Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Mighty Cahokia Volume 49 Number 3, May/June 1996
by William R. Iseminger

A major trading center whose influence extended throughout much of North America, Cahokia was in its day the greatest settlement north of Mexico.

Eight miles east of St. Louis, Cahokia was in its day the largest and most influential settlement north of Mexico. Its merchants traded with cultures from the Gulf Coast to the Great Lakes, from the Atlantic coast to Oklahoma, and they helped spread Mississippian culture across much of that vast area. Some 120 earthen mounds supporting civic buildings and the residences of Cahokia's elite were spread over more than five square miles--perhaps six times as many earthen platforms as the great Mississippian site of Moundville, south of Tuscaloosa, Alabama. At its core, within a log stockade ten to 12 feet tall, was the 200-acre Sacred Precinct where the ruling elite lived and were buried. Atop a massive earthen mound stood a pole-framed temple more than 100 feet long, its grass roof possibly decorated with carved wooden animal figures festooned with glimmering beads, feathers, and cloth. Here Cahokia's rulers performed the political and religious rituals that united the realm. Estimates of the city's population at its zenith, ca. A.D. 1050-1150, range from 8,000 to more than 40,000, though most fall between 10,000 and 20,000. Around A.D. 1200, perhaps having exhausted its natural resources, Cahokia went into a decline that left it virtually empty by 1400.

* Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site: View a map of the site and a description of each of the mounds, information for visitors, a calendar of events, and a bibliography of works about the mounds. By Ken Keller and Eric Young

© 1996 by the Archaeological Institute of America