When I think of Native Americans, I tend to picture wandering hunters and warriors, living in temporary movable teepees. This is not the case with the Mississippian Indians. They weren’t nomads, but farmers. Not only did they live in structured homes and work their land, but they had thriving sophisticated cities. The largest and greatest of these cities was Cahokia.
I had never heard of this ancient settlement until I started researching Native American places to visit. I didn’t know anything about the Mississippian culture before this trip. Cahokia is about 20 minutes across the river from downtown St. Louis, MO. The day was overcast and it rained sporadically throughout my visit, so pardon my dark pictures. 😉 Kaya and I started our visit in the Visitor Center. It was laid out very nicely and had multiple life-size displays portraying life at Cahokia.
Cahokia was inhabited by the Mississippian’s from around AD 700 to AD 1300. It was between AD 1050 and AD 1200 that Cahokia’s population grew to an impressive 10,000 to 20,000 people. This made Cahokia larger than many European cities.
The Mississippian’s farmed corn, squash, sunflowers, beans and more. They also collected wild plants and hunted game. Living so close to the river they caught fish, turtles and harvested freshwater mussels. Besides eating turtles for their meat, they used the shells as bowls and carved them into hair combs. Fish bones were used as sewing needles. I loved looking at all of the interesting ways that the Mississippian’s used every part of an animal. They were very creative and wasted nothing! A deer’s hide provided clothing and shelter. The bones were used as hand tools, hide scrapers, hairpins, weaving tools and game pieces. The hooves were boiled down to make glue. Even the brains were used to process the hides.
The coolest thing that the Mississippian people did (in my opinion 😉), was build mounds. Massively huge mounds! There were originally around 120 earthen mounds at Cahokia and they all varied in size and shape. The largest is a platform mound named Monks Mound. Monks Mound is about 100 feet high and 955 feet long. It’s width is 775 feet, making it roughly the same size as the Great Pyramid of Giza at its base. You could fit about 10 football fields on Monks Mound! Today the state of Illinois owns and protects 2,200 acres of the original 4,000 and 70 of the 80 mounds that remain.
So how does a group of people build a 100 foot high mound without modern equipment? Here’s the amazing part! In baskets on their backs! They would fill large baskets with soil and clay from “borrow pits” and pack it to the mound location. Over and over and over again.
The mounds are different shapes. Monks Mound is a platform mound and would have been a ceremonial mound. The chief most likely lived there also. Other mounds are square, rectangular and even circular. Each mound had a purpose. Structures were built on top of the mounds; houses, temples, burial buildings and others. After touring the visitor center, Kaya and I headed outside to see the mounds.
During the 13th century, Cahokia’s population began to decline and the settlement was abandoned completely around AD 1300. Because the Mississippians didn’t have a writing system, we cannot know exactly what happened and why Cahokia was abandoned. Many things could have been factors such as overhunting, flooding, disease or deforestation. Whatever the reason, these amazing mound builders have left behind a phenomon that people will continue to marvel at for centuries.
(Parents: Please note that if you decide to visit the Visitor Center at Cahokia, all of the figures in the artwork and life-size displays are topless. I’m sure this is historically accurate, but I also know that my blog has some younger viewers. I made a point to take photos from certain angles for discretion.)