The Importance of Woodhenge & Skywatchers

Cahokia is a city aligned five degrees off of true north. At first, this confused scientists as the rest of their society was so in tune with the stars, the sun, and every part of nature. After all, the city had four main plazas that indicated the four cardinal directions, so why wasn’t it perfectly aligned? This can be answered with the solar calendar. The city is perfectly aligned with the areas of the summer solstice, the lunar moonrise, and moonset maximums. 

Further evidence of this is the presence of at least five woodhenges in Cahokia, which aided in the religious observances and farming cycles of the Cahokian people. A woodhenge is a ring of cedar posts, all evenly spaced and about 20 feet tall, and could identify the equinox, and the summer and winter solstices. Aside from calendars, there are theories that the woodhenges also served as aligners for the community. Each post was painted red, after “traces of ochre [were] found by archeaologists in the ground at Woodhenge” (White). The woodhenges were not randomly placed, but perfectly aligned so that at equinox the sun would rise in the east, in line with Monks Mound, as seen in Figure 1.

Figure 1 – Woodhenge Alignment with Monks Mound (Saint Louis Bank)

According to Iseminger, the central post was offset from the true center of the woodhenge around 5.6 feet, “which makes it align better with the perimeter post marking the winter and summer solstice positions at this latitude” (Iseminger). No detail was too small for the Cahokians, and woodhenges were curated to ensure their community could live and farm effectively. Another intricate observation of the woodhenge is the sunrise from Monks Mound. This was the chief’s mound, and as the sun rose in line with the mound it gave the illusion that the sun emerged from the mound. This is believed to be why Cahokians referred to their chief as a “brother” of the sun or believed that he represented the sun deity as an earthly presence (Iseminger).

The direct correlation with the skies is thought to be an attempt to equate the patterns of heaven with those of earth, the manifestation of the belief systems of Cahokian religious practices. Skywatching, an ancient practice commonly used in Cahokia, established a sacred geography through aligning it to the deities. It also provided a material presence of religion and was essential when passing culture through each generation. Skywatchers were common in a majority of Native American societies. Every mound had a purpose and a specific position. One theory exists that Cahokia as a whole falls into the shape of the constellation Orion, seen in Figure 2. 

Figure 2 – Cahokia Mounds Map (Cahokia Mounds Museum Society)

Cahokia relied on the sun, moon, and stars to guide their way of life: from what they ate to whom they prayed to, and their vast knowledge of the sky’s interworking with the resources they had continues to fascinate researchers.



“Cahokia Mounds Map.” Cahokia Mounds Museum Society. Accessed 11 November 2023 

Iseminger, William R. “The Skywatchers of Cahokia.” Mexicolore, 2009. Accessed 10 November 2023

“The Real Name of Cahokia Mounds.” Saint Louis Bank, 2021. Accessed 10 November 2023. 

White, AJ. “Cahokia.” ORIAS, University of California, Berkeley. Accessed 9 November 2023,and%20Woodhenge%20marked%20the%20occasions

1 thought on “The Importance of Woodhenge & Skywatchers

  1. Other than what you mentioned in the blog, what other archaeological evidence marks the Cahokian societies being “in tune with the stars, the sun, and every part of nature”? What do these sites/artifacts tell us about the Cahokians, and what questions do they pose?

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