Sep 26, 2014

Cahokia: The Largest Mississippian Archaeological Site on the North American Continent

Ancient Cahokia Mounds


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 (situated 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 was later to become common among Indian societies along the major river drainages throughout the Midwest. Not surprisingly 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 over an expanse of approximately six square miles.
The largest of these 120 mounds is Monks Mound (Mound 38), which is also 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 is yet to be 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.
For more information about Cahokia and the Mississippian culture, please visit Chickasaw.tv History & Culture Channel.
Featured image: Featured image: The Cahokia Mounds. Photo credit: Don Burmeister and Ira Block.



Mississippi Period
900-1400 AD

Much of our Chickasaw culture, as well as that of dozens of other southern and eastern tribes, descends from the Mississippian Civilization. This economic and political structure greatly influenced and shaped our culture.
The Mississippians lived in more complex societies than their Woodland ancestors. Families were divided into high and low social rank and had a permanent leader. With increases in corn production, there was a food surplus that supported larger populations and social order.
Trading became an important part of our way of life; travel ranged from coast to coast.

The Clan System

Clans (based on matriarchal lineage) were an organizing force from this Mississippian era until the late 1800s. As Chickasaws, we believe The Creator (Aba' Binni'li',“sitting above”) gave them the need for the clan system with special animal guides: deer, bird, bear, fish, turtle, raccoon, skunk, wolf, panther, squirrel and alligator. These clans determined Chickasaw social organization.

Mound Building

Mound building evolved from round-shaped domes used exclusively for burial for important tribal members to rectangular, flat-topped mounds that served as platforms for temples or residences of important leaders. Important mounds included the Moundville site (near Tuscaloosa), and Emerald Mound along the Natchez Trace Parkway (the second largest mound). Located in what is now Oklahoma, Spiro Mounds was a trade center and ancient warehouse for the Southeast and Southwest. Other mounds include Wickliffe Mounds (Kentucky), Shiloh Mounds (Tennessee), Pharr Mounds (Mississippi) and Ingomar Mounds (Mississippi).
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