Native American cultures of the Great Lakes region, Ohio River Valley, and Mississippi River Valley built characteristic large earthen mounds over a period of more than 5,000 years in the United States.
19th-century academics theorized that Native Americans were too primitive to be associated with the mounds, suggesting instead that they belonged to a lost culture that disappeared before Columbus arrived in 1492.
One of the earliest theories suggested that the Mound Builders were actually Northern in origin who settled in the Americas and migrated south to become the Toltecs of Tula, Mexico.
Later theories associated them with the descendants of the Israelites, the ancient Egyptians, the Welsh, the Irish, the Greeks, the Chinese, the Phoenicians, and even crossed into the realm of pseudoscience, suggesting an association with the lost continent of Atlantis.
Why are mounds special?
Proper academic studies have shown that the mounds were built by Native American cultures between about 3500 B.C. and 16th century AD, which includes part of the Archaic period (8000 to 1000 BC), the Woodland period (1000 BC to AD 1000), and the Mississippian period (800 AD to 1600 AD).
One of the earliest mound complexes was built at Watson Brake in Louisiana around 3500 BC. during the archaic period. The site was developed over centuries by a pre-agricultural, pre-ceramic hunter-gatherer society that occupied the site seasonally.
The builders built an arrangement of eleven mounds of earth about 7.6 meters high, connected to each other by ridges to form an oval-shaped complex.
Another early site is Poverty Point, a ceremonial mound and ridge complex located on Bayou Macon, also in Louisiana. Poverty Point was built in several phases, the earliest being around 1800 BC. during the Late Archaic period, continuing until 1200 BC.
One of the oldest mound complexes
The Builders were a hunter-fisher-gatherer society, identified as the Poverty Point culture, who inhabited stretches of the lower Mississippi Valley and surrounding Gulf Coast.
The embankments consist of six concentric C-shaped ridges that extend for three-quarters of a mile on the outermost ridge. The most distinct features at ground level are mounds built with a clay soil type that reach heights of up to 21.9 meters.
During the Woodland period, mound-building cultures existed throughout the eastern United States, reaching as far as Crystal River in western Florida. One of these cultures is the Adena culture of Ohio, which primarily built burial mounds for burial rituals, where earth was piled immediately on top of a burned mortuary building to form the monument.
Also in Ohio, during the Woodland period, is the Hopewell culture, an assemblage of widely dispersed populations connected by a common network of trade routes.
The mounds house complex burials
The people of this culture built the complex geometric mounds used for burials and earthworks that are shaped like contorted animals, birds or snakes.
Hopewell has created some of the most beautiful crafts and works of art in the Americas. Most of their works had some religious significance, and their burials were filled with necklaces, ornate bone or wood carvings, decorated ceremonial pottery, earplugs, and pendants.
During the Mississippian period, mound building reached new heights, with cultures such as the Plaquemine and Mississippian cultures building giant platform mounds and settlements that rivaled European cities in size at the time.
The most famous of these is Cahokia, a center of Mississippian culture that was built around 1050 AD. in western Illinois. Cahokia contained 120 mounds of earth.
Why were the mounds abandoned?
The mounds varied in size and shape, from raised platforms, to conical models and ridge tops, the largest being the “Monk’s Mound”, a 290 meter long platform made up of raised terraces, writes HeritageDaily.
After Europeans arrived in the Americas, early explorers found the mound builders’ territories largely depopulated and the mounds largely abandoned. However, there are some accounts that describe how the Native Americans built the mounds and their cultural practices.
One of the last mound-building cultures, the Fort Ancient Culture, likely had contact and trade with Europeans, as evidence of European-made goods can be found in the archaeological record. These artifacts include brass and steel items, glassware, and melted or broken goods remade into new items.
The Fort Ancient culture was largely exterminated by successive waves of disease such as smallpox and influenza in the 17th century, suggesting that the demographic decline of the wider mound-building cultures of this period was, of also the result of diseases introduced by the first Europeans who came into contact.