The Mound Builders: The Poverty Point, Adena, Hopewell, and Mississippian Cultures
The Mound Builders: The Poverty Point, Adena, Hopewell, and Mississippian Cultures
The four known mound-building cultures of North America include the Poverty Point, Adena, Hopewell, and Mississippian cultures. Their names, usually taken from the place where relics of their societies were found, refer to a way of life and a cultural period, not a tribe. No Mississippian cultures survived the eighteenth century.
The Poverty Point culture is named after the northeastern Louisiana Plantation where remnants of it were discovered. Other communities of the culture existed along the lower Mississippi River. The Adena culture inhabited present-day West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana. The Hopewell culture probably began in the Illinois Valley and spread into Ohio and then across the Midwest region. The vast Mississippian culture’s territory extended from the mouth of the Illinois River in the north to the mouth of the White River in Arkansas in the south, and eastward along the Ohio and Tennessee Rivers to what is now North Carolina.
The populations of the mound-building cultures are unknown, but at times they probably reached well into the millions. Population estimates for Poverty Point are about five thousand inhabitants; the Adena culture is estimated to have been from 8 to 17 million; the Mississippian city of Cahokia alone is estimated to have had between forty thousand and seventy-five thousand inhabitants during the twelfth century.
Origins and group affiliations
The relationship between the mound-building cultures is not clear. Scientists have not proved any direct descendancy from one culture to the next. It is clear, however, that the cultures were in contact, particularly through trade networks, and that the influence from one to the next was profound. The sequence of these cultures is as follows: The Poverty Point culture spanned the period from about 1500 bce to 700 bce . The Adena culture appeared around 500 bce and flourished until about 100 bce , and the Hopewell culture followed, from 100 bce to 550–750 ce . The Mississippian culture was the last, existing from about 700 ce to 1751.
While there are many things that will never be known about the mound-building cultures that thrived in vast territories of the Northeast and the Southeast for nearly three thousand years, the mounds and artifacts left behind give a fascinating glimpse into some highly complex societies. Evidence paints a portrait of people with complicated political systems, highly developed social customs and religious rites, and a thriving artistic community.
Types of mounds
The people of the mound-building cultures—the Poverty Point, Adena, Hopewell, and Mississippian cultures—left behind remnants of four types of mounds. Effigies (pronounced EFF-a-geez )—mounds shaped like animals such as snakes, birds, or bears—were built along the Great Lakes and in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Iowa. Cone-shaped mounds were built in the Ohio River Valley. Flat-topped pyramids were built in the lower Mississippi region. Walls of earth, sometimes reinforced by stone, were constructed in the central Midwest.
Poverty Point culture (1500 bce to 700 bce )
Effigy mounds and dirt embankments that form six concentric circles extending about three-quarters of a mile in total length were found at the site of Poverty Point on the lower Mississippi River in Louisiana. Most can only be observed from the air. Other square, rectangular, and hexagonal mounds were also found at the site. It is estimated that five thousand people lived at Poverty Point at its height.
People of the Poverty Point culture built large burial mounds and lived in planned communities. Important people in the tribe were buried in the mounds, which often had temples built on top of them. Archaeologists consider these communities the first chiefdoms (villages governed by one principal leader) north of Mexico. The reason for the decline of this civilization by 700 bce is unknown.
1400 bce: People of the Poverty Point culture are constructing large burial mounds and living in planned communities.
500 bce: The Adena people build villages with burial mounds in the Midwest.
100 bce: Hopewell societies are building massive earthen mounds for burial of their dead and probably other religious purposes.
700 ce: The Mississippian culture begins.
1200: The great city of Cahokia in the Mississippi River Valley flourishes.
1539–43: The Spanish treasure hunter Hernando de Soto becomes the first European to make contact with Mississippian cultures.
1731: The French destroy the Natchez, the last Mississippian culture. Most survivors sold into slavery in the Caribbean.
The Adena culture (500 bce to 100 ce )
The Adena culture, named after the estate in Ohio where its remnants were first discovered in 1901, had a population estimated at between eight and seventeen million at its height. The Adena were the first known people in the present-day United States to construct earthen mounds in which they regularly buried their dead. The mounds were often shaped in animal or geometric designs.
When the early American settlers first saw the Adena mounds, some ignored them, but others were fascinated. Some nineteenth-century writers theorized that they were built by the Toltecs or Aztecs of Mexico, while others thought the “First Empire Builders,” as some called the Adena, might have been Hebrews, Greeks, Persians, Romans, Vikings, Hindus, or any group who had ever built a mound in the Old World. The common belief was that Native Americans had not built the mounds, because colonists made the erroneous assumption that they were incapable of planning and developing such vast monuments. In 1894 Cyrus Thomas, an ethnologist (a person who studies the practices and beliefs of different cultures),working for the Smithsonian Institution, published a paper showing that the mounds were the work of a number of different cultures that were part of the family of American Indian tribes.
