Cahokia: Unlocking the Mysteries

Artist's depiction of Cahokia at height of its power


Introduction for the Teacher

This 3-4 day lesson for elementary classrooms introduces students to the jobs of archaeologists and how they agree and disagree about the social, spiritual, political, and economic lives of those North American Indians who lived in Cahokia - a mound building people who lived about 1,000 years ago on both the eastern and western shores of the Mississippi around what we now call St. Louis.


Grade Level and Standards: The lesson is especially focused on elementary topics related to California standards for 1st through 6th grades (see Standards listed at the end of this guide). The contents can be easily adapted for middle and high school students.


Objectives: The student will be able to
    1. Understand how archaeologists examine and study the past.
    2. Understand how and why archeologists sometimes agree and disagree about what happened in the past.
    3. Examine the appearance, use, and age of an artifact and make interpretations about its use.
    4. Relate the above information and skills to the archaeological findings at and interpretations of Cahokia


Academic Language (words or phrases with which students should be familiar will be in bold the first time they appear in the text of the lesson): archaeology, artifact, interpretation, mound builders, egalitarian, Mississippian Culture


Day 1 Lesson Content - "You are the Archaeologist"


Introduction: Studying what happened long ago is the job of people who are trained to understand clues that ancient communities left behind. Today, we are going to begin learning about people who are trained to learn about old physical objects and to interpret what they mean - archaeologists.


Hook: The teacher will select six artifacts - one for each group of 4-5 students to observe. They must be unfamiliar and nondescript - something that the students will not be able to recognize or easily guess what it is. Place them in a box or paper sack, set it on a desk, and then proceed by asking

  • Have you ever found anything that you did not recognize or did not know where it came from?
    • There are people who are trained in school to learn about these old things - to ask questions about how old they are, who used them, and how they were used. They are called archaelogists. The things that they find are called artifacts - things that are created by humans usually for particular purpose.
    • Today we are going to be archaelogists and we are going to study artifacts.
  • Note for the teacher: If you want a more detailed analysis of what an archaeologist actually does, especially with Indian artifacts at Cahoka Mounds State Historical Park, go to the excellent site at


Lesson Content : Uncover the artifacts and let the students observe them for a few moments.

  • Divide the students into six groups of 4-5 and give each group an artifact and a "You are the Archaeologist - Examining an Artifact" work sheet. Give them 15 minutes to observe the artifact, touch it, discuss it as a group, and fill out the worksheet.
  • Collect the artifacts, redistribute them making sure that each group gets a new artifact, and provide a new worksheet. Then, have each group observe the new artifact, touch it, discuss it, and fill out the worksheet.
  • Bring the students into three larger groups - with the two groups that observed the same artifact working together with their worksheets and the artifact and discussing how their interpretations of what the artifact was and how it might have been used were similar and different. Have each group of 8-10 students elect a spokesperson to share what each group found and how their findings were similar an different.
  • Have each spokespersons from the three larger groups share their artifact, their conclusions about what it is and what it was used for, and how their findings were similar and different.
  • After each group has shared, explain that each group made an interpretation - they came to a conclusion about the artifact based upon a series of clues. It is clear that they came to different interpretations of the artifact. Ask them how and why that was possible.
  • Explain that there is no one right or wrong interpretation about an artifact - that the very same clues will lead different archaeologists to different conclusions. Then proceed by asking:
    • If different archaeologists often come up with different conclusions, what does that tell us about being students of archaeology? Be clear that it requires us to be inquisitive, to ask important questions about different interpretations, and to think about our own interpretations and what they mean.


Conclusions: It is easy to jump to conclusions about objects if we do not have adequate information. Even with some good information, people who are training to examine artifacts - archaeologists - will have different interpretations of objects and what they may have been used for. Tomorrow we are going to learn about the ancient North American Indian city of Cahoka and how archaeologists both agree and disagree about the what the artifacts the Cahokians left behind tell us about the city and its people. So, let's end with a quick video that should set the stage for our discussion tomorrow - (Note to Teacher: The video is about 1-1/2 minutes and shows a travel reporter talking to local people about Cahokia, as well as some rare and excellent videos of human remains found in Mound 72. It should be a great "brain teaser" to get the students interested in the next day's discussion.)


