Ancient Cahokia and the Mississippian Culture


Curriculum: Native American history of Illinois

Lesson Objectives:
(1) To understand the emergence of Cahokia and its cultural  influence across major portions of the Midwest and southeastern U.S.
(2) To consider the emergence of major urban centers, the factors that often contribute to rapid population expansion, and other examples of these types of sites across the world, both today and in the past.
(3) To analyze the social processes that coalesced in rapid population expansion and the emergence of major human centers or cities.
(4) To evaluate the ways that the built landscape affects our lives as humans and how material remains, objects and spaces influence the ways we think, feel and act.
(5) To engage in civic participation to call for the establishment of Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site as a National Park Service unit in light of its extraordinary significance to the cultural heritage of the nation.


1. Before Cahokia
Archaeological evidence reveals that between AD 700-1000, which is prior to the emergence of Cahokia as an important site, the American Bottom was sparsely populated. The people who lived there are called “Late Woodland” by archaeologists. The term is a chronological and cultural marker and can simply be used as such by students.

 2. Emergence of Cahokia
Cahokia was the largest pre-historic American Indian site on the American continent north of Mexico. At its peak, between approximately AD 1050-1150, Cahokia was composed of three neighboring precincts on either side of the Mississippi River: the Cahokia core and the East St. Louis precinct were located on the east side of the river (Illinois) while the St. Louis precinct was located on the west side of the river (Missouri).

These precincts covered approximately 6 square miles. The three precincts were all major mound centers meaning they had civic-ceremonial structures in the form of earthen mounds. Greater Cahokia (combining the three centers) was comprised over over 200 earthen mounds. Some of these were immense, such as Monk’s Mound at the principal Cahokia site. And there were hundreds of houses around these mounds. Perhaps 15,000 – 20,000 people resided in Greater Cahokia. Another 30,000-40,000 people lived in the surrounding rural countryside.

If one thinks about Europe at the time of Cahokia’s peak occupation, it is notable that Cahokia was larger than Paris and London. Indeed, there was not another city of Cahokia’s size in what is now the United States until the city of Philadelphia in the 19th century.

3. Cahokia was the capital of a great “Mississippian” civilization
Cahokia was a dynamic urban center with large-scale cultural influence. That influence is called by term “Mississippian.” Archaeologists use “Mississippian” to refer to people who were part of a cultural tradition whose maximal expression occurred at Cahokia and that was widespread across major portions of the Mississippi river valley, the Southeastern U.S. and beyond toward the Gulf Coast and as far north/northwest as Wisconsin and South Dakota. Cahokia had religious, political and cultural exchanges over this vast area. These exchanges spread the influence of Mississippian culture from Cahokia.

4. What purpose did the earthen mounds serve?
The earthen mounds were used for burials and the largest ones, such as Monks Mound, were also stages for great religious ceremonies with temples on their platforms and houses of the chiefs. One of Cahokia’s greatest influences was religious. Cahokia was built and organized around particular cosmological worldviews. The city’s built landscape, including major mounds, a causeway, and woodhenge, all enacted a cosmology based on celestial alignments, sacred materials, and burial practices.

5. How do we know about Cahokia?
Because Native Americans did not write and because Cahokia had been abandoned and its inhabitants had dispersed centuries before the first Europeans arrived in the region, knowledge about Mississippian culture comes primarily from archaeological investigations rather than written documents. Through excavations and by analyzing and comparing aspects of the material culture from this area, archaeologists have been able to reconstruct ancient Cahokia society. They understand pottery styles, house construction styles and earthen mound types and they have been able to date material culture by changes in style (giving a relative date of what is earlier or later than something else) as well as by radiocarbon dating (which gives a real or absolute date). Together, these data sets have enabled archaeologists to understand the emergence and evolution of Cahokia society over time.

6. Ecological setting
The Cahokia heartland is known as the American Bottom. This is the tremendously fertile region of the Mississippi floodplain between today’s Alton and Chester in Illinois (a length of about eighty miles). The floodplain can be nearly eleven miles wide. Cahokia is located near the confluence of the Missouri, Mississippi and Illinois Rivers. 

