Note: The weekly Illinois Bicentennial series is sponsored by the Illinois Associated Press Media Editors and Illinois Press Association. More than 20 newspapers are creating stories about the state’s history, places and key moments in advance of the Bicentennial on Dec. 3, 2018. Stories published up to this date can be found at 200Illinois.com.
A gaggle of rambunctious fifth-graders scrambled to the top of the 100-foot-high Monks Mound to get a great view of the Gateway Arch in downtown St. Louis, Mo., and burn off energy at the end of their class field trip to the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site.
Before the climb, the Gardner Elementary students from Waterloo toured the historic site’s spacious interpretive center in Collinsville and learned how Native Americans based at the mounds conducted trade with people in other regions, including the Great Lakes for copper and the Gulf of Mexico for seashells.
“People from around the world come here to see the Cahokia Mounds and it’s right in our backyard,” said Amy Wagenknecht, one of the students’ teachers.
The students were among the estimated 300,000 people who visit the historic site each year.
Monks Mound was built by Native Americans, now known as members of the Mississippian culture. According to assistant site manager Bill Iseminger, it is the largest pre-Columbian, earthen structure in all of North and South America. He has worked at the Cahokia Mounds site since 1971.
It also is one of 80 earthen mounds remaining in the area with 70 of them protected within the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site that encompasses 2,200 acres. There originally were 120 mounds at the site.
According to Iseminger, at the height of the Cahokia Mounds, an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 American Indians lived there and perhaps twice as many lived in the region.
Cahokia was the largest prehistoric American Indian settlement north of Mexico. It’s known as “America’s first city,” and it is believed to have had a population larger than London in 1250.
Archaeologists are not sure why the Mississippians formed this major settlement around 1000 to 1050, and they do not know why the site was abandoned by 1400.
“The urban nature of Cahokia is what intrigues a lot of archaeologists and historians, trying to understand how it began and how it ended and that middle period is all something we’re all constantly trying to unravel,” Iseminger said. “We do not know what they called themselves or this place. It’s not really a tribe, it’s an urban area.”
Archaeologists have raised questions about why the city rose from the Mississippi River flood plain near present-day St. Louis: Was it a powerful leader? Was a new religion developing? Was it inspired by a supernova seen worldwide in 1054?
According to Iseminger, a combination of motivations likely caused the Cahokia site to be abandoned.
“They probably depleted most of the natural resources in the area,” he added.
Other possible causes include: a few bad leaders running the city, reduced crop production caused by extended droughts and cooling temperatures, flooding, nutritional problems from an overdependence on a diet of corn, a contagious disease could have spread with so many people living in close proximity or a gradual breakdown of the ruling system with some challenging authorities.
“Where they went or what tribes they became is not clear,” Iseminger said.
In the 1800s, the mounds were named after the Cahokia tribe that lived in the area when European settlers arrived. But that tribe had moved into the area long after the mounds site had been abandoned.
Iseminger noted French settlers often named their villages after American Indians who lived nearby and that’s the case for Cahokia, which is about 11 miles from the Cahokia Mounds site in Collinsville.
Monks Mound is named after a group of French Trappist monks who lived near the mound on another mound from 1809 to 1813.
Many visitors think the mounds are burial sites, but Iseminger mentioned most of the mounds were actually platforms for buildings. A large building on top of Monks Mound likely was the home of the site’s leader.
But, archaeologists have found burials in Mound 72 where the remains of more than 280 people have been found.
The majority of bodies in the mass graves were of young women 15 to 25 years old, “who apparently had been sacrificed and buried in these mass graves,” Iseminger said.
“We do not know why, all we see is the end result,” he said. The sacrifices occurred between 1050 to 1100.
“One burial seemed to be an individual of great importance. He was buried with the remains of other individuals on what appeared to be a platform of shell beads,” according to the Cahokia Mounds website.
Archaeologists have found evidence of sun-based calendars comprised of red cedar posts in large circles on the Cahokia site. The circles were dubbed “Woodhenge” in a nod to Stonehenge in England.
In 1985, posts were erected at the Cahokia site to replicate one of the original circles.
Visitors can also see a reconstruction of what the wooden wall blockading Cahokia might have looked like.
The Cahokia site was protected by the state in 1920s and in 1982 was named a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
Timothy Pauketat, an archaeologist and professor of anthropology for the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, urges the U.S. government to give federal protection to the Cahokia Mounds.
Pauketat, who published a book about the mounds titled “Cahokia: Ancient America’s Great City on the Mississippi” in 2009, stated many Illinoisans do not recognize “what a tremendous historical phenomenon existed in the southwestern part of the state.”
“What happened there is comparable to the birth of civilization in Mesopotamia or Mesoamerica, except that Native Americans did it here and in ways culturally and contextually unique,” mentioned Pauketat in an email.
“The scope of the preservation problem is so great, which is why we need national involvement,” Pauketat said. “The state of Illinois cannot do it all.”