Cahokia Mounds: An Unexpected Dose of History

Few things are appealing about a 10-hour drive in the middle of February. The gray and brown landscape along the highway isn’t exactly scenic. Fortunately for me, this particular drive was broken up by a stop to a major historical site that I may never have visited if it weren’t for this trip. I had casually mentioned the trip from Ohio to Kansas that I was planning, and an acquaintance told me to stop by Cahokia Mounds on the way. While researching this option, I was surprised to discover that this site in southern Illinois was once home to the most extensive and advanced pre-Columbian settlement in the modern United States. Yet, somehow, I have no recollection of ever studying it or even hearing of it.

Importance

The historical significance of the Cahokia Mounds is so great that it has even earned the revered designation of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, making it one of only 23 such sites in the United States. It’s listed alongside much more popular destinations, like Independence Hall and the Statue of Liberty. Other important sites, such as Ellis Island and the Alamo, didn’t even make that cut! So what makes Cahokia Mounds so special?

– Its size and age: The settlement at Cahokia is estimated to have contained 10,000-20,000 inhabitants. For some perspective, that’s double the size of Aspen, CO, and just a little bit smaller than Key West, FL. The settlement stretched for over 6 square miles. The civilization’s height was around 1,000 years ago, making its scope that much more impressive.

– Its advancement: Of course, even maintaining order in a settlement of its size shows a certain level of advancement. However, other indications of the progress of the settlement exist as well. One noteworthy instance is a calendar system created by a series of wooden posts, now known as Woodhenge. A recreation of this setup can be seen today at the site.

Mounds and Trails

The main historic attraction at Cahokia is the mounds. Monk’s mound, at 92 feet tall, seems to be as prominent in the park as it was in the Cahokia community nearly 1,000 years ago. While Monk’s Mound is impressive from the surrounding ground, be sure to take the stairs to the top to see the St. Louis skyline.

Numerous smaller mounds fill the park as well. My only regret about my visit is that I explored the park during the winter. The February cold and wind made the trek a little less enjoyable and kept me from further exploring the trails and other mounds in the park. It also made the surroundings rather bleak.

Museum

The interpretive center far exceeded my expectations. As soon as I went in, I was welcomed by a friendly volunteer who let me know the next film would be beginning soon. I made my way to a large theater and learned a lot from the brief documentary about life at Cahokia. The other exhibits also rivaled those of some of the bigger museums I’ve visited. They talked about daily life in the past, the surrounding environment, and the excavation that unveiled much of what is known now about Cahokia. An extensive display even lets you walk through a life-size model that portrays a typical day in the settlement.

Planning Your Visit

The experience leaves me wondering what other significant historical sites I’ve neglected to discover so far and makes me want to share this location with others. If you choose to visit Cahokia, you can combine it with a trip to St. Louis or make it a stop along another trip, as it’s not too far south of I-70. Cahokia Mounds’ website at http://cahokiamounds.org/ provides museum hours, a trail map, and other information that will be helpful in planning your visit. More information about the history can also be found on UNESCO’s website at http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/198.

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