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  • David M. Jones

Site in the USA in East St Louis, IL, of a huge Pre-Columbian city. Founded c. ad 700, it was the largest prehistoric city ever built north of Mexico and was probably influenced by political and civic ideas from Mesoamerica, Pre-Columbian. At its height, between c. ad 1050 and c. 1250, Cahokia encompassed c. 13 sq. km and had a population of c. 10–15,000. Although located in the north-west part of the middle Mississippi Southern Cult area, it was the political, economic and religious centre for more than 50 towns (see Native North American art, §I, 4, (v)). The exact nature of its power or rule, however, is uncertain. A potential rival in the south-east of the cult area was Moundville, AL, nearly as large. Cahokia began to decline after c. 1250, although some of its satellite towns, at such sites as Angel, Aztatlan, Dickson and Kinkaid, continued to flourish as local centres. A drastic population decline c. 1450 led to the abandonment or severe diminishment of many sites before European contact.

Cahokia lay in the American Bottomlands—the middle Mississippi Valley and confluence of the Mississippi, Missouri and Illinois rivers—a fertile alluvial valley region of light, fertile soils suitable for hoe-using agriculture. Archaeological evidence in the form of artefacts and skeletal remains (Springfield, IL, State Mus.) suggests that Mesoamerican influence began to penetrate this south-east woodlands region from c. ad 700. Later Mesoamerican influence brought about the construction of civic mounds. By c. 1200 Cahokia comprised a Central Plaza (see fig. (a)) formed by 17 major mound structures of rammed earth, and over 80 other mounds. Dominating the north side of the Central Plaza is Monks Mound (b), begun perhaps two centuries earlier and constructed in 14 stages to a height of more than 30 m. In its final configuration it comprised a complex rectangle with sloping sides (241×316 m at the base and more than 600,000 m³ of earth). A ramp set slightly off-centre on the south side led up to a wide platform across the south quarter. Higher stages were formed running north–south along the east and west sides, with two further platforms above these. Around the Central Plaza stood a four-sided timber palisade (c) enclosing c. 120 ha. The ends of the long east and west sections of the stockade ended at the edge of Cahokia Creek, forming the north side of the ceremonial area. The two southern sections of the palisade formed an offset point. Opinion differs as to whether the palisade was defensive or merely a ceremonial screen.

Cahokia, reconstruction drawing of the site c. 1200, looking east: (a) Central Plaza; (b) Monks Mound; (c) palisade; (d) Ramey Plaza; (e) Merrell Plaza; (f) North Plaza; (g) square mound and truncated cone; (h) longhouses

Groups of mounds formed further plazas immediately outside the palisade to east (Ramey Plaza (d)) and west (Merrell Plaza (e)), and across Cahokia Creek (North Plaza (f)). The mounds, also slope-sided, were flat-topped and square, rectangular or circular. In one case in the west plaza a truncated cone (g) was set against the south-west corner of a square mound. When exacavated, many mounds, including Monks Mound, bore traces of wooden structures presumed to be temples on their summits. Traces of ordinary longhouses (h) built of upright logs were found scattered on the outskirts of the plazas.

Some mounds contained burials of élite citizens, while the cemeteries of non-élites formed several clusters around the Central Plaza and to the south-west of it. One élite burial contained two men surrounded by bundles of disarticulated bones. Another comprised an élite person wrapped in a robe of some 12,000 shell beads; around him were caches of polished stones, mica and arrowheads, and six male retainers. A pit near by contained the mass burial of 53 women, and in another pit were four decapitated men with amputated hands. The Wilson Mound, more than 1 km north-west of the Central Plaza, covered a mortuary chamber (4.25×5.50 m) containing hundreds of disarticulated bones grouped into bundles of several individuals each, and a single dog skeleton. Scattered among the bundles were large whelk shells and disc-shaped marine shell beads.


  • W. K. Moorehead: The Cahokia Mounds, Bulletin of the University of Illinois, 26/4 (Urbana, 1928)
  • M. L. Fowler: Cahokia: Ancient Capital of the Midwest (Menlo Park, CA, 1974)
  • J. Pfeiffer: ‘America’s First City’, Horizon, 16/2 (1974), pp. 58–63
  • C. Hudson: The Southeastern Indians (Knoxville, 1976)
  • D. Snow: The Archaeology of North America: American Indians and their Origins (London and New York, 1976, rev. 1980)
  • W. N. Morgan: Prehistoric Architecture in the Eastern United States (Cambridge, MA, 1980)
  • M. Coe, D. Snow and E. Benson: Atlas of Ancient America (Oxford, 1986), pp. 55–60
  • C. Scarre, ed.: Past Worlds: The Times Atlas of Archaeology (London, 1988), pp. 230–31
  • J. B. Stoltman, ed.: New Perspectives on Cahokia: Views from the Periphery (Madison, WI, 1991)
  • T. R. Pauketat: The Ascent of Chiefs: Cahokia and Mississippian Politics in Native North America (Tuscaloosa, AL, 1994)
  • M. Mehrer: Cahokia’s Countryside: Household Archeology, Settlement Patterns, and Social Power (DeKalb, IL, 1995)
  • T. R. Pauketat and T. E. Emerson, eds.: Cahokia: Domination and Ideology in the Mississippian World (Lincoln, NE, 1997)
  • T. E. Emerson: Cahokia and the Archeology of Power (Tuscaloosa, AL, 1997)
  • G. R. Milner: The Cahokia Chiefdom: The Archeology of a Mississippian Society (Washington, DC, 1998)
  • W. K. Moorhead: The Cahokia Mounds, ed. and intro. by J. E. Kelly (Tuscaloosa, AL, 2000)
  • S. A. Kitt Chappell and others: Cahokia: Mirror of the Cosmos (Chicago, 2002)
  • B. W. Young and M. L. Fowler: Cahokia: The Great Native American Metropolis (Urbana, IL, 2000)
  • R. A. Dalen and others: Envisioning Cahokia: A Landscape Perspective (DeKalb, IL, 2003)
  • T. R, Pauketat: Ancient Cahokia and the Mississippians (Cambridge and New York, 2004)
  • M. Byers: Cahokia: A World of Renewal Cult Heterarchy (Gainesville, FL, 2006)

See also

Native North American art, §I, 1: Geography and peoples