The site of Cahokia is located near Collinsville, Illinois, and was home to an ancient Native American city between 650-1400 AD. It is made up of a series of earthen mounds, which were constructed by the city’s inhabitants around 1050 AD, when the city’s population suddenly exploded at the beginning of the Mississippian cultural period.
The most interesting aspect of this city is a giant hill called the Monk’s Mound, which was built with four levels of terraces and is the largest man-made earthen mound known in North America. On top of the mound, there seems to be some evidence for a large building, possibly a temple or ceremonial center for the city’s religious leader. It would have been visible to the entire city, and so it seems that the religion of these people was a focal point of their daily existence.
To the west of Monk’s Mound, archaeologists have identified a series of postholes forming what has affectionately been coined as “Woodhenge”, since it is likely that this area was used for astronomical observations such as seasonal equinoxes and solstices. During the 300-year occupation of the site, it seems that Woodhenge was rebuilt several times, and therefore must have played an integral role in the community.
Although it was visible to the rest of the city, the Monk’s Mound was also surrounded by a wooden stockade and a series of watchtowers placed at regular intervals. This stockade seems to have separated the religious district or ceremonial center from the rest of the city itself, which was settled in a diamond-shape of about a mile long. There are about 120 additional mounds within the city area, and they are of varying shape, such as: conical pyramid, platform style, or ridge-top.
One intriguing find at Cahokia was the burial of a 40-year-old man who seems to have been an important community figure, possibly a religious leader or respected warrior. His grave-bed was an arrangement of more than twenty thousand seashell disc beads in the shape of a falcon – and the man’s body was placed on the falcon so that his head, arms, and legs aligned with those of the bird. This kind of burial must have held a very powerful significance for the inhabitants of the city. He was also found with a large cache of arrowheads from across North America, which demonstrates the extensive trade that must have been conducted at the site.
A number of other burials in the city were simply mass graves, and many of the skeletons here were missing hands and heads, which has led to the speculation of human sacrifice at the city.
Cahokia’s high point as a major urban center held a population of around 40,000 inhabitants, making it the largest prehistoric site in North America – a close rival to the great cities of Mesoamerica in Central Mexico. Its decline was likely caused by the depletion of natural resources as a result of climate change, and by 1400 AD the city was completely abandoned.
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