Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
This article is about the Native American city. For the modern city located about ten miles to the southeast, see Cahokia, Illinois.
Cahokia was a Native American city located near Collinsville in west-central Illinois, across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, Missouri. Cahokia is best known for large, man-made earthen structures, known popularly as mounds, the largest of which is Monk's Mound; as well as its timber circles named after the site of Woodhenge. The Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, inscribed in 1982 as a World Heritage Site, protects 2200 acres (8.9 km²) of the area of the mounds and is the site of ongoing archaeological excavations. Cahokia is one of the best known sites of the Mississippian culture and the term "Cahokian" is sometimes used to describe the culture.
The city was founded around 700 and was abandoned between 1250 and 1400. The original name of the city is unknown and the inhabitants appear to have not employed writing. The name Cahokia is that of a unrelated clan of Illiniwek that was living in the area when the first French explorers arrived in the early 17th century. The Osage Nation, Omaha , Ponca, Quapaw and others are believed to be the direct descendants of the Mississippian culture but no stories referring to the city of Cahokia were ever recorded among the tribes.
Monk's Mound is the largest man-made earthen mound in North America at about 100 feet (30.5 m) high and a base of 1,037 by 790 feet (316 by 241 m). A large building originally stood on the top of the mound. This single building was 105 feet long, 48 feet wide and about 50 feet high. A 50 acre (200,000 m²) plaza stood in front of the mound. The Cahokia site contains several types of mounds - flattop, conical and ridge-top mounds. More than 120 mounds are thought to have existed. Of these, 109 have been located and 68 are preserved in the park.
During the Pre-Columbian era, Cahokia was for a time the largest North America city north of the Mesoamerican cities of central Mexico. It was one of two major centers of a group of peoples known now as the Mound Builders.
The city population is thought to have been relatively small, around 1,000 until about the year 1050 when the population exploded to tens of thousands. Estimates of the city's peak population range from 8,000 to 40,000 with a number of associated villages surrounding and suppying it. There were trade links between Cahokia and sites as far away as southern Minnesota. Pottery and stone tools in the Cahokia style were common the Silvernail archaeological site near Red Wing, Minnesota. Until c. 1800, no North American city north of Mexico would be larger than Cahokia had been at its peak (Around 1800, Philadelphia broke Cahokia's record).
Eventually the city and the "suburbs" apparently forced to support it through tribute over-hunted the area and those surrounding it, quite possibly contributing to the culture's collapse, though another suspected culprit is destruction by nomadic tribes moving into the area and wiping out the thus-weakened civilization. Diseases like cholera and typhoid, with vectors facilitated by large, dense populations are other likely causes of the rapid depopulation of the Cahokia area.
During the excavation of Mound 72, a ridge-top burial mound, archeologists found the remains of someone who was probably an important ruler, a male in his 40s. He was buried on a bed of more than 20,000 marine shell disc beads laid in the shape of a bird. A typical motif of the Mississippian culture is the birdman. Nearby were caches of arrowheads of a variety of materials and styles which indicate a widespread geographic origin. Over 250 other skeletons were recovered from the mound, most from mass graves and some males missing hands and heads which seem to indicate that they were human sacrifices at the time of the important ruler's burial. Wood in several parts of the mound was carbon-dated to 950-1000 AD.
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