Girlhood and the Downfall of Cahokia

15 min readFeb 27, 2022

Around 1050 CE, something extraordinary happened in the floodplain of the Mississippi River. Centered around what is now Collinsville, Illinois, a city arose that has astounded explorers and archaeologists for over two centuries: Cahokia.

A view of Monk’s Mound, the central pyramid of the Mississippian site of Cahokia (now in the state of Illinois). Photo courtesy National Park Service.

As part of a trio of sites — the East St. Louis mounds, St. Louis mounds, and Collinsville mounds (known collectively as “Greater Cahokia”) — Cahokia was the center of political, religious, and social life for emergent Mississippian culture. At its height, Cahokia was comprised of more than 200 mounds, of which 120 were built within a 5-square-mile zone of Collinsville that referenced the four sacred directions (north, south, east, and west) and were arranged around vast open plazas.[i] The greatest of these was Monks Mound, the largest Pre-Columbian earthwork in North America, which towers 100 feet high and has a base wider than the Great Pyramid of Giza. Interspersed between the mounds were suburban-like neighborhoods, often arranged around courtyards with a central marker post, thatched-roof houses, a circular sweat lodge, and one or two other buildings. Further out from the mounds, extending nearly 30 miles, family farmsteads and hamlets helped supply the crops needed to sustain Cahokia’s population. Of this once vast city, only 80 mounds remain, including one of the most mysterious mounds of all: Mound 72.

Mound 72 at Cahokia, a ridge-top burial mound south of Monk’s Mound, where archaeologists found the remains of a man in his 40s who was probably an important Cahokian ruler. The man was buried on a bed of more than 20,000 marine-shell disc beads arranged in the shape of a falcon. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Located 850 meters south of the central Monks Mound, Mound 72 is a series of three smaller mounds that were eventually reshaped and covered to form one 7-foot-high, 140-foot-long ridgetop mound. These smaller mounds contain an archaeological enigma: the burials of at least 272 people, many of whom were 15- to 25-year-old girls killed as part of human sacrifice rituals. These sacrifices and Mound 72’s construction reveal that Cahokians practiced periodic episodes of ritual renewal, perhaps based on a solar or lunar calendar or the deaths of great leaders. These events culminated in the ritual covering of the smaller mounds into one large, ridgetop mound, perhaps as an act of closure.[ii] Excavated from 1967–71 by Dr. Melvin Fowler of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and recently re-evaluated by the University of Illinois, Mound 72’s burials suggest that the sacrifice of teenage girls was an important part of Cahokian cosmology and ritual.

Mound 72 is unique in Cahokia, as it is the only mound oriented on a northwest-southeast axis. In order to explain the mound, it must be split into five features.

Several mass burials and burials of high-status individuals were found in Mound 72, in Cahokia. Graphic by Julie McMahon.

First, at the southeastern base of the mound, is the Beaded Burial of a male and a female who were placed on top of numerous animal pelts, a bundle burial of someone who died before them, and several other adults and children, for a total of 12 burials. The male and female were covered with a two-inch-thick layer of 20,000 beads made from marine shells from the Gulf of Mexico, shaped in a bird symbol that is similar to falcon motifs of later Mississippian culture. Both the male and female were in their mid-20s when they died.

Second, southwest of the Beaded Burial is Mound 72Sub1, which features seven males and females with two bushels of mica, 15 chunky[iii] stones, three-foot-long rolls of copper, strands of large shell disc beads, and two piles of never-used arrow points (probably whole arrows with shafts originally). These artifacts demonstrate the extent of trade at Cahokia, with materials gathered from as far as Lake Superior, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, North Carolina, and the Gulf of Mexico.

The third feature is a rectangular, low mound (Mound72Sub2) oriented with the cardinal directions, which features burial pits for four groups. The first group consists of 21 people, including four people buried in bundles and 13 people between the ages of 15 and 25 buried in what was once a charnel structure (for storing human bodies). The second group contains 22 bodies placed two deep in pits lined with sand and mats. The third group consists of 19 females also buried two deep in pits lined with sand and mats, and accompanied by over 36,000 marine shell beads, hundreds of bone and antler arrow points, and several ceramic vessels. The final group, within the southeast corner of Mound72Sub2, consist of 24 females arranged in two layers at a northwest-southeast orientation.