Day 2 Lesson Content - "Introduction to Cahokia"

Introduction: Yesterday we learned about the job of archaeologists and how they examine artifacts to tell us about people who lived in the past. We learned that archaeologists interpret clues from artifacts and in so doing, they do not always agree. Today, we are going to learn about Cahokia and what archaeologists have learned about this ancient city.


Hook: Today, the remains of the city of Cahokia which is over 1,000 years old are located at the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Park in Illinois. This 14-minute movie is an excellent introduction to that site - City of the Sun at (Note to the Teacher: another good video that is only 6 minutes is Cahokia: City of the Sun at Have the following four questions written on the board and ask the students to be thinking about how they might answer each while watching the film. (These questions can be used for either video).
  • Had you ever heard about Mississippian mound building societies before watching this film? What did you learn about these societies? (they spanned over 1,000 miles around the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers; Cahokia was at the center of all). (This map of mound building sites is available at

map of mound building sites along the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers

  • What did you learn about Cahokia? (a pattern of mounds of many different sizes, dominated by the huge Monk's Mound at the center of the city; the largest archaeological site north of Mexico; the valley in which it was built was rich in many ways; vast mounds; much power; stockade walls protected the central area; a unique sun calendar existed; it had all the problems of urban life, including overpopulation
  • What did you learn about the people of Cahokia? (people had a vision of the city they built; they were largely farmers and had a steady food supply large enough to feed a population of 20,000; it was a permanent home - they were not hunters and gatherers; those who didn't farm provided a series of services and many were traders with other Indian civilizations; the leader was absolute and established the balance between spirits of the upper and lower world; living was a challenge for the people)
  • What clues did the Cahokians leave to help archaeologists understand their world? (pottery, symbols, parts of stockades, parts of the sun calendar, mounds, burials)
  • What mysteries remain? (why the city was built, why the city declined)
  • What do you think archaeologists will agree upon about Cahokia? About what might they disagree? (get the students to brainstorm some possible ideas, especially those related to the two mysteries - why the city was built and why the city declined.)


Lesson Content

  • Let's learn a bit more detail the rise and fall Cahokia - details about which almost all archaeologists agree.. The timeline from the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site provides a good beginning. (Consider using the excellent Timeline at
    • Over 1200 years ago - around 800, a Mississippian culture arose at Cahokia.
    • By 900, corn had become a major food crop allowing about 1,000 Cahokians to live in small farming villages.
    • By 1050, some type of population explosion occurred as people moved to Cahokia from smaller villages and a complex system of leadership developed. This is an artist's understanding of what it looked like based upon archaeological evidence. (Source:'s rendition of Cahokia at its height of power - 1050
    • Between 1100-1200 was the "golden age" of Cahokia when maybe 20,000 people lived there and Cahokia was larger than London. (There was no larger North American city until 1800 when Philadelphia’s population reached 30,000. It was twice as densely populated - about 4,000 persons per square mile) as current day Los Angeles County (2,200 per square mile.)
    • Beginning in 1200, Cahokia's population declined, but it continued to be a major ceremonial center.
    • By the late 1300s, Cahokia was abandoned.
    • By 1400, people of the Oneota culture from the north began to establish small villages at the Cahokia site.
    • By 1600, Indians of the Illinois Confederacy moved into the area.
    • In 1699, the French settled near Cahokia For almost 200 years, various Euro-Americans occupied the area around the site.
    • In 1831, Amos Hill purchased Monks Mound and built a farmhouse and several outbuildings on the mound’s terrace.
    • By the 1860s, the National Road (later U.S. 40) had been built through the site and railroad lines crossed through it.
    • Between 1921-27, the first archeological excavations began when about 20 mounds were dug up, without scientific investigation or notes. Little evidence remains from those efforts.
    • Since the 1960s, archeologists have begun to vigorously investigate the remaining mounds at Cahokia, but by the 21st Century, had dug into fewer than two dozen. Their findings, which we will see, show different interpretations of how people lived in Cahokia and why they might have left
  • There are some other things about Cahokia about which archaeologists agree:

