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The varying cultures collectively called Mound Builders were Pre-Columbian inhabitants of North America who, during a 5,000-year period, constructed various styles of earthen mounds for religious and ceremonial, burial, and elite residential purposes. These included the Pre-Columbian cultures of the Archaic period; Woodland period (Adena and Hopewell cultures); and Mississippian period; dating from roughly 3400 BCE to the 16th century CE, and living in regions of the Great Lakes, the Ohio River valley, and the Mississippi River valley and its tributaries. Beginning with the construction of Watson Brake about 3400 BCE in present-day Louisiana, nomadic indigenous peoples started building earthwork mounds in North America nearly 1000 years before the pyramids were constructed in Egypt.
Since the 19th century, the prevailing scholarly consensus has been that the mounds were constructed by indigenous peoples of the Americas. Sixteenth-century Spanish explorers made contact with natives living in a number of later Mississippian cities, described their cultures, and left artifacts. By the time of U.S. westward expansion, two hundred years later, Native Americans were generally not knowledgeable about the civilizations that produced the mounds. Research and study of these cultures and peoples has been based mostly on archaeology and anthropology.
At one time, the term "mound builder" was applied to the people believed to have constructed these earthworks. In the 16th–19th centuries, Europeans and Americans generally thought that a people other than one related to the historic Native Americans had built the mounds.
The namesake cultural trait of the Mound Builders was the building of mounds and other earthworks. These burial and ceremonial structures were typically flat-topped pyramids or platform mounds, flat-topped or rounded cones, elongated ridges, and sometimes a variety of other forms. They were generally built as part of complex villages that arose from more dense populations, with a specialization of skills and knowledge. The early earthworks built in Louisiana c. 3400 BCE are the only ones known to be built by a hunter-gatherer culture.
The best-known flat-topped pyramidal structure, which at over 100 feet (30 m) tall is the largest pre-Columbian earthwork north of Mexico, is Monks Mound at Cahokia Indian Mounds in present-day Collinsville, Illinois. At its peak about 1150 CE, Cahokia was an urban settlement with 20,000-30,000 people; this population was not exceeded by North American European settlements until after 1800.
Some effigy mounds were constructed in the shapes or outlines of culturally significant animals. The most famous effigy mound, Serpent Mound in southern Ohio, is 5 feet (1.5 m) tall, 20 feet (6 m) wide, over 1,330 feet (405 m) long, and shaped as an undulating serpent.
Many different tribal groups and chiefdoms, involving an array of beliefs and unique cultures over thousands of years, built mounds as expressions of their cultures. The general term, "mound builder," covered their shared architectural practice of earthwork mound construction. This practice, believed to be associated with a cosmology that had a cross-cultural appeal, may indicate common cultural antecedents. The first mound building was an early marker of political and social complexity among the cultures in the Eastern United States. Watson Brake in Louisiana, constructed about 3500 BCE during the Middle Archaic period, is the oldest dated mound complex in North America and the present-day United States. It is one of eleven mound complexes from this period found in the Lower Mississippi Valley.
The most complete reference for these earthworks is Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley, written by Ephraim G. Squier and Edwin H. Davis. It was published in 1848 by the hostages. Since many of the features which the authors documented have since been destroyed or diminished by farming and development, their surveys, sketches, and descriptions are still used by modern archaeologists. All of the sites which they identified as located in Kentucky came from the manuscripts of C. S. Rafinesque.
A smaller regional study in 1931 by author and archaeologist Fred Dustin charted and examined the mounds and Ogemaw Earthworks near Saginaw, Michigan. Archaeological survey and recording of mounds is an ongoing scholarly task.
Hernando de Soto, the Spanish conquistador who in 1540-42 traversed what became the southeast United States, encountered many different mound-builder peoples, perhaps descendants of the great Mississippian culture. The mound-building tradition was still alive in the southeast during the mid-sixteenth century. De Soto observed people living in fortified towns with lofty mounds and plazas, and surmised that many of the mounds served as foundations for priestly temples. Near present-day Augusta, Georgia, de Soto encountered a mound-building group ruled over by a queen, Cofitachequi. She told him that the mounds within her territory served as the burial places for nobles.
