Digital History>eXplorations>The World Before 1492

Exploration 4 : Cahokia

Ancient ruins or replicas of ancient civilizations

These are all images of different ancient ruins (or graphic replicas) of ancient civilizations in the Americas. What appears similar or different about these?

Essential Questions

Mississippian Period and the Mounds at Cahokia

1. The era between A.D. 1000 and 1600 during is known as the Mississippian period. Who were the “Mississippian” people and what was their way of life and economy based on?

2. What do the mounds at Cahokia suggest about their builders’ religious and cultural beliefs?

This is an artist's rendition of what the Cahokia site might have looked like.

Artist's Drawing of What cahokia Might Have Looked Like

Many Americans visit Stonehenge in England. They are unaware that their own country contains similar feats of ancient engineering. One mound, located across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, is larger than the Great Pyramid in Egypt. Its base covered 14 acres and it rose in four terraces to 100 feet.

Nearly a thousand years ago, when many European cities were little more than villages, the people living at Cahokia, near present day St. Louis, built a wooden barricade surrounding their most important buildings. Almost two miles long and enclosing more than 120 acres, the fence required felling 20,000 trees.

Cahokia, the largest settlement north of central Mexico, flourished for three centuries before it was abandoned. Estimates of its peak population run from 10,000 to 20,000. Cahokia’s merchants traded across much of North America, from the Gulf Coast northward to the Great Lakes, eastward to the Atlantic coast and westward to Oklahoma. Cahokia spread the Mississippian culture across much of North America.

At Cahokia’s core, within a log stockade ten to 12 feet tall, was the 200-acre Sacred Precinct where the ruling elite lived and were buried. On top of a massive earthen mound stood a pole-framed temple more than 100 feet long, where Cahokia's rulers performed the political and religious rituals. Cahokia’s streets and 120 mounds were apparently laid out according to their builders’ spiritual principles and view of the cosmos. To explore Cahokia is to re-experience the wonder of a vanished civilization and way of life.

Read more about Cahokia:

Cahokia: Cosmic Landscape Architecture
This excerpt is mirrored on Digital History through permission of the University of Chicago Press.

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Cahokia Mounds

Aztec Pyramids


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