    Selected photographs and images of Cahokia

    • People lived inside the Central Plaza of the city as well as outside the Central Plaza. These are some images of both the archaeological evidence and what an artist believes Cahokia looked like based upon archaeological evidence. (Photo sources at
    • Within the entire city, over 120 mounds existed, but the locations of only 109 have been recorded. Many were altered or destroyed by modern farming; about 69 are preserved in the historic site boundaries.modern photograph of Monk's Mound in Cahokia
    • The city center was Monk’s Mound. Covering 14 acres at the base (covering more ground the largest Egyptian pyramid), Monk's Mound rises in terraces 10 stories high to a height of 100 feet. It is the largest prehistoric earthen structure in the “New World.” To build it, inhabitants hauled basket after basket of dirt on their backs, each weighing about 60 pounds. It is estimated that some 15 million trips were required to excavate, carry, and deposit the 22 million cubic feet of earth needed to build it.



Conclusions: Today we had a good introduction to Cahokia - what is probably looked like and how it was built, what its people did for a living, and its influence throughout the Mississippi River Valley. Tomorrow, we will examine some of the archaeological evidence that lead to these beliefs, as well as how modern archaeologists have used both old and new artifacts to stimulate a debate about Cahokia


Day 3 Lesson Content - "Archaeological Mysteries and Debates about Cahokia"


Introduction: For the past two days, we have learned about what archaeologists do, what they have done in Cahokia to help us interpret how the city was built and how people lived. Today, we are going to dig deeper into the archaeological evidence to get a better understanding of how and why today's archaeological community is divided about Cahokia


Hook: Show the photo of Powell's Mound being mined for soil in 1931 but do not tell the students what it is, where it is, or what is happening. Photo is available at of Powell Mound at Cahokia being excavated for soil in 1931


Discussion questions:

  1. What do you think is happening in this photo?
  2. Are there any clues in this photo about the time period?
  3. How and why do you think this photo is related to our discussion of the mound builders at Cahokia?

Explanation: Powell Mound was partially destroyed in 1930 and 1931 when all but 5 feet of its base was removed so the owners could farm their whole tract of about 50 acres. Information from this mound was almost completely lost because there was no funding to explore the mound nor was there any public interest in learning about them. For several years the Powell brothers who owned the farm had a standing offer of $3,000 and 3 years time open to any institution that cared to study the mound. Illinois offered to buy the mound with a 50 foot margin around the base and a road leading to the main highway but the Powell's turned it down because it would have taken a mushroom-shaped piece out of one end of their tract of land. They offered to sell their whole farm, but this did not appeal to the state. Subsequently, the mound was taken down.


Fortunately, some of the mounds still exist and it is the story of what they hold that we want to discuss today - as well as the disagreements about the various ways the story is interpreted.


Lesson Plan

  • As American settlers moved west in the early 1800s, rumors of large mounds in the Mississippi River region began to filter back to the east coast. Most people knew that these ancient earthen mounds were being destroyed, but few suspected they had been built by American Indians. It was not until 1813 that someone actually wrote about these mounds. So, let's look at a timeline of how the mounds came to the attention of the American public and how and when they began to be explored by archaeologists. (Note to teacher: This timeline is designed to help you understand the evolution of archaeological interest in Cahokia You will need to revise it accordingly for the grade that you teach.)
  • So, as we look through the timeline of archaeological explorations, we can see that at least four interpretations of how Cahokia was built and the role it played in the Mississippian culture:
    1. Cahokia was a small center where rituals occurred and few inhabitants lived for brief periods of time in temporary housing. It was not a major city and did not have much influence over other people living in the Mississippi River Valley. This belief prevailed among most archaeologists until the early 1960s.
    2. Cahokia was a planned city which became the powerful center of a large civilization. It was not a small center created by people who did not want power concentrated in the hands of elites. This belief became more popular after 1964.
    3. Cahokia's residents experienced social and political inequality, as well as witnessed pre-meditated violence and human sacrifice carried out by powerful leaders. Residents were not egalitarian, peaceful, and ecologically sensitive people. This belief became more popular after 1967.
    4. Cahokia experienced a "big bang" around 1050 when leaders designed and built a new city directly over the spaces, houses, and traditions of the old village and then established governmental, ritual, and spiritual controls over people throughout the Mississippi River Valley. This belief gained some popularity in the late 20th and early 21st Centuries.
  • So, now we have discussed the issues that archaeologists agree upon in regard to their findings at Cahokia, as well as at least one of their major disagreements. Discussion:
    • If you look at all four interpretations, what are the main areas of disagreement? (Possible answers include: If Cahokia was a major, planned city of great power throughout the Mississippi River Valley, or a large city in that had little control outside the St. Louis region. Whether or not there was a "big bang" in which the new city of Cahokia was planned and sustained by powerful leaders.)