7. How did Cahokia became Cahokia?
Late Woodland society changed dramatically around AD 1000 when maize (corn) became an important agricultural food staple and was produced more intensively. Population rapidly expanded. Indeed, people moved into Cahokia. And Cahokia, which had been an ordinary Late Woodland settlement, grew enormously in size and complexity. Around AD 1050 large earthen mounds were constructed and new forms of pottery styles, new kinds of stone tools, new architectural elements, and neighborhood planning appeared. This rapid process of growth in size and complexity at Cahokia is called “the big bang”.

8. What was life like in Cahokia?
The built landscape of Cahokia demonstrates that social hierarchies existed amongst its population. Important differences in social status can been seen in material constructions such as the palisade wall and the greater degree of elaboration in some burials relative to other burials. For instance, the palisade wall was constructed around the central core of Cahokia toward the latter period of occupation at the site. Archaeologists think that this palisade wall stood as an imposing physical symbol of difference between Cahokia elites and Cahokia commoners, or between insiders and outsiders (since archaeologists know that non-Cahokia people also lived at the site). Excavated burials show analogous status differences. Thus, Mound 72 at Cahokia had at least five mass burials of 20-50 individuals who were organized around the elite individuals amongst these burials. How did archaeologists recognize high status? It’s because of the presence of rare objects (and thus status objects) such marine shell disc beads, stone projectile points and chunky stones as well as evidence of a diet containing deer protein.

9. The decline of Cahokia
After approximately AD 1200 Cahokia began to decline for reasons that are still not understood. Cahokia was abandoned around AD 1350. Groups of Mississippian people moved to other areas where they persisted through the time of European colonization. Importantly, the descendants of the Cahokia-influenced people living in the southeast United States were observed by early Europeans and their written observations provide some insight into what the ancestors might have done in the earlier Mississippian times.

10. Descendants of the Cahokia people(s)
Native American people who ultimately are descended from those who lived at ancient Cahokia are found in various states. Today they belong to tribes such as the Chickasaw and Osage. The living Native Americans continue to practice some of the ancestors’ cultural traditions. Indeed, some come to Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site to hold pow-wows.

Q1. Cahokia is America’s first and largest ancient city in the vast region north of Mexico. Researchers suggest this urbanization emerged rather quickly around AD 1050. What factors do you think lead to population explosion and rapid expansion of nucleated settlements, today or in the past? What do you think a city even is?
Q2. As with cities today across the globe, researchers now believe that around one-third of the residents of Cahokia’s center were actually “immigrants,” or people of non-local origin who later lived there as adults. What sorts of changes might occur at a site like Cahokia as a result of the blending of families of diverse cultural practices and traditions? How might archaeologists identify these cultural exchanges?
Q3. Despite the significance of Cahokia and Mississippian cultural traditions historically, the site is relatively unknown nationally, even across the Midwest. Why do you think this is? How does such a large site become “lost” over time?Q4. The past is relevant to the present. Can you think of other cities that today have significant immigrant populations and how have these immigrants influenced their cities?
Q5. Reflect on the importance of cultural heritage sites and their preservation for future generations.  

VIDEO RESOURCES FOR IN-CLASS VIEWING   (produced by Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site)  (produced by Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site)   (produced by Smithsonian)  (Illinois Adventure #1308)

Let’s get involved! Taking charge of the cultural heritage sites that are so important to our collective heritage often means taking action in civic responsibility. In this exercise we will reflect on the importance of Cahokia and Mississippian culture to American Indian heritage, to the history of this country, and our collective heritage as United States residents. THEREFORE: Students will rite a letter of support to the chairs of the respective committees in the House of Representatives and Senate describing your support of bills HR3824 and S2340
to establish Cahokia Mounds Mississippian Culture National Historic Park under the National Park Service. Heartlands Conservancy has a letter template that can be reviewed here: In your own letter, describe the significance of the site of Cahokia Mounds based on the in-class presented materials and think about the value in preserving it as a National Historic Site of the National Park Service. CONSIDER:
* Why is the site significant historically, culturally?
* Why is the site significant to you as a resident of Illinois?
* How can National Park status elevate and celebrate the site and American Indian cultural traditions for generations to come?