From about 700 to 1400 CE, Cahokia flourished as one of the greatest cities in the world. The complex society at Cahokia prospered in the fertile lands off of the Mississippi River, across the river from modern St. Louis, Missouri, and it was booming long before Europeans came to America.
By 1000 AD, the Native American community in and around Cahokia Mounds was exhibiting a host of characteristics, which later would become common among Indian societies along the major river drainages throughout the Midwest. This has been termed the Mississippian culture.
Cahokia is currently believed to be the largest archaeological ruins north of Mexico’s great pre-Columbian cities. The mound complex was named after the Cahokia sub-tribe of the Illiniwek, or Illinois tribe, a loose confederacy of related peoples who moved into the area in the 17th century and were living nearby when the French explorers arrived about 1699. Sometime in the mid-1800s, local historians suggested that the site should be called “Cahokia” to honor these later arrivals.
The ruins of this sophisticated native civilization are preserved at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in Collinsville, Illinois. Within the 2,200-acre area, the remnants of ancient Cahokia are displayed, paying tribute to one of the largest and most influential urban settlements of Mississippian culture. The 3.5-square-mile park contains the ruins of approximately 80 mounds. However, at Cahokia’s height, the site included more than 120 earthen mounds spread out over approximately six square miles.
The largest of these 120 mounds is Monks Mound, also known as Mound 38, which is the largest man-made earthen mound on the North American continent. It received its name from the group of Trappist monks who lived on one of the nearby mounds. The monks never lived on the biggest mound but gardened its first terrace and nearby areas.
Archaeological investigations and scientific tests, mostly since the 1920s and especially since the 1960s, have provided what is known of the archaeologically significant community.
The early Native American cultural hub once boasted a wide variety of edifices, including everything from monumental structures to basic homes for practical living. At its peak between 1050 CE and 1200 CE, the city covered nearly six square miles and was inhabited by 10,000 to 20,000 people. Over 120 mounds were built over the years, and most of the mounds were enlarged several times. Houses were arranged in rows and around open plazas, and vast agricultural fields lay outside the city.
The fate of the Cahokian people and their once-impressive city is mysterious. The decline of this great civilization is believed to have been gradual. Most historians agree that the Cahokians began abandoning the city in the 13th century, and by 1400 CE the civilization was completely deserted. Exactly where the people went or what tribes they became hasn’t yet been determined.
Cahokia is considered a United States National Historic Landmark and is managed by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency as a State Historic Site. Also, in 1982, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Cahokia Mounds a World Heritage Site for its importance to our understanding of the prehistory of North America. Today, visitors can explore the mounds at the park, and learn about the site in the Cahokia Museum and Interpretive Center.