Conclusions: At this point, you have two choices:

    1. End the lesson by leading the students in a discussion about which interpretation - or combination of interpretations - they most support and why, and then concluding with a reminder that there is no one right or wrong interpretation about what happened and who lived at Cahokia and that more interpretations will arise as more archaeological evidence and artifacts are discovered. Have the students write a 5-minute journal entry at the end of class to defend one of the interpretations or to create their own.
    2. Extend the lesson into a fourth day in which they will work in the computer lab and complete an interpretive worksheet.


Optional Day 4 Lesson Content - "Making Your Own Interpretation"


Introduction: For the past three days, we have learned about what archaeologists do and how they have examined the evidence and artifacts at Cahokia Over the past 50 years, archaeologists have come up with different interpretations of how and why Cahokia grew into a city and the type of city it became. Yesterday, we examined four different interpretations. Today, we are going to look at more evidence about Cahokia using the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Park website and then support one of these interpretations or come up with one of our own.


Hook: Show the 1-1/2 minute video at It shows a travel reporter talking to local people about Cahokia, as well as some rare and excellent videos of human remains found in Mound 72. It should be a great "brain teaser" to get the students interested in their own interpretation. After watching this, remind them to keep the archaeological evidence in mind as they complete their worksheets in the computer lab.


Lesson Plan


  • After collecting all the worksheets, go over them to see which interpretations were selected most often and which were less popular among the students. See how their evidence compares and contrasts. Create an overhead showing the above information, bring it to class the next day, and share the results with the students.
  • Do the same with the information on how students thought ordinary Cahokians lived. Again, show the similarities and dissimilarities. Finally, explain that they all came up with some similar and dissimilar explanations for their various interpretations and this is exactly what archaeologists do - they discuss among themselves their findings and how they are similar and dissimilar. It is up to us to think about their findings and come up with our own conclusions and interpretations.


Selected Bibliography

Brackenridge, Henry Marie. Views of Louisiana (originally published in 1814). Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1962.


Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site at


Pauketat, Timothy R. Cahokia: Ancient America's Great City on the Mississippi. (NY: Viking, 2009)


Pauketat, Timothy R. and Thomas E. Emerson (eds.) Cahokia: Domination and Ideology in the Mississippian World. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997)


University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee's Archaeological Research Laboratory at



California Social Science Standards addressed in this lesson


First Grade
  • 1.2.4 Describe how location, weather, and physical environment affect the way people live, including the effects on their food, clothing, shelter, transportation, and recreation.
  • 1.4.3 Recognize similarities and differences of earlier generations in such areas as work (inside and outside the home), dress, manners, stories, games, and festivals, drawing from biographies, oral histories, and folklore.
  • 1.5.2 Understand the ways in which American Indians and immigrants have helped define Californian and American culture
Second Grade
  • 2.4.1 Describe food production and consumption long ago and today, including the roles of farmers, processors, distributors, weather, and land and water resources.
Third Grade
  • 3.2.1 Describe national identities, religious beliefs, customs, and various folklore traditions.
  • 3.2.2 Discuss the ways in which physical geography, including climate, influenced how the local Indian nations adapted to their natural environment (e.g., how they obtained food, clothing, tools).
Fifth Grade
  • 5.1 Students describe the major pre-Columbian settlements, including the cliff dwellers and pueblo people of the desert Southwest, the American Indians of the Pacific Northwest, the nomadic nations of the Great Plains, and the woodland peoples east of the Mississippi River.
  • 5.1.1 Describe how geography and climate influenced the way various nations lived and adjusted to the natural environment, including locations of villages, the distinct structures that they built, and how they obtained food, clothing, tools, and utensils.
  • 5.1.2 Describe their varied customs and folklore traditions.
  • 5.1.3 Explain their varied economies and systems of government.
Sixth Grade
  • 6.1.2 Identify the locations of human communities that populated the major regions of the world and describe how humans adapted to a variety of environments.