Cahokia Becomes the First North American City Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

At its height between 1050 and 1150, Cahokia was the largest city in North America before the arrival of Europeans.

Summary of Event

The extensive village of Cahokia, whose remains lie 8 miles (13 kilometers) east of present-day East St. Louis, Missouri, was the largest and most influential settlement in precontact (pre-European) North America, boasting great earthen mounds, an “urban” population, sophisticated artwork, and an extensive trade network. It was one component in the large and long-lived mound-builder complex whose influence spread over what is now the eastern United States, and it developed from the artistic and conceptual legacy of the Northeastern Archaic and Woodlands periods that preceded it. When the center of power of the eastern half of the country moved south, beginning about 700, a new southern culture was created that is today called Mississippian Mississippian culture . The Mississippian peoples of the American Southeast carried mound building, the burial of the dead, and artistic creativity to new levels. Each of the major power centers, of which Cahokia was the greatest and the earliest, was a ceremonial hub for a large area of the surrounding countryside, including dozens of satellite communities and scores of smaller villages, whose inhabitants paid tribute to a ruling class. [kw]Cahokia Becomes the First North American City (8th-14th centuries) [kw]North American City, Cahokia Becomes the First (8th-14th centuries) [kw]City, Cahokia Becomes the First North American (8th-14th centuries) [kw]American City, Cahokia Becomes the First North (8th-14th centuries) Cahokia North America;8th-14th cent.: Cahokia Becomes the First North American City[0500] Cultural and intellectual history;8th-14th cent.: Cahokia Becomes the First North American City[0500] Environment;8th-14th cent.: Cahokia Becomes the First North American City[0500] Trade and commerce;8th-14th cent.: Cahokia Becomes the First North American City[0500] Architecture;8th-14th cent.: Cahokia Becomes the First North American City[0500]

Founded around 600, Cahokia grew during a four-hundred-year-period into a large settlement. The city, including its “suburban” populations, covered about 6.5 square miles (17 square kilometers). Population estimates at its zenith, c. 1050-1150, range from eight thousand to more than forty thousand people, although most estimates fall between ten thousand and twenty thousand.

The city was ideally situated at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers on a floodplain 80 miles (130 kilometers) long, known as the American Bottom. This location provided the population with fertile soil, extensive forests, and abundant fish and game. Settlements spread slowly and grew in size between 800 and 1000 and then expanded rapidly in the Mississippian period (1000-1400), as more intense farming, especially of corn, made rapid population growth possible.

Cahokia’s location was also optimal to transport and control the trade Trade;Cahokia goods that were moved along lakes and rivers, some possibly connected by canals. Historic accounts tell of 50-foot canoes carrying tons of goods. Merchants traded with cultures from the Gulf coast to the Great Lakes and from the Atlantic coast to Oklahoma, as Mississippian culture spread across that vast area. Goods were imported from many locations; copper came from the area around Lake Superior, mica from the southern Appalachian Mountains, shells from the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, and galena, ocher, hematite, chert, fluorite, quartz, and finely made ceramics from the lower Mississippi Valley. Salt and stone hoes were among the items exported.

Mississippian settlements are distinguished by mounds Mound building;Cahokia . Flat-topped examples are the most prominent, followed by conical mounds and rectangular ridge top mounds. Cahokia had about 120 earthen mounds, possibly more than six times as many as the next largest Mississippian settlement, that of Moundville in Alabama. Some with flat tops supported civic buildings and the residences of Cahokia’s elite. One provided the foundation for the charnel house, a funeral-processing center where the honored dead were prepared for burial. Some conical mounds accommodated burial places for the elite, as did ridge top mounds. One conical mound in the central area appears to have been the resting place of the aristocracy.

The preeminent structure at the site is Monks Mound Monks Mound[Monks Mound] , so called because early in the nineteenth century a group of Trappist monks were growing wheat and fruit trees on the tremendous earthen structure that stood at the center of the site. They planned to build a monastery, but disease and poverty forced them to leave in 1813. Monks Mound, which contains 6.6 million cubic meters (22 million cubic feet) of earth, is the largest structure in precontact North America and the largest precontact earthen structure in the New World. Situated at the northern edge of the 16-hectare (40-acre) Grand Plaza (the primary gathering and ceremonial area), it covers 5.6 hectares (14 acres) at the base and rises in four terraces to a height of 30.5 meters (100 feet). Excavations and core samples indicate that it was built in stages between 900 and 1200 and went through fourteen different building phases.

Some scholars believe that each new leader may have been responsible for an enlargement of the mound. At the summit there was a clay floor, posts 1 meter (3 feet) thick, and a wooden building 31.5 meters long and 14.5 meters wide (104 by 48 feet). If Cahokia resembled better-documented Southeast mound settlements, its leaders may have governed from this summit or lived here, or bones of the deceased may have been stored in a temple.

