Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site: Abandoned Cultures

Name: Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site (United States of America).
Location: It is situated in the state of Illinois, 7.5 miles north of St. Louis.
Area: 4,000 acres.

The Famous Monks Mound



The territory of what we call today the United States of America was populated by numerous sedentary peoples which practised the agriculture of corn, and built large complex and populous cities. In the east, between the Mississippi and The Appalachians, large number of cultures were being developed. Historians have called these specific cultures "mound builders", for having as most characteristic feature the erection of big soil mounds with funerary and ritual functions.

The oldest mounds were made by the Adena (700 b.C.-400 b.C.) and Hopewell (100 b.C.-400 a.C.) cultures, settled in the territory of today's Ohio. The most recent ones, were due to the so-called "Mississippian Culture", which flourished in the basin of the Mississippi since 600 a.C., and where you can find influences from both Hopewell and Mesoamerican cultures. This culture provided a new type of mound and developed important urban agglomerations, being Cahokia Mounds the most important one.


On The Banks of The Grand River

The Cahokia settlement lies between the rivers Mississippi and Missouri. It occupies a space of nearly 3,213 acres (13 square kilometers), where it has been detected 120 mounds, only 45 of them in good state of preservation though. From these 45 mounds, experts distinguish between 4 types of mounds: platform, double platform, conical or ridge-top. The last two were used for burials; the first two served as a base for important buildings, as archeologists have found construction wooden materials at the peak of all of them.

To a different type belongs the Monks Mound that owes its name to the trappist community that was settled on it. It is made up of 4 overlapping platforms and its dimensions, larger than any mound known -1,000 feet long, 700 feet wide and 98 feet high- indicate that this mound was the spiritual and perhaps political center of the settlement. On the other hand, the diggings carried out in funerary mounds show the existence of a leading elite who used exclusively the inhumation ritual, while the rest of the population just incinerated their dead relatives. The Mound 72 is provided of 6 burial levels, all of them containing rich jewelry made up from copper, mica, obsidian or ceramic objects that reveal the existence of an active commercial activity with regions far away. One of the tombs belongs to a man who was buried on a shell bed, another tomb contained the bodies of other 4 men, beheaded and with no hands, and more than 50 young women. This makes experts to believe that it was very possible that these cultures did human sacrifices.

The most revealing discovery in Cahokia is, however, much less spectacular. It's the multiple traces of a circle of wooden posts, situated in a way that allowed them to calculate with high precision the equinoxes and solstices. The existence of this "woodhenge", a name that comes from the popular English stone monument "Stonehenge", proves that this Mississippi culture managed to achieve a high level of intellectual development.

The Forgotten Culture

The excavations have allowed archeologists to establish a timeline of Cahokia, divided in 7 phases which go from its first settlement, circa 600 a.C., to the arrival of the Europeans in the 18th century. The first phase (600 a.C. to 800 a.C.) corresponds to a very primitive settlement. In the second phase (800 a.C. to 900 a.C.) took place the introduction from Mesoamerica of a new corn variety, better adapted to the climate where they lived and the substitution of the digging stick by the hoe, allowing the beginning of a true urban culture. In the third (900 a.C. to 1050 a.C.) belonged the burials of Mound 72; in this phase they also built the "woodhenge" and they started forming the Monks Mound. The urban development reaches its peak in the fifth phase, age when the city population was about 40,000 people. Since then, it starts a gradually decadence which would finish with the final abandonment, just before the arrival of the Europeans.

In the 18th century though, Mississippian Culture heritage was still maintained by different highly-civilized tribes such as the Natchez, Muskogee or Choctaw. Dominated by the French, the only traces of their past culture and tradition were the mounds, abandoned and covered by weed. Thomas Jefferson mentioned them in his "Notes about the state of Virginia," and even Jefferson himself dug one near his residence in Monticello. Using methods of systematic research, like the ones used today, he discovered several layers of burials. Later on, when the colonization passed The Appalachians, were discovered thousands of these structures in Ohio and in the Mississippi Valley. Lots of them were looted, looking for treasures or by unscrupulous collectors, but many others could be saved. Since then, their scientific digging has allowed us to start gaining knowledge about the builders of these mounds, about whom many questions have arisen, many of them don't have an answer yet, because the descendants of these tribes were ruthlessly exterminated.

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