View of the Great Temple mound at Cahokia
Mounds are numerous in this section. We learn that there are two groups of mounds or pyramids, one about ten miles above the Cahokia, and the other about the same distance below it, more than one hundred and fifty in all. Speaking of the group above the Cahokia, Mr. Breckenridge says: "I found myself in the midst of a group of mounds mostly of a circular shape, and, at a distance, resembling enormous hay-stacks scattered through a meadow. One of the largest which I ascended at Cahokia was about two hundred paces in circumference at the bottom, the form nearly square, though it had evidently undergone considerable alteration from the washing of rains. The top was level, with an area sufficient to contain several hundred men." He represents the view from the top of the mound to be a very extensive and beautiful one. From this elevation he counted forty-five mounds or pyramids, besides a great number of small artificial elevations. This group was arranged in the form of a semicircle, about a mile in extent, the open space being on the river.
Three miles above occurs the group in which is found the famous Cahokia big mound.32 This cut gives us a good idea of the mound as it was in its perfect state. All accounts given of this mound vary. From a cut of the model, as prepared by Dr. Patrick, the area of the base is a trifle over fifteen acres.33 The ascent was probably on the south side of the mound, where the little projection is seen. The first platform is reached at the height of about fifty feet. This platform has an area of not far from two and four-fifth acres. Large enough for quite a number of houses, if such was the purpose for which this mound was erected. The second platform is reached at about the height of seventy-five feet, and contains about one and three-fourth acres. The third platform is elevated ninety-six or ninety-seven feet, while the last one is not far from one hundred feet above the plain. The area of the last two is about three-fourths of an acre each. The areas of all the platforms are not far from six acres. We require to dwell on these facts a moment before we realize what a stupendous piece of work this is.
Early Photograph of the mound at Cahokia
The base is larger than that of the Great Cahokia Pyramid,34 and we must not lose sight of the fact that the earth for its construction was scraped up and brought thither without the aid of metallic tools or beasts of burden, and yet the earth was obtained somewhere and piled up over an area of fifteen acres in one place to a height of one hundred feet, and even the lowest platform is fifty feet above the plain. Some have suggested that it might be partly a natural elevation. There seems to be, however, no good reason for such suggestions.
What motive induced the people to expend so much labor on this mound? It is not probable that this was a burial mound, though it may ultimately prove to be so. The most probable supposition is that the mound was erected so as to secure an elevated site, perhaps for purpose of defense, as on these platforms there was abundant room for a large village, and an elevation or height has always been an important factor in defenses. In this connection, Prof. Putnam has called our attention to a fact which indicates that a very long time was occupied in the construction of the mound, and further, that a numerous population had utilized its platforms as house sites—that is, that "everywhere in the gullies, and over the broken surface of the mounds, mixed with the earth of which it is composed, are quantities of broken vessels of clay, flint chips, arrow-heads, charcoal, bones of animals, etc., apparently the refuse of a numerous people." The majority of writers, however, think that this elevated site, obtained as the result of so much labor, was utilized for important public buildings, presumedly the temple of their gods, and no one can help noticing the similarity between this structure and those raised by the ancient Mexicans for both religious purposes and town sites.
One of the many mounds that have been destroyed at the Cahokia site. This was called the Powell Mound.
Mr. Foster thinks that "upon the platform of Cahokia was reared a capacious temple, within whose walls the high-priests gathered from different quarters at stated seasons, celebrated their mystic rites, while the swarming multitudes below looked up with mute adoration."35 Mr. Breckenridge, whose writings we have already referred to, at the time of his first visit, "everywhere observed a great number of small elevations of earth, to the height of a few feet, at regular distances apart, which appeared to observe some order: near them pieces of flint and fragments of earthen vessels." From this he concludes that here was a populous town, and that this mound was a temple site. It is doubtful whether we shall ever pierce the veil that lies between us and this aboriginal structure. The pyramids of the Old World have yielded up their secret, and we behold in them the tombs of Egypt's kings. But this earthen pyramid on the western prairie is more involved in mystery, and we do not know even its builders. If the result of religious zeal, we may be sure that a religion which exacted from its votaries the erection of such a stupendous piece of work was one of great power.