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The Mystery of Cahokia Mounds

A visit to Cahokia Mounds is an excellent family trip that combines learning with a little exercise.

Before Europeans even dreamed of sailing across the Atlantic to the New World, a civilization of Native Americans dubbed the “Mississippians” lived in Illinois from around 700 A.D. to 1,400 A.D. We don’t know what they called themselves or their city of 20,000 souls, but the gigantic mounds of earth they left behind means they won’t be forgotten.

The remnants of this ancient civilization is called Cahokia Mounds, named after a tribe of the Illiniwek who settled in the area long after the original mound builders vanished. It’s located in Collinsville, IL, about 30 miles from St. Louis County.

Cahokia Mounds is both an Illinois State Historic Site and a United Nations World Heritage Site. Admission is free, but a donation of $4 per adult and $2 per child is requested.

Cahokia Mounds today is a museum and 2,200 acres of parkland where 68 of the manmade mounds have been preserved. Some of the smaller mounds have been lost and others are now located on private property. It’s believed that the Mississippians built as many as 120 mounds in a six-mile area around Cahokia Mounds. All but one of the park’s mounds are off-limits to climbing, but a hiking trail through the park will get you close.

The mounds are a bit like dirt pyramids and many served the same purposed: as grand resting places for the dead. Others were used to elevate houses and might have served as places of worship.

The biggest mound is named Monk’s Mound after a group of 19th-century monks who planted a garden here and lived nearby. It's the only mound you can climb and a modern staircase has been installed in the southern slope to get you to the top. Be warned, Monk’s Mound is 100 feet tall. On top of Monk's Mound, you can see the St. Louis skyline, which is about 7 miles away. The mound is not handicapped accessible, but the trail from the parking lot to the stairs is paved.

The most amazing thing about these mounds is that they were built entirely by hand, using only digging sticks and baskets. Archeologists believe it took 15 million baskets to make Monk’s Mound over a 300-year period.

Because the Mississippians didn’t have written language, we can only guess about life in Cahokia Mounds from the clues they left behind. Archeologists have been fascinated with the mounds since the 1920s and what they have discovered is in the museum for you to ponder. The museum does a very good job showing what life might have been like for the Mississippians, with a life size village, a selection of tools, interactive displays, videos and plenty of really cool dioramas.

The museum has a gift shop filled with “Indian” themed trinkets. The museum has a well-stocked vending machine and picnics are allowed in a designated picnic area.

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