The artist Jacques Le Moyne, who had accompanied French settlers to northeastern Florida in the 1560s, likewise noted many Native American groups using existing mounds and constructing others. He produced a series of watercolor paintings depicting scenes of native life. Although most of his paintings have been lost, some engravings were copied from the originals and published in 1591 by a Flemish company. Among these is a depiction of the burial of an aboriginal Floridian tribal chief, an occasion of great mourning and ceremony. The original caption reads:
|“||Sometimes the deceased king of this province is buried with great solemnity, and his great cup from which he was accustomed to drink is placed on a tumulus with many arrows set about it.||”|
—- Jacques Le Moyne 1650's
Maturin Le Petit, a Jesuit priest came in contact with the Natchez as did Le Page du Pratz (1758), a French explorer. Both observed them in the area that later became Mississippi. The Natchez were devout worshippers of the sun. Having a population of some 4,000, they occupied at least nine villages and were presided over by a paramount chief, known as the Great Sun, who wielded absolute power. Both observers noted the high temple mounds which the Natchez had built so that the Great Sun could commune with God, the sun. His large residence was built atop the highest mound, from
|“||" which, every morning, he greeted the rising sun, invoking thanks and blowing tobacco smoke to the four cardinal directions."||”|
—- Le Page du Pratz 1758
Later explorers to the same regions, only a few decades after mound-building settlements had been reported, found the regions largely depopulated, the residents vanished, and the mounds untended. Since there had been little violent conflict with Europeans during that period, the most plausible explanation is that new Eurasian infectious diseases, such as smallpox and influenza, had decimated most of the Native Americans who had comprised the last mound-builder civilization.
Radiocarbon dating has established the age of the earliest Archaic mound complex in southeastern Louisiana. One of the two Monte Sano Site mounds, excavated in 1967 before being destroyed during new construction at Baton Rouge, was dated at 6220 BP (plus or minus 140 years). Researchers at the time thought that such societies were not organizationally capable of this type construction. It has since been dated as about 6500 BP, or 4500 BCE, although not all agree.
Watson Brake is located in the floodplain of the Ouachita River near Monroe in northern Louisiana. Securely dated to about 5400 years ago (approx. 3500 BCE), in the Middle Archaic period, it consists of a formation of 11 mounds from three to 25 feet (1-8m) tall, connected by ridges to form an oval nearly 900 feet (270m) across. In the Americas, building of complex earthwork mounds started at an early date, well before the pyramids of Egypt were constructed. Watson Brake was under construction nearly 2,000 years before the better-known Poverty Point, and building went on for 500 years. Middle Archaic mound construction appeared to cease about 2800 BC, and scholars have not ascertained the reason, but it may have been because of changes in river patterns or other environmental factors.
With the 1990s dating of Watson Brake and similar complexes, scholars established that pre-agricultural, pre-ceramic American societies could organize to accomplish complex construction over extended periods of time, overturning scholars' understanding of traditional models of Archaic society. Watson Brake was built by a hunter-gatherer society whose people occupied the area on only a seasonal basis, but where successive generations organized to build the complex mounds over a 500-year period. Their food consisted mostly of fish and deer, as well as available plants.
Built about 1500 BC, Poverty Point in Louisiana is a prominent example of Late Archaic mound-builder construction (c. 2500 BCE - 1000 BCE). It is a striking complex of more than one square mile, where six earthwork crescent ridges were built in concentric arrangement, interrupted by radial aisles. Three mounds are also part of the main complex, and evidence of residences extends for about three miles along the bank of Bayou Maçon. It is the major site among 100 associated with the Poverty Point culture, and is one of the best-known early examples of earthwork monumental architecture. Unlike the localized societies during the Middle Archaic, this culture showed evidence of a wide trading network outside its area, which is one of its distinguishing characteristics.
