By Amber Holst of Concierge Preferred
Imagine an ancient Native American settlement where people built pyramids, constructed solar observatories and, yes, even practiced human sacrifice. You’d have to travel to Mexico to see that, right? Nope. It’s right here in Southern Illinois, and the ancient civilization’s massive remains stand as one of the best-kept archaeological secrets in the country.
Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in Collinsville uniquely illustrates America's past, both pre-Columbian and post-“discovery.” The site, one of 23 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the U.S., preserves the history of a city that existed long before Columbus stumbled onto our continent.
This planned city covered six square miles dotted with 120 earthworks, 70 of which remain on the site’s 2,200 acres today. The community began around 700AD as a cluster of small settlements by the people of the Mississippian cultural tradition and by 1150 the population had exploded to anywhere from 20,000 in most estimates to as high as 50,000 in others. To put this in perspective, London's population was around 20,000 during that same period.
Cahokia’s largest mound (named after the French Trappists who tended to its terraced gardens in the 1800s) stands at 100-feet-tall and was the site of a sizable structure in which Cahokia’s political and spiritual leaders would meet. Surrounded by a wooden palisade almost two miles in circumference was the town center was where residents, pilgrims, and leaders worshipped and held ceremonies.
The Mississippians oriented Cahokia’s center in a true east-west fashion, using site lines and the positions of the sun, moon, and stars to determine direction accurately. West of Monk’s Mound, a circle of tall posts used the position of the rising sun to mark the summer and winter solstices and the spring and fall equinoxes.The posts were re-erected and dubbed Woodhenge by archaeologists who began researching the area in 1961.
This infamous mound shows evidence of hundreds of sacrificial burials. Contained within the mound are four male skeletons, buried together, that are all missing their hands and skulls. Also within this same mound, skeletons in a mass grave were found with their fingers extended into the sand suggesting to archaeologists that the people were alive when they were buried and were trying to claw their way out. The kicker? All of those skeletons have been identified as women in their early twenties, which further suggests that these individuals were sacrificial victims.
Visitors walk around the mounds on three marked trails. Plaques in the grass explain the significance of each mound. Some mounds were used for burials, some give archaeologists clear signs of the types of buildings that were constructed on them, and some are more mysterious. The mounds themselves vary greatly in size,but walking along the trails is interesting in and of itself. However, visitors should bring a water bottle on a hot day—there’s very little shade on the main trails. A nature trail known as Volksmarch also extends around part of the site. The Volksmarch is a 10-kilometer trail designed for hiking and biking and provides a great experience for more adventurous families and wildlife lovers.
The engrossing atmosphere of the place is largely due to the excellent presentation of Mississippian culture provided by the Interpretive Center and its staff. One can also attribute it to the sheer majesty of the man-made structures comprised solely of earth throughout the grounds. This may be only a brief glimpse of the culture and size of the ancient Mississippian city, but even a brief glimpse can be humbling.While admission to the center and grounds are free, donations are always appreciated.