The mounds at Cahokia were once part of the largest city in the pre-United States of America. Who built the Cahokia Mounds?
Cahokia was built in approximately 1000 CE by the Mississippians, an American Indian group that lived between the Mississippi River and the Atlantic Ocean. The city’s original name is unknown, and it is believed to have served as a spiritual gathering site for the surrounding region.
For more on Cahokia and its possible significance, read on.
Cahokia was discovered in southern Illinois, less than ten miles from modern-day St Louis. When it was built in approximately 1000 CE, it was the largest city in America, north of Mexico.
Who exactly built the city and what they were called is unknown, but the builders are referred to as the Mississippians, a group of American Indians who lived between the Mississippi River and the Atlantic. It was later named for the Cahokia tribe, who occupied the region in the 1600s.
Cahokia was a significant historical discovery and one that disproved many notions of Native American society. It goes against the inaccurate narrative that American Indians were exclusively nomadic and a primitive group of people.
On the contrary, Cahokia proved that Native American society was structured and organized. The layout of Cahokia suggests that it was built with a specific plan in mind, rather than being haphazardly constructed when necessary.
Whatever its original purpose, Cahokia served as a hub and meeting place for people from the entire Mississippian territory. Studies on human remains discovered at the site indicated that approximately a third of the city’s inhabitants were not originally from Cahokia but had traveled from elsewhere.
At its peak, the city appears to have been home to anywhere between 10,000 and 20,000 people. They hunted and farmed on the surrounding land, as well as trading with their neighbors.
The most important buildings in Cahokia were constructed atop the Cahokia mounds, a collection of large, hand-made piles of earth. The making of these mounds would have required an enormous amount of labor, which begs the question of why the residents would go to such an effort.
That motivation might be related to the city’s true purpose. One of the most popular theories regarding Cahokia is that it was constructed to serve as a site of pilgrimage for the Mississippians.
It stands to reason that the Cahokia mounds were used to elevate particular buildings above the others, both literally and figuratively. The largest of the mounds would have been an ideal location for the city’s main religious building.
There is evidence that there were human sacrifices in Cahokia, with human remains showing signs of decapitation and other methods of execution. This is supported by a number of mass graves at the site, mostly of young women who appear to have been strangled.
It isn’t clear how widespread this practice was, but it adds credibility to the theory that the city was a religious site.
Another curious part of Cahokia’s story is that the city was relatively short-lived. By about 1050, it was a fully-fledged city but within 300 years, it had seemingly been abandoned. Archaeologists can find no specific reasons that this might have happened.
There is no sign of disease in residents, nor graves that might suggest a war. In Native American sites affected by warfare, there are usually numerous arrowheads discovered. In contrast to most regions of pre-America, it appears that the residents of Cahokia were under threat from their own people rather than outsiders.
There is evidence that the city was rebuilt four times between 1175 and 1275, with scholars divided on why. The city was built on land that was at risk of flooding, another possible reason for building the mounds, but the Mississippians might also have been improving their defenses against external threats.
Cahokia is also intriguing in that it was almost completely forgotten before its discovery by French explorers during the 1600s. It isn’t mentioned in American Indian folklore or oral history, despite being the largest population hub in Pre-Colonial America. This suggests that, for whatever reason, people preferred to forget about the settlement.
The only evidence for Cahokia’s existence comes from the site itself. For centuries, it was neglected, with nearby farmers using its mounds as a source of free soil, but it eventually earned its proper recognition. In 1982, it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.