In the thirteenth century, a stockade consisting of about fifteen thousand logs the size of telephone poles was constructed enclosing a central area containing sixteen mounds including Monks Mound. Towers with raised platforms were created from which arrows could be shot, even though there is little evidence of invasion. This area of about 80 hectares (200 acres) was presumably a sacred precinct where the elite lived and were buried. In or near this central precinct, at least five circles of posts once stood, the largest 130 meters (427 feet) in diameter. Because of the resemblance to England’s Stonehenge, the circles of standing wooden posts became known as Woodhenge Woodhenge . The circles were almost certainly linked with posts placed along the horizon to mark solstice and equinox sunrises and sunsets and other important dates. The Grand Plaza, noted above, was predominant over six major plazas within village boundaries. As Cahokia’s plazas are aligned on the cardinal directions with Monks Mound at the crossing, some scholars think it is clear that Cahokia is a landscape cosmogram. Monks Mound itself is aligned with the position of the sun at the equinoxes.

Between 1200 and 1300, Cahokia began to decline. The village may have become exhausted through a shortage of physical resources because of an ever-growing population. Also, shifting climate patterns between 1150 and 1350 were not conducive to growing corn. There was a decrease in the number of houses and the amount of pottery. Some scholars feel that the growing pressures led to political failure and subsequent population abandonment. The village’s population declined to about four thousand individuals by 1400, and when French explorers reached the area around 1700, they found nothing but a few overgrown mounds.


The first archaeological excavations at Cahokia took place in the 1920’s under the direction of Warren K. Moorehead of the R. S. Peabody Museum in Andover, Massachusetts. Moorehead’s work put to rest nineteenth century imaginings that the mounds had been built by colonists from Europe or even by mysterious wanderers such as the lost tribes of Israel. Even though Hernando de Soto had described the construction of Southeastern mounds in 1539, it took until the early twentieth century for Moorehead to illustrate conclusively that these were packed earth mounds made by the hands and feet of American Indian men and women. In the 1940’s and 1950’, archaeologists from the University of Michigan, the Illinois State Museum, the Gilcrease Institute of Tulsa, and elsewhere conducted scattered excavations at the site. The most intensive work began in the 1950’s when Interstates 55 and 70 were routed though the site.

The 1967 to 1971 excavation of Mound 72, a ridge top mound just south of Monks Mound, yielded spectacular findings. The mound, originally three separate smaller mounds, contained about 280 burials dating to 1000-1050. Many of the practices paralleled those of the Natchez, a Mississippian people who survived into the contact period and who were described by late-seventeenth century Europeans. Some of the dead at Cahokia were clearly elite citizens, carried and buried in litters or wrapped in mats. Others seemed to have been hastily deposited. In one lavish burial, a man about forty years of age had been placed on a bird-shaped platform of nearly twenty thousand marine shell beads. Around him were other bodies, some reburied, perhaps servants to aid him in the next world, or relatives to accompany him. On top of six nearby burials were two caches of more than eight hundred newly made arrowheads, fifteen large concave ground-stone discs (chunky stones used in a ceremonial game), a roll of unprocessed mica, a three-foot-long roll of copper (possibly a ceremonial staff), and more marine-shell beads. Several mass burials, most of females between the age of 15 and 25, appear to have been sacrificial victims. Burial mounds (Cahokia)

Since the 1950’, much of the site, including more than forty mounds, has been destroyed. Land has been plowed for farms and bulldozed for subdivisions, minimalls, and highways. Sixty-eight of the mounds are preserved within the 890 hectare (2,200 acre) Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, managed by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. In 1982, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) named the Cahokia Mounds a World Heritage Site.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chappell, Sally A. Kitt. Cahokia: Mirror of the Cosmos. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002. A look at the geological, historical, and cultural history of Cahokia. Includes photographs, maps, prints, and drawings.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Emerson, Thomas E. Cahokia and the Archaeology of Power. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1997. A study of power relations at Cahokia and its surroundings.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">O’Connor, Mallory McCane. Lost Cities of the Ancient Southeast. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1995. An account of the Mississippian period with an informative chapter on Cahokian art.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pauketat, Timothy R., and Thomas E. Emerson, eds. Cahokia: Domination and Ideology in the Mississippian World. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000. Explores various aspects of Cahokian life and history, including religion, trade, social organization, and mound construction.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Young, Biloine Whiting, and Melvin L. Fowler. Cahokia: The Great Native American Metropolis. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000. A popular account of Cahokia, surveying more than two centuries of general questions and scientific investigation.

Categories: History