Prehistoric Civilization – Cahokia

Pyramids topped with gleaming temples, basketball courts and other play fields, elaborate beading and feathering, organized streets and plazas, even the homes of the wealthier elevated for a better view.

Sounds like a good introduction to a story about the Maya or Aztec. But it is not.

It is about the Native American metropolis known as Cahokia, located in the American Midwest.

The civilization involved may very well be as high as those found in Mexico and Central America, the main visual difference being that the people of Cahokia, living on the Mississippi flood plain, built with packed earth, timber and thatching, rather than with stone.

The main technological difference being that the civilizations to the south had developed a means of writing (glyphs) and are classed as “historic” civilizations, where the people of Cahokia had not, thus “prehistoric.”

For about 500 years, Cahokia was the major hub of a prehistoric civilization that, at its peak, spread from Minnesota to Florida and across the southeast.

The city covered about six square miles and had a population of up to 20,000. Houses were arranged in neat streets and around open plazas. Cahokia was a planned city with elaborate public buildings and elite residences at its core.

The people of Cahokia enjoyed “widespread commerce; stratified social, political, and religious organization; specialized and refined crafts; and monumental architecture.” – quote from Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site –

What finally happened to the Cahokians is unknown, but the decline seems to have been gradual. It began in the 1200s and the site had been abandoned by 1400 CE.

However, we can safely say that about 800 years ago when the population was at its peak, Cahokia was one of the largest urban centers in the world. A massive wooden wall enclosed the heart of the city. Within that wall were the most important structures and the most elite neighborhoods.

The most impressive buildings at Cahokia were the temples and homes of the rulers, the grandest being the 5000 square foot home of the great chief atop the city’s central pyramid, Monks Mound. This structure probably had a combined use both religious and private residence.

There is also speculation that this building atop the central earthen pyramid had its roof and walls covered with sheets of mica, at least at some point in its history. Because of the reflective nature of that mineral, and depending on the angle of the sun, this structure would have glittered over the city in colors ranging from mother-of-pearl to pure gold. Another name for Cahokia is “City of the Sun” and with the golden light of sunrise and sunset reflecting in a blaze of glory from the mica covered temple, it may have seemed that the sun himself truly dwelled the heart of the city.

Cahokia was governed by a four-tiered socio-political hierarchy. The highest power was the chief who was also thought to be the brother of the sun. Just under the chief were his immediate family and friends who formed the elite class. These in turn controled the heads of family clans, who in turn directed the commoners. Status, gender, age and kinship all determined the role of each person.

Cahokian agriculture produced squash, pumpkins, sunflowers and corn. They also gathered nuts and berries such as pecans, hickory nuts, and blackberries, fished and hunted.

The Cahokians developed several leisure activities including music, song, and dance, along with games of chance and skill. In their free time, they played guessing games with shells, gambled with dice, and youngsters entertained themselves by attempting to catch hollow bones on the tips of a pointed stick to which the hollow bones were tethered. The main sport at Cahokia was “chunkey,” in which two players threw javelins at a rolling, concave stone, trying to mark the place where it would come to a stop. It seems a type of basketball was also played.

Archaeologists classify Cahokian civilization as “Mississippian” Culture.

For additional information:

Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site – From National Park Service –

Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site – From

Cahokia – From Wikipedia –

Cahokia Mounds Photo Gallery – From Archaeoblog –

Metropolitan Life on the Mississippi – From Washington Post –


Image courtesy of Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site

Till next time


8 Responses to “Prehistoric Civilization – Cahokia”

  1. easterangel says:

    Eat your heart out Naismith? Did they use peach baskets as well?

  2. Omnivorous says:

    Rod —

    Charles Mann’s book “1491” is another excellent reference and highly readable for the non-professional. Mann describes the development in detail, hesitating to call it a city, and even goes on to speculate what physical factors led to the decline of Cahokia.

    Best regards,


  3. czh says:

    I’m fascinated by the pre-Columbian history of the Americas and I’m excited by the growing body of knowledge about the various civilizations that existed and disappeared and are just being rediscovered.

    I enjoyed Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel” and his discussions of the clash between American civilizations and their ultimate conquerors.

    This article about North American Prehistory gives an excellent overview of the various theories on the different peoples of North America.

  4. easterangel says:

    Digs do you have anything on the origins of the Philippines or even just its neighboring countries?

  5. digsalot says:

    Easter – sent you a message – maybe you can help me put something together.


  6. techtor says:

    This is interesting since Digsalot is focused on finding ancient history in home soil, whereas the public thinks only the Middle East, South America and India have the only significant civilizations… but I’ll not be surprised to know if there was a US before the US was actually founded (well, something to that effect).

  7. digsalot says:

    Hi Techtor – you stated: “but I’ll not be surprised to know if there was a US before the US was actually founded (well, something to that effect).”

    Well, there was.

    The Six Nations: Oldest Living Participatory Democracy on Earth –

    The Constitution of the Iroquois Nations: The Great Binding Law. Gayanashagow –

    And for those of you who are familiar with the poem about Hiawatha, he actually lived and became the spiritual leader of the Haudenosaunee.

    “Tadadaho” is the title for that position and is still used for the leagues spiritual leader. It means “The 50th Chief.”

    Today Hiawatha’s current successor in that position of spiritual leadership is Sid Hill of the Onondaga nation.

    “Hiawatha and the Iroquois Confederation” –

    “The cruelties of war, when war is a struggle for national existence, are common to all races. The persistent desire for peace, pursued for centuries in federal unions, and in alliances and treaties with other nations, has been manifested by few as steadily as by the countrymen of Hiawatha.” – quote from the above website.


  8. Web Owls » Blog Archive » The U.S. before the U.S. says:

    […] Techtor left a comment about the Cahokia post which I answered in that section. However, I think it deserves a wider audience. […]