brief moment.
Standing atop the pyramid, I couldn’t help but recall another spectacular pyramid temple I’d once visited. In the 1050’s, at the same time that the main portion of Monks Mound was being filled in, Angkor’s Baphuon temple was under construction on the other side of the world.
And while the Baphuon is made of stone, the two pyramids share more in common than just timing. Though no longer visible today, the Baphuon once had a long bronze tower sticking out directly from its top. And what’s more is that while the temple was mostly made of sandstone, its core happened to be a large earthen mound. And like Monks Mound, the Baphuon even had a long causeway leading up to its main entrance.
Even to this day, Monks Mound remains the tallest structure in the immediate area by far. And the very top offers excellent views of all the other mounds contained within the vast city. And this view likely would’ve only been afforded to chieftains and priests.
Today, off in the distance, you can clearly see the modern skyline of St. Louis, Missouri. It seems rather fitting that the North America’s largest earthwork offers a view of the country’s largest monument.
The large structure which once stood atop of the pyramid was perfectly aligned with true north. Yet Monks Mound itself is slightly off center, at 5 degrees east of true north. Given the Mississippians geometrical and mathematical expertise, however, it’s highly unlikely that this was an error. But why just 5 degrees off?
Romain points out that Monks Mound, as looked at from the sky, shares the dimensions of what’s known as a Root 2 rectangle. This shape, which can also be found numerous other times throughout Cahokia, is produced as follows: take a square, and then extend its length on two sides so that they equal the length of the original square’s diameter.
By standing in the very center of Monks Mound, a Root 2 rectangle tilted 5 degrees off center, one can observe notable astronomical phenomenon in each corner at certain points of the year. One corner is the location of the sunrise on the summer solstice, another is the moon’s maximum south rise, another is the winter solstice sunset, and the last is the maximum north set of the moon.
If it wasn’t clear already, Monks Mound was much more than a pile of dirt!
Like many other cultures around the world, Mississippian cosmology emphasized the concept of the three worlds: the upper, middle (where humans live) and underworld. It’s very likely that Monks Mound, similar to the stone pyramid temples of the Khmers and Teotihuacanos, was seen as a bridge between these three realms situated along a vertical axis.
As mentioned above, the pole at the top helped form a link between our world and the heaves. Meanwhile, as we’ll go over below, the city’s location helped Monks Mound establish a symbolic connection with the underworld. And in many world cultures, the underworld has long been associated with the element of water.
Walking back down from the pyramid, I was ready to explore the rest of the ancient city. But there’s no way to ignore the modern highway that cuts right through it. It’s an eyesore, for sure. But as I’d later learn at the Cahokia Interpretive Center, we should be thankful that any of this has been preserved at all.
Around the Grand Plaza
Just south of Monks Mound is the area that was once home the massive Grand Plaza. It was a large square plaza which took up around 40 acres in total, and to the south it was bordered by the ‘Twin Mounds’ (more below).
It was here that the Cahokian game of Chunkey was played. Nobody’s completely certain of the rules, but it likely involved one man throwing a wooden javelin at another man’s disc-shaped stone.
But the plaza was much more than just a sports arena. And archaeologists believe that the Cahokians deliberately made it flat, taking dirt from the higher areas and moving it to parts with lower elevation. But why?
Given the site’s proximity to the Mississippi River and Horseshoe Lake, the entire area would’ve been flooded during rainstorms, taking on the appearance of a large lake. And as strange as it may sound, this flooding would’ve likely been welcomed by local residents.
While flooded, the Grand Plaza would’ve symbolized the watery underworld from Mississippian cosmology. And Monks Mound would’ve appeared as an island emerging out of the water, a scene that would’ve been of great symbolic importance to the Mississippians. As with many other cultures around the world, primordial waters play a central role in many Native American creation myths.
As mentioned above, there’s also evidence that a straight, elevated causeway stretched out from the base of Monks Mound all the way to the opposite end of the plaza.
As mentioned above, Monks Mound likely represented the bridge between the sky, the underworld and our earthly realm. But in regards to the horizontal axis, Mississippians believed that the middle realm of humans was divided into four quadrants.
And the Cahokians likely perceived Monks Mound to be right in the center of this world. While the Grand Plaza is by far the largest, recent LIDAR laser technology has revealed three additional plazas on the other sides of the pyramid. Though we have no former residents to ask, these plazas likely represented the ‘four corners of the world.’ Such imagery repeats itself again and again throughout world cultures, from Mesoamerican codexes to Tibetan mandalas.
I continued walking south, walking south through the spacious grassy plane. And occasionally, I’d come across other mounds scattered about here and there. According to anthropologist Tim Pauketat, many of these mounds had sweat lodges on top. They were likely where important healing and cleansing rituals took place.
Some, but not all, of the mounds were used for burials – most likely for the Cahokian elite. One such possible example is the Twin Mounds at the southern end of the main plaza. Excavations into the mounds have yet to take place, however.
And nearby the Twin Mounds, I encountered a peaceful walking trail pretty much completely devoid of other visitors. Heading east, I encountered another replica of the ancient border wall which would’ve surrounded the entire city.
