In Southern Illinois, along the Mississippi flood plain, lays an area of the state that was once inhabited by an ancient culture. The Cahokia Indians were builders of the great mounds of earth that served as ceremonial and trade structures for the people of the surrounding area. You can still see these earth mounds today, and they are the focus of continued archeological study to learn more about the time and culture of the ancient tribes that once lived there.
The Cahokia Indians
Early inhabitants of the Cahokia mounds were people of the Woodland culture, around 700 A.D. who hunted and gathered the forested land of the Mississippi flood plain. They left the area and were replaced by a sub-group of the Illini Indians called the Cahokia who added agriculture to their economy and soon developed a complex culture. They built a city at Cahokia, where the Missouri, Ohio and Illinois Rivers joined the Mississippi some time after 800 C.E. The word Cahokia means “wild geese,” given to the area because of the large flocks of geese that used the area as a stop on their migration route. The mounds are the only remains of the only prehistoric civilization north of Mexico.
The Cahokia Mounds
The area around Collinsville, Illinois contains 120 earthen mounds in a 6 square mile area. Estimates suggest that 55 million cubic feet of earth was moved in hand-woven baskets to create the system of massive mounds. Monk’s Mound spans 14 acres and rise 10 stories tall. Many of the mounds contain watchtowers and defensive structures, suggesting they were used to defend the population against enemies. A few of the mounds were used for burials. At the top of some of the mounds, structures once stood, thought to be temples or the home of the chief. The area also contains an area called Woodhenge, which marks the position of solstices and other astronomical events. These suggest ceremonial or religious rituals that may have included people that gathered together from a wide area around the mounds.
Artifacts of the Mound Builders
Many artifacts have been discovered at the Cahokia sites that tell of the life of these early native people. Pottery, tools, knives, stones and shells have been unearthed, along with game equipment such as hoops, rings, balls and pins. Rocks and minerals from all over the country have been found at the mounds, suggesting a strong system of trade among the inhabitants. Recent archeology study has found a copper workshop at the Mounds, making it the only copper working activity of the Mississippian culture.