Between 72Sub1 and 72Sub2 is the fourth feature, Mound 72Sub3, which covered two distinct burials. First, four males on a shallow platform a few inches high, with their arms interlocked and their bodies oriented to the northeast, but with their heads and hands missing, apparently cut off. Second, a 5-foot-deep rectangular pit containing 53 bodies, mostly of females between 15- to 25-years-old, laid in two rows and two layers.

The final feature is a series of burial pits extending along the southwestern edge of Mound72 that include 39 males and females, between the ages of 15- to 45-years-old, who appear to have been clubbed to death. About six inches above them, 15 bodies of men, women, and children were found resting on litters framed with cedar poles and carefully placed in the pit. There is also evidence of ramps to access the various sub-mounds, suggesting that there might have been public rituals at or near the mounds. Analysis suggests that nearly all of these graves were human sacrifices.

Analysis of Mound 72 shows that the burials did not happen all at once, but rather in a series of episodes surrounding Cahokia’s founding in 1050 CE. All of the burials happened within just two centuries, which as Timothy Pauketat notes, spans “approximately ten human generations of twenty years each. Thus, if these mounds were sequential constructions, as seems likely, then at least one ridgetop mound exists for every generation within Cahokia’s century-and-a-half reign.”[iv] This makes Mound 72’s burials — the majority of which are teenage girls — central events in Cahokian life. Like much of Cahokia, Mound 72 and its burial groups are aligned with solar and possibly lunar events: its northwest-southeast orientation directly aligns with the summer solstice sunset and the winter solstice sunrise. This orientation is different than most of the other mounds at the site, suggesting that these celestial observations played a prominent role in Cahokian cosmology and society.

Additional Evidence

Other excavations at Cahokia confirm the importance of Mound 72 and the girls buried there. Amidst the thousands of wooden pole-and-thatch buildings that flanked the mounds, archaeologists found female flint-clay figurines that have a recognizable artistic style unique to Cahokia.

the upper torso and head of a red goddess sculpture, carved from stone and found buried at the ancient American Indian city of Cahokia. Note the serpent wrapped around her head. This artifact dates to the 12th century. Photo courtesy Illinois State Archaeological Survey.

These figurines depict “kneeling women” who are often adorned with plants (including squashes and sunflowers), hoes, feline-headed serpents, and occasionally baskets that may represent medicine bundles. Most of the figurines’ accoutrements are associated with food production and fertility, and many of the plants depicted were important to later tribes (such as the Mandan and Hidatsa).

Prominent among these figurines is a mythical being who appears in two forms: Grandmother and Corn Mother. A central character in later Mississippian mythology, Grandmother has several roles that could explain the importance of female sacrifices. In myths and legends, Grandmother teaches her people how to live well, acts as the patroness of vegetation and rejuvenation, is immortal, and helps resurrect the spirits of the dead. As Natalie Mueller and Gayle Fritz theorize,

“Grandmother is not only (or even primarily) a symbol of fertility. She is a polysemous symbol with a fan of related concepts and associated symbols that are fairly constant across thousands of miles and between speakers of languages from at least four different families.”[v]

Despite this widespread reach, Grandmother figurines — as well as any female figurines — were rare outside of Cahokia during its reign. It is believed that all these figurines were created at Cahokia from flint-clay (a semi-soft red stone found only just west of St. Louis), making the statues “direct culturally mediated representations of the Cahokian symbolic, political, social, and natural world.”[vi] This suggests that Grandmother was a central figure in Cahokian mythology or ritual.

