Mound Builders

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Mound Builders

Mound Builders, in North American archaeology, name given to those people who built mounds in a large area from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico and from the Mississippi River to the Appalachian Mts. The greatest concentrations of mounds are found in the Mississippi and Ohio valleys. The term “Mound Builders” arose when the origin of the monuments was considered mysterious, most European Americans assuming that the Native Americans were too uncivilized for this accomplishment. In 1894, Cyrus Thompson of the Smithsonian Institution concluded that the Mound Builders were in fact the Native Americans. Clarence Moore, who excavated numerous mound sites in the South between 1892–1916, believed the southern Mound Builders were heavily influenced by the Mesoamerican civilizations, an idea now generally discounted.

Archaeological research indicates the mounds of North America were built over a long period of time by very different types of societies, ranging from mobile hunter-gatherers to sedentary farmers. The prehistoric mounds had a wide variety of forms and fulfilled a range of functions. Many served as burial mounds, individual or collective funerary monuments. Others were temple mounds, platforms for religious structures. Burial mounds were especially common during the Middle Woodland period (c.100 B.C.–A.D. 400), while temple mounds predominated during the Mississippian period (after A.D. 1000).

The earliest mounds in the United States have been found at Watson Brake near Monroe, La.; they were built in the late 4th millennium B.C. The purpose of these 11 mounds is unclear. Other mounds date to the 3d millennium B.C. The Archaic mound-building tradition culminated at the Poverty Point Site, in West Carroll Parish, La., between 1800 B.C. and 500 B.C. Six concentric ridges surround two large mounds, one of which reaches 65 ft (20 m) high.

During the Woodland period (c.500 B.C.–A.D. 1000), hunting and gathering was combined with a set of domesticated native agricultural plants (sunflower, goosefoot, erect knot weed, and may grass) to bring about increased population densities and a greater degree of sedentism throughout the Ohio and Mississippi valleys. The Middle Woodland period (c.200 B.C.–A.D. 400) saw the construction of elaborate earthworks from the Great Lakes to the Gulf Coast. Large, mainly dome-shaped mounds appeared throughout the Ohio and Tennessee river valleys, some in the form of animal effigies. In the Hopewell culture, centered in S Ohio and Illinois, earthen geometric enclosures defined areas ranging from 2.5 to 120 acres (1 to 50 hectares), and some mounds reached 65 ft (20 m) in height. Mica, ceramic, shell, pipestone, and other material were traded over a vast area, indicating the growth of a system of widely shared religious beliefs but not overall political unity. Analysis of mortuary remains suggests Middle and Late Woodland communities were characterized by a system of social rank: Particular kin groups are believed to have had high social prestige, differential access to rare commodities, and control over positions of political leadership. In the Late Woodland period (c.A.D. 400–1000), burial mounds decreased in frequency, and the elaborate burial goods of the Hopewell culture largely disappeared. However, there was probably no general decline in social complexity or population density at this time.

In the Mississippian period (after A.D. 1000), maize agriculture spread throughout the East. Populations expanded and became increasingly sedentary. At Cahokia Mounds (near East St. Louis, Ill.) the largest earthwork in North America was built, a temple mound measuring nearly 100 ft high (30 m) and 975 ft long (300 m). Many large ceremonial centers with temple mounds appeared throughout the South, especially in the Mississippi Valley. After 1200, a set of distinctive motifs spread throughout the Southeast, from Oklahoma to N Georgia, on a variety of media, including shell, ceramics, and pipestone. Also found in this region are elaborate ceremonial copper axes and gorgets and sheet copper plumes. This complex of distinct motifs is called the Southern Cult; it could reflect—along with the temple platforms—the existence of a regional religion shared by a large number of local cultures. Mississippian societies are thought to have been complex chiefdoms, the most hierarchical form of political organization to emerge in aboriginal North America.


See C. Thomas, Report on the Mound Explorations of the Bureau of Ethnology (1894, repr. 1985); R. Silverberg, Mound Builders of Ancient America (1968); W. Morgan, Prehistoric Architecture in the Eastern United States (1980); B. Fagan, Ancient North America (1991); G. R. Milner, The Moundbuilders (2004).

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References in periodicals archive ?
The ridge crest, up to 15 kilometers wide, supported distinct communities of mound builders and associated organisms that constructed fundamentally different kinds of mounds.
Scholars suggest that European diseases may have raced ahead of the first explorers, or endemic diseases may have been responsible for wiping out the Mound Builders. Other theories include drought, famine, political strife, and warfare.
Contemporaneous with the Cahokian mound builders in 1492, whaling peoples on the Northwest coast, nomadic tribes in the interior, cliff dwellers in the Southwest, and numerous other nations dwelled in these lands.
With this, Jones paints Indians as more Christian than whites and makes a strong statement about how Indians can stand up to dominant discourse on their origins and their removal, calling the Book of Mormon, with its racial, white-supremacist implications of mound building, the "devil's book." This is a clever critique and a perhaps subtle but still salient attack on the idea of a white race of Mound Builders.
(26.) Donald Blaksee,"John Rowzee Peyton and the Myth of the Mound Builders;' American Antiquity 52, no.
Mallam, "Mound Builders: An American Myth," Journal of the Iowa Archaeological Society 23 (1976): 145-75.
Wilson achieved commercial success with The Great Nebula in Orion (1971), The Hot l Baltimore (1973), and The Mound Builders (1975).
His other plays include The Mound Builders (1975); a trilogy concerning members of the Talley family: Fifth of July (1978), Talley's Folly (1979 Pulitzer Prize), and A Tale Told ((1981).
At Pike's Peak south of Effigy Mounds National Monument in Iowa, the confluence of the Winconsin River creates marshy wilderness so vast it has remained almost unchanged since explorers paused here- or even thousands of years earlier when mound builders stood on the sacred bluffs and entreated the gods to bring them success in hunting.
Squier was influenced by Morton of the American school in his belief that the Ohio mound builders were "Toltecs" who subsequently migrated south to create the high civilizations of Mesoamerica.
Her appraisal of these interpretations, which alternatively asserted the Mound Builders to be of Welsh, Norse, Jewish, Hindu, Egyptian, Phoenician, and Lamanite descent, is more comprehensive than previous studies and reveals that these accounts were often based upon an understanding of the world shaped by Christianity.
Regional variability among Woodland period mound builders is not adequately addressed, and uncritical reliance on the highly problematic accounts of the sixteenth-century expedition of Hernando de Soto as sources of ethnographic information on Mississippian cultures is also troublesome.