What are the Cahokia Mounds?

Tara Barnett
Tara Barnett
Woman waving
Woman waving

Cahokia Mounds is an archaeological preserve near Collinsville, Illinois. It was once a large city where Mississippian Native Americans built large mounds, typical of their culture at that time. This site contains the largest mound north of Mexico, called Monk's Mound, which has been preserved and equipped with stairs for visitors in recent years.

It is unknown which surviving Native American tribes are descendants of the builders at Cahokia Mounds, and the original name of the city has been lost to history. As this is a site of continuing archaeological investigation, it is possible that more of the mysteries of what life was like at Cahokia Mounds will be unveiled in the future.

The inhabitants of Cahokia began to build mounds around 1050 CE. The city grew, and eventually at least 120 mounds were built. At its peak, the city may have had a population of up to 40,000, although 10,000-20,000 is a more conservative estimate. The decline and subsequent abandonment of the city around 1300 CE is typically attributed to deforestation or human destruction of animal species, although conquest is also a possibility.

The mounds themselves are of varying sizes. Some have completely degraded, but others are still relatively large. Different mounds were designed in different ways, likely having unique meanings and functions. Monk's Mound, for instance, may have been the location of a temple, or the highest chief's home. The mounds also sometimes house graves or relics.

Cahokia's many astounding features includes a circle of poles now called Woodhenge, marking the summer and winter solstices as well as other astrological features. Also, the only known copper workshop of the Mississippian era was discovered at Cahokia. It is likely that the city was well defended, as evidence of a stockade and watchtowers were discovered at the site as well, although these may have been for ritual purposes. Cahokia was also likely a site of human sacrifice, as mass graves have been found in one of the mounds.

The interpretive center at Cahokia Mounds is an excellent introduction to the mounds outdoors. There are a large number of artifact displays with explanations, a theater, and a model of the entire site. One of the best features of the interpretive center is the fascinating recreated village, which shows what life might have been like at Cahokia Mounds at its peak.

Cahokia Mounds is a valuable archeological site providing a window into early Native American life. It has been a designated World Heritage Site since 1982. One of the best ways to support the preservation efforts taking place at Cahokia Mounds is to simply visit, or donate funds towards the acquisition of the surrounding land. Of the 120 mounds, only 68 are within the park's limits. Preserving this land is important for future generations, because this site represents a part of Native American history represented nowhere else in the United States.

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Discussion Comments


While many mounds sites, such as the Cahokia mounds historic site, seem very similar to me, I do think it is important that so many of these types of sites have remained, and cannot imagine them disappearing; they are nearly the only record that really remains of some aspects of native American culture and life.


You left out the fact that Cahokia was the largest cultural and trading center in North America. Tribes from as far away as Pennsylvania and Mississippi gathered and traded there.

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