The Archaic period was followed by the Woodland period (c. 1000 BCE). Some well-understood examples are the Adena culture of Ohio and nearby states. The subsequent Hopewell culture built monuments from present-day Illinois to Ohio; it is renowned for its geometric earthworks. The Adena and Hopewell were not the only mound-building peoples during this time period. There were contemporaneous mound-building cultures throughout the Eastern United States. During this time period, in parts of present-day Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana, the Hopewellian Marksville culture declined and gave way to the Baytown culture.
The Coles Creek culture is a Late Woodland culture (700-1200 CE) in the Lower Mississippi Valley in the southern United States that marks a significant change in the cultural history of the area. Population and cultural and political complexity increased, especially by the end of the Coles Creek period. Although many of the classic traits of chiefdom societies are not yet manifested, by 1000 CE the formation of simple elite polities had begun. Coles Creek sites are found in Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Mississippi and Texas. The Coles Creek culture is considered ancestral to the Plaquemine culture.
Around 900–1450 CE, the Mississippian culture developed and spread through the Eastern United States, primarily along the river valleys. The largest regional center where the Mississippian culture is first clearly developed is located in Illinois, and is referred to today as Cahokia. It had several regional variants including the Middle Mississippian culture of Cahokia, the South Appalachian Mississippian variant at Moundville and Etowah, the Plaquemine Mississippian variant in south Louisiana and Mississippi, and the Caddoan Mississippian culture of northwestern Louisiana, eastern Texas, and southwestern Arkansas.
Fort Ancient is the name for a Native American culture that flourished from 1000-1650 C.E. among a people who predominantly inhabited land along the Ohio River in areas of southern modern-day Ohio, northern Kentucky and western West Virginia. Scholars once thought this was an expansion of the Mississippian cultures, but they now believe the Fort Ancient culture was an independently developed culture descended from the Hopewell culture.
This was an archaeological culture in the lower Mississippi River Valley in western Mississippi and eastern Louisiana. Good examples of this culture's constructions are found at the Medora Site in West Baton Rouge Parish, La; and the Anna, Emerald Mound, Winterville and Holly Bluff (Lake George) sites in Mississippi. Plaquemine culture was contemporaneous with the Middle Mississippian culture at the Cahokia site in Illinois. It is considered ancestral to the historic Natchez and Taensa peoples encountered by Europeans.
Through the mid-nineteenth century, European Americans did not recognize that ancestors of the Native Americans had built the prehistoric mounds of the eastern U.S. They believed that the massive earthworks and large ceremonial complexes were built by a different people. The antiquarian author William Pidgeon epitomized this view; Pidgeon supported his conclusions by creating fraudulent surveys of mound groups that did not exist.
A key work in increasing public knowledge of the origins of the mounds was the 1894 report by Cyrus Thomas of the Bureau of American Ethnology (now Smithsonian Institution). He concluded that the prehistoric earthworks of the eastern United States were the work of early cultures of Native Americans. A small number of people had earlier reached similar conclusions: Thomas Jefferson, for example, excavated a mound and from the artifacts and burial practices, noted similarities between mound-builder funeral practices and those of Native Americans in his time. In addition, Theodore Lewis in 1886 had refuted Pidgeon's fradulent claims of pre-Native American moundbuilders.
Writers and scholars have put forward numerous alternative origins for the Mound Builders:
Other people believed that Greeks, Africans, Chinese or assorted Europeans built the mounds. Euro-Americans who embraced a Biblical worldview sometimes thought the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel had built the mounds.
During the 1800s, a common folklore was that the Jews, particularly the Lost Ten Tribes, were the ancestors of Native Americans and the Mound Builders. The Book of Mormon (first published in 1830) provides an example of this belief, as its narrative describes two waves of immigration to the Americas from Mesopotamia: the Jaredites (ca. 3000 - 2000 BCE) and an Israelite group in 590 BCE (called Nephites, Lamanites and Mulekites). The Book of Mormon depicts these settlers' building magnificent cities, only to be later destroyed by warfare around 385 CE.
Some Mormon scholars have considered The Book of Mormon narrative a description of the mound-building cultures; other Mormon apologists argue for a Mesoamerican or South American setting. Theories about a Mesoamerican setting for the Book of Mormon did not arise until after Latter-day Saints were influenced by publicized findings about the Central American stone ruins. This occurred after the Book of Mormon was published.
