Why visit Cahokia Mounds – a UNESCO World Heritage Site near St. Louis

Just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis Missouri is Cahokia Mounds, a state historic site and a UNESCO World Heritage site.

I’ve lived and traveled in this area much of my life, but just recently made time to visit. It is so fascinating! Here’s what we discovered at Cahokia Mounds.

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Why Visit Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site

Just a 15 minute drive from downtown St. Louis, Cahokia Mounds is a world unto itself. Long before there was St. Louis, there was Cahokia. In the years 900 – 1200, an estimated 10,000 – 20,000 people lived in Cahokia. At one point, the community covered 4,000 acres and had 120 mounds.

Today, the state of Illinois protects 2,200 acres and 70 mounds. It is the largest prehistoric Indian site in the U.S. and Canada.

smaller mounds at Cahokia Mounds historic site in Illinois
Photo by Bruce N. Meyer

What Are Mound Builders?

So what’s the deal with the mounds? This time and place of human development is known as the Mississippian era. This is when society began to become more complex with different roles and responsibilities for individuals. The Mississippian people built mounds to elevate the homes or living spaces of their leaders. Mounds were also used for religious ceremonies and for burial of significant members of society.

As you walk around through the parklike setting and look at the massive size of these mounds, remember that in the place in time, there weren’t horses and buggies. Certainly there weren’t bulldozers and heavy earthmoving equipment. That means that every ounce of dirt was carried from far away on the backs of human beings, one bucket or basketful at a time. Nearby, you can see the indentations of what is called “borrow pits,” places where the soil was dug.

I’m kind of intrigued with Mound 72. Archeologists discovered the remains of nearly 300 women, topped by layers of shells and beads. Next came the body of a man estimated to be 45 years old. What’s that about?

But the biggest of the mound is Monk’s Mound, and it’s a whopper.

Monks Mound at Cahokia Mounds Historic Site in Illinois
Photo by Bruce N. Meyer

Climbing Monks Mound at Cahokia Mounds Historic Site

It was a hot, steamy summer day with Midwestern humidity at its max the day we visited Cahokia Mounds. As we stood at the base of Monks Mound looking up, contemplating the 180 steps, a young man zoomed passed us and began running up the stairs. We were about half way up when we met him coming back down. He did this 15 times while we watched, later explaining that he was a soccer player from SIU-Edwardsville. Running the steps of Monks Mound a couple of times a week is part of his training routine. Whooof. He made me feel old.

But Monks Mound is pretty cool when you think about it. It is the largest prehistoric earthen construction in the Americas. The base covers 14 acres and it took an estimated 300 years to haul all of the dirt to build this thing. European settlers in the early 1800s gave it the name Monks Mound because Trappist monks farmed around the area.

Monks Mound was the center of Cahokia Mounds and life in this compact city. Spreading before it to the west was a grand plaza that excavation and other research indicates was used for ceremonies and community gatherings. Today, from the top of Monks Mound, you can easily see downtown St. Louis and the Arch.

Learning at the Cahokia Mounds Visitors Center

As a travel writer, I’m a skeptic of and try to avoid using the term “world class.” But the Cahokia Mounds Visitors Center and Museum is world class. It’s as well done as any national park or major museum in the U.S.

While showcasing the basics of life in Cahokia more than 1,000 years ago, the museum also helps us understand the sophistication of the culture. There was evidence of urban planning and educational systems and structured healthcare, among other advancements. Extensive exhibits showcase pottery making and agriculture and basket making. There are some incredible collections of grinding stones, arrowheads and other tools that local farmers and landowners had collected over the years and donated to the museum.

And then there is a nice exhibit about the archeology students and instructors from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale who excavated and documented this site in the 1960s. Until this time, farmers in the area were simply working the ground around the mounds like any other piece of farmland. It was not until a large retail development was planned in the area was a concentrated effort made to preserve Cahokia Mounds.

What the museum does not do is tell us what happened to the residents of Cahokia. There are some theories, of course. The one most people agree with is that, in supporting such a large population, the land was over-farmed. The people of Cahokia relied heavily on corn in their diet. Planting corn over and over again, year after year, simply depleted the soil’s productivity, and the population had to move on elsewhere.

At one point, there was a nice cafe in the visitors center, but it has closed. However, there is a lovely picnic area, so plan accordingly. You’ll want to spend several hours here, especially if you want to walk to and explore the path around the mounds. There aren’t a lot of other great places nearby that I would recommend for a meal. And, of course, the gift shop is of high quality Native American arts and material.

Where to find more Mound Builders like Cahokia

There are six other Mississippian mound sites across the U.S., specifically Evansville Indiana, Lake Mills Wisconsin, Moundville Alabama, Brookport Illinois, Cartersville Georgia and Spiro Oklahoma.