Adding to Grandmother’s importance is the fact that five of these statues were found ritually broken (or “killed”) in or near ceremonial buildings in the Greater Cahokia region. Curiously, all of these ritual killings also occurred near burials, suggesting that the statues reference Grandmother’s role in caregiving or resurrection. Mueller and Fritz theorize that this ritual killing could be linked to early Green Corn or World Renewal ceremonies in which Grandmother or Corn Mother, as well as young girls, played a key role. All of the sites associated with these ritually killed statues are linked to each other and Monks Mound (the central mound of Cahokia) through lunar alignments. These facts have led other scholars, like Thomas E. Emerson, to “suggest that the Earth Mother cult and its priests and priestesses may have been central to Cahokian religion.”[vii]

What does all this mean?

When combined with flint-clay figurines and Grandmother mythology, Mound 72’s female sacrifices take on a central role in Cahokian culture. Add to it that Cahokia was founded following a period of intense agricultural revolution when maize first became widely cultivated in the region (c. 900–1000 CE), and all these finds become the foundations of a new Native American civilization.

Around the year 1050 CE, social life, political organization, religious belief, art, and culture were radically transformed. At the epicenter of events was a radical new kind of social and political experiment: a planned capital city built around a big idea, one of such magnitude and force that it impelled tens of thousands of people to drop what they were doing and follow a new path.[viii] Within 50 years of its founding, Cahokia’s population quadrupled, a result of the agricultural advancements as well as the relocation of people from surrounding areas to partake in Cahokia’s new social order.[ix] As the first city in what is now the United States, Cahokia became a site where young girls were integral to manifesting and maintaining social order through renewal rituals, making them a key part of the political and social revolution that established Cahokia.

The origins of the sacrificed girls is still debated. Recent analysis of the Mound 72 burials by the University of Illinois revealed that nearly 30% of those buried were non-local immigrants from outside Cahokia.[x] This is further supported by skeletal analysis, which showed that some of Mound 72’s girls exhibit dental morphology (an inherited trait), a high rate of hyperostosis (a type of bone disease), and cavities that indicate they had a high-carbohydrate diet of maize.[xi] Such evidence sparked theories that the girls were captives, slaves, or tributes from outlying farm groups, sacrificed to reinforce their families’ connections with Cahokia’s central rulers, society, and beliefs.

Yet this only accounts for 30% of the burials in Mound 72. So why were so many Cahokians killed? Were they leaders or honored dead? Timothy Pauketat theorized that the burials were mortuary tombs of leading families and the girls part of sacrificial retinues during the late 11th and early 12th centuries. These families and burials were part of a “social experiment unique to greater Cahokia: a dynasty of administrators and officials drawn from succeeding lineages commemorated with the earthen roof covering each mortuary tomb complex.”[xii] The evidence lies in the series of sub-mounds within Mound 72, which were built in episodes that appear to be commemorative-like events, such as the World Renewal ceremonies of later Grandmother mythology.

Combined with the cosmological alignments and flint-clay figurines, Mound 72 suggests that Cahokian society centered on key motifs of life renewal, fertility, and agriculture that played a role in commemorating certain honored dead. This could be especially true of the Beaded Burial in Mound 72, which would have been the focus of a community-wide commemoration of a cosmic narrative. This narrative likely focused on an early version of Birdman, a mythological figure who is a central hero or savior figure in later Mississippian mythology.

Using this perspective of commemoration, Mound 72 becomes a formal area for an elite segment of Cahokian society, where teenage girls were utilized as part of a public sacrificial ritual to reaffirm the importance of the honored dead, world renewal, and religious or political power. Unfortunately, analysis of the female burials’ origin is seldom the focus of archaeological work, reflecting a 20th century male bias in archaeology and leaving us with more questions than answers. As Timothy Pauketat states,

“Entire theories and philosophical positions [about Cahokia] hinge on the interpretation of the dead buried there.”[xiii]

Mythology and Ritual

More answers are found beyond the Mound 72 burials. As indicated by the Grandmother or Corn Mother flint-clay figurines, females played a prominent role in Cahokian mythology. This is backed by other archaeological evidence that shows Cahokia might have been a matrilineal society where ritual feasting and uniquely Cahokian crafts reaffirmed the importance of agriculture and women’s role in society.