The ‘Southern Stockade’ represents one of the numerous bastions that would’ve been used for defense. And archaeologists have found evidence of four different walls built in this one area. Given Cahokia’s long lifespan as a major city, it’s not surprising that they’d fix up the walls several times over the years.
Cahokia once had over 200 mounds, only around half of which are clearly visible today. Heading back north in the direction of Monks Mound, slightly east of the Grand Plaza, I came across some mounds numbered in the 50’s.
Mound 55 was once a rather important site. There’s evidence that a building stood at the spot before the mound was constructed. And after its completion a newer structure was added on top. At one point, this significant mound may have stood as high as 30 feet, offering clear views of the Grand Plaza to the west.
Mound 50, meanwhile, dates back to the 1200’s. Though much of it was destroyed, archaeologists actually rebuilt it to return it to its former size. Like Mound 55, a structure once stood at the spot before the mound was built. As you can see, nearly every mound around Cahokia has its own little backstory.
The Cahokia Interpretive Center
No visit to Cahokia is complete without a stop by the Cahokia Interpretive Center. Around the museum, you’ll get the chance to learn more about Cahokia’s history, Mississippian culture, the fight to save Monks Mound in the 20th century, and more recent archaeological excavations.
The Bird Man
One of the most peculiar things about Cahokia is that despite being the largest city in the region for so many years, hardly any artwork has been found there. One exception is the ‘Bird Man Tablet’ found at Monks Mound itself. But in contrast to the gargantuan pyramid, this sandstone tablet could easily fit in your pocket.
The tablet dates back to 1300, well after Cahokia’s peak. Be that as it may, the carving has since become the de facto symbol of Cahokia itself.
Avian imagery has been discovered at numerous sites linked with the Mississippian world. Many depictions of the Bird Man were carved of copper. But strangely enough, despite no copper artwork having yet been discovered at Cahokia, a copper workshop was found near Mound 34, east of Monks Mound.
But what does the Bird Man represent? We can surmise that he represented the upper realms and man’s link with the heavens. And he likely played a similar symbolic role to that of Quetzalcoatl in Mesoamerica, Garuda in India, or the Phoenix in China.
Around the museum, you can find a few of the other effigies found around Cahokia, as well as examples of some of the stone tools the people worked with. One exhibition described ancient burial practices, while a large portion of the center is dedicated to Cahokian architecture.
So little is known about how the Mississippians dressed or what their buildings looked like. The likeness of local residents and their thatched-roof huts at the museum, then, is as good a guess as any.
St. Louis, just across the river, was also once home to many mounds as well. In fact, it was even once nicknamed Mound City. But sadly, today, most of those mounds were gradually destroyed and paved over throughout the 1800’s.
Either mounds were destroyed for simply being “in the way,” or their soil was taken by local farmers who deemed them of no particular importance. And Cahokia could’ve even suffered the same fate had people not lobbied for its protection and preservation.
Even into the early 20th century, there were those who argued that Monks Mound was a completely natural formation. There’s no way that such primitive peoples could build such a monumental earthwork, many believed. This attitude only changed in the 1920’s after archaeological excavations revealed ancient artifacts and even bodies.
Thankfully, the site remains well protected today (even if a road runs right through it) and it’s been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But the question still remains: why have so few people heard of Cahokia, the most significant archaeological site in the United States? Hopefully, one day that will change. But at least for now, it’s still fun to show people pictures of Monks Mound, watching their reaction as you tell them that there’s a pyramid in Illinois.
From St. Louis, first take I-55/70, 64 or Highway 40 & 44 to get to the Poplar St. Bridge. Go over the Mississippi River into Illinois and follow I-55/70 to Exit 6. Turn right onto Highway 111 South. At Collinsville Rd., make a left.
Collinsville Rd. is where you’ll find both Woodhenge and Monks Mound, while the Interpretive Center is about 1.5 miles south.
Cahokia is free to visit. The Interpretive Center is free as well, though on their web site they suggest a donation of $7.
With the exception of major holidays, the Interpretive Center is open Wednesday through Sunday from 9:00 – 17:00.
Tip: Eat something in St. Louis before your departure. The town near the mounds has few options besides a Waffle House, and it’s not the type of area you want to stick around in.
If you’re taking a taxi from St. Louis, be aware that there’s also a town called Cahokia around 10 miles away. The Cahokia Mounds are located in Collinsville, not Cahokia.
Before visiting St. Louis, understand that public transportation is virtually nonexistent. And while not a huge city, it’s much too spread out to walk comfortably from place to place. Unless you’re willing to ride an Uber every day, having a car is a must.
As you’ll need a car to get around regardless, location is not incredibly important as long as you’re somewhere relatively central. In addition to a myriad of hotels, there are plenty of Airbnb options as well, which is oftentimes the better value.
Cahokia plays a major role in the recent book called America Before: The Key to Earth’s Lost Civilization by Graham Hancock. My visit to Cahokia took place before the release of the book, and while I have yet to read the whole thing, Hancock provides a lot of excellent insight into the ancient city.
In his book, Hancock also cites the research by William F. Romain mentioned above, which you can check out here.
At Cahokia itself, there are a number of informative books available at the Interpretive Center gift shop.