The National Park Service calls Monks Mound, built around 900 CE, the “largest indigenous structure north of Mexico.” The mound’s base was 291 by 236 meters (954.7 by 774.3 feet). This means the base is larger than the Great Pyramid of Khufu in Egypt. But unlike its minimalist, smooth-sided Egyptian relative, it had four terraces as it climbed toward the sky. Monks Mound was an organic earthen mound, unlike their stone-built Egyptian cousins. Each tier was slightly smaller than the one beneath it. It was the original Community Center; it was a foundational platform for public buildings, burial mounds. Some of the terraces had gardens. Despite the name, there were no monks living on the mound in Cahokia’s heyday. The name refers to the Trappist monks who lived near it in the 1800s. Remarkably, Monks Mound was the tallest man-made structure in the United States until 1867.
Scotland has Stonehenge, Cahokia has Woodhenge. Woodhenge was, historically, an observatory for watching the sun, moon, and star cycles, built on land once used for houses in the early Emergent Mississippian era. There were five observatories at Cahokia. Wood posts, made of sacred red cedar reached toward the sky. The resulting shadows provided scientific data the people needed for their studies and to properly time religious ceremonies and agricultural cycles. The five observatories were probably built at different times because each Woodhenge had a larger diameter and twelve more posts than the one it overlapped. Woodhenge 1 had twenty-four posts. The last Woodhenge, Woodhenge 5 had 72 posts. Archaeologists believe Woodhenge 1 was built in 900 CE, was in use for much of Cahokia’s history, then just stopped being used around 1100 CE. Woodhenge likely returned to its original residential use, based on archaeology at the site.
Nobody knows why Cahokia was abandoned in the mid to late 1300s, but historians think it might be a combination of things like disease, warfare, conflict, trouble with the watershed and depleted wood resources. Faith in leadership plummeted. There would have been fights over the (increasingly scarce) good land, and warfare between communities. Cahokia built wooden palisades for protection against these new threats. The city’s’ population moved on, joining other Native American communities and evolved into groups like the Osage, leaving the bustling urban center a mere memory. Seventy mounds remain out of the known original 120, but the most formidable by far was Monks Mound. The city wasn’t suddenly, catastrophically abandoned. That is pretty rare in city evolution. Historians believe it followed a pattern of urban decline, where little things, and time, reduce a city’s purpose and usefulness.
Native American Architecture is a Modern Inspiration
What makes Native American architecture amazing is its template for modern designers. The buildings were sustainable, but also very sturdy, waterproof, and kept cool (or warm) using natural, not mechanized means. These ideas are consistent for every region, from the Arctic to Southwest, from small, migratory bands to the urban centers like Cahokia and Chaco Canyon. The design was often compact rather than clearing great swaths of land for housing and made use of the materials nearby for construction. True, some of these materials are less sustainable that others, particularly the loss of ancient redwoods in California, but that was an exception. Native American architecture is complex, with a huge variety in styles, details, decorative details, and spiritual meaning. Archaeologists are continuously finding new information about Native American buildings. But more important, architectural traditions live on with the Native American people. These traditions are passed down through generations.