Most of this evidence rests in the research of Mueller and Fritz, who theorize that the exchange of plant products and agricultural production was dominated by women, as seen in later Mississippian cultures. Through ritual feasting, Cahokians invited neighboring groups or villages to partake in ceremonies in which they were gifted Cahokian plants and goods, as evidenced by the wide dispersal of Ramey incised pots, a Cahokian specialty, in the surrounding region. During these feasts, Cahokian women spread new varieties of domesticated crops and knowledge of production, processing, and preparation.[xiv] Through offerings, prayers, and performances, which might have included the female sacrifices and mound-building of Mound 72, Cahokian women maintained the status quo and spread their culture.

What emerged from this exchange was the roots of Mississippian cosmology, which “was based on beliefs about ancestors, the stars, maize agriculture, and powerful male and female superhuman characters”[xv] that were continually reinvented and adapted to fit local conditions. Taken together, the burials of Mound 72, flint-clay figurines, evidence of ritual feasting and agricultural dissemination through women, and public performances reveal a society that valued females — especially the sacrifice of teenage girls — as central to ancestor worship, socio-political organization, and cosmological cycles of agricultural renewal that enabled Cahokian society to flourish.


Girls are central to Cahokia’s founding and may also be a key to understanding Cahokia’s downfall. Within 300 years of its establishment, Cahokia was abandoned. Scholars have proposed several reasons for why this happened. One hypothesis is that resource depletion occurred because there were too many people for the region to support. Another suggests that the large population caused environmental degradation that was heightened by 35 years of drought and a general climatic cooling that began in the 13th century.

Girls would not have been the center of these reasons, but could be a part of the political changes and warfare that resulted. As Cahokian society began to struggle for resources, archaeological evidence in the form of new palisade walls and fortifications suggests that warfare became a part of daily life as political factions challenged Cahokia’s authority. The palisade walls were built in four successions, suggesting that Cahokia might have been threatened with attacks over 100 years, necessitating the replacement of decaying walls multiple times.

As a result, Cahokians may have had a crisis in faith. Had the gods abandoned them? Was Grandmother or Corn Mother angry, and therefore causing the crops to fail? Were their earlier sacrifices of young women at the peak of child-bearing and agricultural-producing age too much to bear? Whatever the motives, Cahokia’s downfall reflects an erosion in the people’s faith in their leaders and rituals, challenges from within as well as outside Cahokia, and a halt of mound-building and human sacrifice that led to the eventual abandonment of the city.

Following this exodus, Cahokians spread out across the Mississippi River’s flood plain, a 175-square-mile region extending from what is now Alton, Illinois to the Kaskaskia River. Scholars have yet to pinpoint who the Cahokians became. Evidence from tales of the Osage, Omaha, Quapaw, Ponca, and Kansa tribes suggests they were once a unified tribe in the Mississippi-Ohio confluence area, perhaps as Cahokians, and then split to their later territories. “Although none of these [tribes] had mound-building traditions, their complex political and social structures and their iconographies fit well with those of Mississippians, and some of their oral traditions also suggest links to Cahokia.”[xvi]

Unfortunately, no known Native American narratives or oral histories explicitly link tribes to Cahokia. This leads some archaeologists to wonder whether life at Cahokia, and its subsequent decline, resulted in its people wishing to forget their heritage entirely. Did Cahokia’s rulers push their power into the realm of oppression?

“Maybe, by the twelfth century, people were seeking to escape Cahokia, and their desire to forget it — and create a more perfect, communal post-Cahokian society — were all a part of starting over.”[xvii]

Transition to Mississippian

Whatever the reasons for Cahokia’s abandonment, evidence from archaeology, Native American cosmology, later Mississippian iconography, and oral histories suggest that Cahokians became many of the midwestern, southern, and Plains tribes present at the time of European contact. They left Cahokia without the central role of sacrifice played by teenage girls, but with the Grandmother/Corn Mother, Birdman, mound-building, and other elements that became vital to Mississippian ways of life.

Thus, the girls sacrificed at Cahokia were part of the founding events of Mississippian cultural history. They played a central role in Cahokian society as maize agriculture’s producers and disseminators, using Cahokian ritual feasting and human sacrifice to solidify and communicate an agricultural-centric, perhaps female-centric, cosmology. This cosmology had a female deity who evolved into the later Mississippian figure of Corn Mother/Maiden, Cloud Woman, and Grandmother or Old Woman Who Never Dies.[xviii] She was responsible for creation, death, and rebirth, a cycle that was acted out by sacrificial teenage Cahokian girls in public rituals.

