Tattoos and Corn: St. Louis' Cahokia Mounds

A visit to the largest pre-Columbian city north of Mexico

I’m driving to the site of the largest Pre-Columbian community north of Mexico. I cross the Mississippi River on I-55/70 and take Exit 6 to Collinsville Road. One might guess the largest Pre-Columbian community north of Mexico existed in any number of places—Massachusetts, Ontario, Florida, Arizona, Oklahoma—but one would be wrong. It existed in Illinois, just south of the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.

The road to Cahokia (©D. Lancaster)

The location was important, situated where water-borne trade could take place across much of North America—exactly what attracted the French to establish St. Louis some seven miles west a few hundred years after this remarkable city collapsed. Today it is called Cahokia Mounds (the name Cahokia came from Native Americans who arrived here in the 1700s rather than the people who built it), and it boasts the rather rare honor of being a State Historic Site, a National Historic Landmark and a World Heritage Site, all richly deserved. Its most visible vestiges, 70 earthen mounds, still mark the place where the Mississippian culture created a teeming city of 20,000 that in the year 1150 was bigger than London.

The approach to the site from the west takes me past a decidedly unglamorous collection of gas stations and convenience stores, but there on the horizon looms Monks Mound, a 100-foot-high ceremonial mound whose base occupies 14 acres. Woodhenge, a large circle of wooden posts (more about it later), comes up quickly on the left.

Woodhenge at Cahokia Mounds (©D. Lancaster)

I drive past both structures and turn right on Ramey Street to the Interpretive Center, a handsome building containing an auditorium, a movie theater, a museum and a gift shop. In the lobby, there is a scale model of the entire site by a large window through which I can see Monks Mound and other features. Here I’m able to get a sense of the scale of ancient Cahokia, which extends west, north and south from the Interpretive Center and covers some six square miles. What people built this place? I am about to find out.
Scale model of the site in the Interpretive Center (©D. Lancaster)
I file into a theater with a handful of other visitors and watch a short film that deftly sketches the broad outlines of the people who lived here before Columbus landed at Hispaniola. Then we head into the museum space that features exhibits on the various aspects of the Mississippian culture surrounding a recreated village.
Entrance to the museum (©D. Lancaster)
The exhibits represent most of what we know about these folks: That their economy was based to a large degree on corn (funny how history repeats itself); that the stability of the food supply enabled them to build a network of permanent communities with Cahokia as its center; that although a number of different groups occupied the site from as early as A.D. 700, the Mississippian culture that built Cahokia made its greatest contribution from A.D. 1000-1300, during which it constructed all of the mounds that we see today along with stockades and at least five iterations of Woodhenge, the solar calendar that enabled the Mississippians to follow the seasons and determine ceremonial dates; that most of the mounds were built for ceremonial, not burial, purposes; that they traded with cultures all along the Mississippi and Missouri river valleys; that they very likely practiced human sacrifice; and that they were fond of tattoos (again, history repeats).
About tattoos (©D. Lancaster)
By nearly every measure, theirs could be called a true civilization, replete with social and cultural complexity, organized labor, diverse art forms, monumental public works, scientific knowledge and government.

Even more fascinating is what we don’t know about them. They left no written language or records, so we don’t know why, for example, four men were buried in Mound 72 without their heads or hands, or why the city mysteriously died out around A.D. 1400, when the last individuals of this once-great culture left the site, never to return. Cahokia, in fact, generates more questions than answers. As an active archeological site, it may yet yield its deepest secrets. Stay tuned.

But now it’s time to scale Monks Mound, named anachronistically (a habit here) for French Trappist Monks who farmed its slopes in the early 1800s. A flat-topped pyramid, Monks Mound is the largest pre-historic earthen structure in the Western Hemisphere and must surely have impressed visitors in the year 1200 even more than it does today. Archeologists have discovered the foundations of a massive ceremonial building on the highest terrace that measured 104 feet long and 48 feet wide and may have risen as high as 50 feet. I forget to count the steps to the summit, but if the average riser is seven inches and the mound is 100 feet tall ... well, you do the math.
Monks Mound (©D. Lancaster)
At the top, after catching my breath, I look to the west and see the Gateway Arch dominating the skyline at St. Louis much as Monks Mound dominates the skyline at Cahokia. I tune out the Arch, the gas stations, the Interpretive Center and the interstate highway that crowds Cahokia’s northern border. I am, fleetingly, in the year 1100, my body is covered in tattoos, and I grow corn for a living.
View from the top of Monks Mound (©D. Lancaster)