In the 20th century, certain sects affiliated with the Black nationalist Moorish Science philosophy theorized a connection with the Mound Builders. They argue that the Mound Builders were an ancient advanced Black civilization that developed the legendary continents of Atlantis and Mu, as well as ancient Egypt and Mesoamerica. These black groups, similar to European Americans in earlier periods, propose that the American Indians were too primitive to have developed the sophisticated societies and the technology believed necessary to build the mounds.
The Reverend Landon West claimed that Serpent Mound in Ohio was built by God, or by man inspired by him. He believed that God built the mound and placed it as a symbol of the story of the Garden of Eden.
The mound builder explanations were often honest misinterpretations of real data from valid sources. Both scholars and laymen accepted some of these explanations. Reference to an alleged race appears in the poem "The Prairies" (1832) by William Cullen Bryant.
One belief was that American Indians were too unsophisticated to have constructed such complex earthworks and artifacts. The associated stone, metal, and clay artifacts were thought to be too complex for the Indians to have made. In the American Southeast, and Midwest, numerous Indian cultures were sedentary and participated in agriculture. Numerous Indian towns had built surrounding stockades for defense. Capable of this type of construction, they and ancestors could have built mounds, but people who believed that the Indians did not build the earthworks did not analyze it in this way. They thought the Native American nomadic cultures would not organize to build such monuments, for failure to devote the time and effort to construct such time-consuming projects.
When most Europeans first arrived in America, they never witnessed the American Indians' building mounds and they found that few Indians knew of their history when asked. Yet earlier Europeans, especially the Spanish, had written numerous non-English-language accounts about the Indians' construction of mounds. Garcilaso de la Vega reported how the Indians built the mounds and placed temples on top of them. A few French expeditions reported staying with Indian societies who built mounds.
People also claimed that the Indians were not the Mound Builders because the mounds and related artifacts were older than Indian cultures. Caleb Atwater's misunderstanding of stratigraphy led him to believe that the Mound Builders were a much older civilization than the Indians. In his book, Antiquities Discovered in the Western States (1820), Atwater claimed that Indian remains were always found right beneath the surface of the earth. Since the artifacts associated with the Mound Builders were found fairly deep in the ground, Atwater argued that they must be from a different group of people. The discovery of metal artifacts further convinced people that the Mound Builders were not Native Americans. The Indians encountered by the Europeans and Americans were not thought to engage in metallurgy. Some artifacts that were found in relation to the mounds were inscribed with symbols. As the Europeans did not know of any Indian cultures that had a writing system, they assumed a different group had created them.
Several hoaxes were associated with the Mound Builder cultures.
In 1860, David Wyrick discovered the "Keystone tablet", containing Hebrew language inscriptions written on it in Newark, Ohio. Soon after, he found the "Newark Decalogue Stone" nearby, also claimed to be inscribed in Hebrew. The authenticity of the "Newark Holy Stones" and the circumstances of their discovery is disputed.
Reverend Jacob Gass discovered what were called the Davenport tablets. These bore inscriptions that later were determined to be fake.
The Walam Olum hoax had considerable influence on perceptions of the Mound Builders. In 1836 Constantine Samuel Rafinesque published his translation of a text he claimed had been written in pictographs on wooden tablets. This text explained that the Lenape Indians originated in Asia, told of their passage over the Bering Strait, and narrated their subsequent migration across the North American continent. This “Walam Olum” tells of battles with native peoples already in America before the Lenape arrived. People hearing of the account believed that the "original people" were the Mound Builders, and that the Lenape overthrew them and destroyed their culture. David Oestreicher later asserted that Rafinesque's account was a hoax. He argued that the Walam Olum glyphs were derived from Chinese, Egyptian, and Mayan alphabets. Meanwhile, the belief that the Native Americans destroyed the mound builder culture had gained widespread acceptance.
The Kinderhook plates, "discovered" in 1843, were another hoax, consisting of material planted by a contemporary in Native American mounds. This hoax was intended to discredit the account of the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith having translated an ancient book.
|Wikisource has the text of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article Mound-builders.|