Beyond this cosmological imagery and the sacrificial burials, women are rarely depicted in Cahokian and Mississippian art and mythology. So perhaps the sacrifices of Mound 72’s girls were key to the development of Mississippian cosmology and the later abandonment of Cahokia’s female-centric focus. The dissemination of Cahokian cosmology and culture spread through what is now Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, and South Dakota, all of which show direct or indirect evidence of contact with Cahokians.[xix] Thus, Cahokia and the girls of Mound 72 are important to the emergence of Native American cultures with which Europeans would come in contact, setting the stage for centuries of misinterpretation and re-interpretation of Native America that continues today.

Native American history is highly complex. The tribes that once occupied what is now the United States were as diverse — if not more so — as the country’s inhabitants today. Yet these diverse peoples came together on the banks of the Mississippi River to form a great city, the first and only of its kind in North America. The Mound 72 burials are an enigma, “comparable in some ways to those from the Royal Cemetery of Ur in Mesopotamia, from Nubian king burials in the Sudan, and from Shang-period tombs of ancient Chinese rulers.”[xx] These burials might have been modes of revering the honored dead, similar to how we commemorate the burials of America’s European founders through elaborate tombs and events.

Through Mound 72, we are finally beginning to realize the importance of girls in Native American cultures, not just as solitary figures in history, but as a specific segment of society that profoundly shaped — and was shaped by their role in — cosmology and culture.

[i]Timothy R. Pauketat, Cahokia: Ancient America’s Great City on the Mississippi (New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2009), 2.

[ii]William Iseminger, Cahokia Mounds: America’s First City (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2010), 35–36.

[iii]Chunky is a game played by rolling disc-shaped stones across the ground and throwing spears at the stones. Players whose spears land as close to the stopped stone as possible win. Originating around 600 CE at Cahokia, the game was played by many Native American groups, including the Cherokee, Creeks, Chickasaw, Chumash, Choctaw, and Mandans.

[iv]Pauketat, Cahokia, 104.

[v]Natalie G. Mueller and Gayle J. Fritz, “Women as Symbols and Actors in the Mississippi Valley: Evidence from Female Flint-Clay Statues and Effigy Vessels,” in Native American Landscapes: An Engendered Perspective, ed. Cheryl Claassen (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 2016), 141.

[vi]Thomas E. Emerson, Randall E. Hughes, Mary R. Hynes, and Sarah U. Wisseman, “The Sourcing and Interpretation of Cahokia-Style Figurines in the Trans-Mississippi South and Southeast,” American Antiquity 68, no. 2 (Apr. 2003): 306.

[vii]Mueller and Fritz, “Women as Symbols,” 136.

[viii]Pauketat, Cahokia, 6.

[ix]Timothy R. Pauketat, Ancient Cahokia and the Mississippians (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 79.

[x]William Iseminger, personal discussion with the author, May 2016.

[xi]Pauketat, Cahokia, 132–134.

[xii]Pauketat, Ancient Cahokia and the Mississippians, 75.

[xiii]Pauketat, Ancient Cahokia and the Mississippians, 21.

[xiv]Mueller and Fritz, “Women as Symbols,” 111.

[xv]Pauketat, Cahokia, 8.

[xvi]Iseminger, Cahokia Mounds, 156.

[xvii]Pauketat, Cahokia, 159–160.

[xviii]Annie-Rose Fondaw, “Cloud Women, Corn Mother: Mississippian Women in Myth and Ceramics,” presentation at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site and Museum Society in personal discussion with William Iseminger, Collinsville, IL, May 30, 2018.

[xix]Pauketat, Ancient Cahokia, 124.

[xx]Pauketat, Cahokia, 70.




Tiffany holds a Master of Arts in Public History, specializing in interpreting girls’ and women’s history for museum, historic sites, and heritage venues.