Cahokia Mounds State Historical Site in Illinois is the site of the largest prehistoric Native American city north of Mexico. The city covered six square miles of settlement and may have been inhabited by as many as 20,000 people sometime between 800 and 1400. The site includes Monks Mound, the largest earthwork in North America, rising 100 feet and consisting of four terraces that covered 14 acres and contained an estimated 22 million cubic feet of earth. Atop the great mound stood a ceremonial building 100 feet long and 50 feet high. Named for the Trappist monks who grew vegetables on the site circa 1809, it was later discovered that the mound served a forgotten people as both a temple and a palace.
It has been determined that the city was the principal ceremonial center of a vanished culture known as the Mississippian who occupied the area from around 1050 to 1250. At its peak around 1150, the city supported a population of as many as 20,000 people.
Many scholars believe that the customs of the Natchez people who inhabited the lower Mississippi Valley when French explorers encountered the tribe in the latter part of the seventeenth century may offer some insight into their ancestors. Unlike the other Native American tribes, the Natchez had distinct social classes who were governed by a ruler-priest known as the Great Sun, who was regarded as the representative of the Sun on Earth and was treated with godlike reverence by the members of his tribe. The Great Sun wore a headdress-crown of white swan feathers and was born aloft on a litter by devotees so his feet would not be defiled by contact with the earth. The Natchez, and it is supposed their vanished Mississippian predecessors, had elaborate funeral ceremonies which involved certain sacrifices. When Mound 72 was excavated, the burial pits of nearly 300 people were discovered, including what may have been as many as 53 young women who were sacrificed to honor the death of a great ruler-priest.
In 1961, Dr. Warren Wittry unearthed the remains of a circle of red cedar posts that may have been used as a solar calendar to note coming seasons and to help determine when to plant and when to harvest crops. The discovery was dubbed "Woodhenge," in recognition to its similarity to the circular arrangement known as Stonehenge in Great Britain.
Harpur, James. The Atlas of Sacred Places. Old Saybrook, Conn.: Konecky & Konecky, 1994.
Thomas, David Hurst. Exploring Ancient Native America. New York: Macmillan, 1994.