Scholars disagree on whether or not the Adena were descendants of the earlier Poverty Point culture, but most believe that there was some interaction among the two cultures.
The Hopewell culture (100 bce –550 to 750 bce )
The Hopewell culture may have grown out of the earlier Adena culture. Discoveries there have included copper effigies of fish, birds, and serpent heads, as well as beads, axes, ornaments, a ceremonial antler headdress of carved wood, and tens of thousands of freshwater pearls and shell beads.
The Hopewell culture was more highly developed than that of the Adena, with richer burial customs, more sophisticated art, grander ceremonies, a stricter system of social classes, and more advanced farming practices. Items found at Hopewell burial sites included ear spools (a type of earrings) and skulls. The skulls showed that devices had been used to fashion the heads of infants, as they grew, into unusual shapes. The shapes showed a person’s status in the society and were considered attractive.
The Hopewell people specialized in stonework, and examples of it have been found as far away as Florida. The Hopewell extended their influence from New England to the lower Mississippi region. The culture began to decline around 550 ce for unknown reasons. Some theories suggest climate changes, crop failure, epidemics, and civil war, among other reasons.
Hopewell mounds rose from 6 to 70 feet (2 to 21 meters) high. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there were fantastic theories about the origins of the Hopewell mounds. One of the most popular beliefs at that time was that a civilized society had made the mounds, but the Native Americans had killed them. Some people even suggested that Europeans had built them. U.S. president Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826; served 1801–9) examined a mound near his home at Monticello, Virginia, and proclaimed that they were clearly built by American Indians.
Mississippian culture (700 ce to 1751)
The Mississippian civilization of Temple Mound Builders began in the Mississippi River valley around 700. It was at its height between 1000 and 1200, when the great cities of Cahokia and Moundville grew up.
Cahokia may have been the largest and most powerful city in eastern North America. Centrally located for both north-south and east-west trade exchanges, Cahokia flourished from about 900 to 1250. It was home to a gigantic 100-foot-high (31-meter-high) mound and more than one hundred other mounds in its 6 square miles. Estimates of the population of the city of Cahokia alone ranged between forty thousand and seventy-five thousand during the twelfth century. Nearby were many smaller towns and villages.
The 300-acre (121-hectare) site of Moundville is located south of present-day Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Its 100-acre (40-hectare) public square was surrounded by twenty pairs of mounds and enclosed by wooden fences. Moundville was the capital of a large prehistoric nation with a number of smaller district capitals that sent many of their resources and finely crafted goods to be enjoyed by Moundville’s rich rulers.
Decline of Mississippian culture
Temple Mound Builders still lived in the Mississippi River valley in the sixteenth century when the Spanish first entered the region. Over the next two centuries, the population of the region began to perish. The decline may have been due to European diseases, to which the Native Americans had no resistance. Overpopulation and overcrowding, plus the problem of what to do about urban waste, might also have contributed. Massive crop failures possibly linked to changes in the climate may have played a part.
Some historians believe that when the Europeans first came to North America, a few of the tribes still living in the Mississippi and Tennessee River valleys were direct descendants of the Temple Mound Builders. But except for the Natchez tribe, one of the only remaining Mississippian societies known to the early European explorers and fur traders, few Native Americans had more than dim memories of the way of life of their ancestors. Very little was recorded about Mississippian tribes living at the time of European contact.
Sometime between 1539 and 1542, tribes who lived in the region where the Temple Mound Builders thrived forced the expedition of Spanish treasure-hunter Hernando de Soto (c. 1496–1542) to retreat down the Mississippi River. More than a century later, the French moved into the area and came into contact with the Natchez people, who lived on the Mississippi River in present-day west Mississippi. The French decided to impose taxes on the Natchez fur trade. From 1729 to 1731 the two cultures battled until the French, with the help of their Choctaw (see entry) allies, destroyed the Natchez nation and sold most of the survivors into slavery in the Caribbean. A few Natchez sought safety with neighboring tribes and continued their struggle against the Europeans. As the Natchez were absorbed into the other tribes, all that remained of the Mississippian culture was gone.
Not a great deal is known about the religion of the mound-building societies. While earlier societies generally built their mounds as burial memorials, the later Mississippian mounds became temples for an aristocratic priesthood. Priests in this advanced culture, as well as artists, could devote themselves fully to their professions, while their communities provided for them.
The Natchez, the last of the Mississippian people, may provide insight into the religion of the Mississippian culture. The Natchez credited their origin to the Sun God. According to their creation beliefs, a man and woman came to Earth to teach humans the proper way to live. The man was the younger brother of the Sun. He told the people to build a temple and to place inside it a sacred fire that was to be kept always burning; he explained that the fire was a piece of the Sun he had brought to Earth.
The sacred priest-leader of the Natchez was called the Great Sun and he was regarded as part-god. His primary duty was to maintain the sacred fire in the temple. The Great Sun dressed in rich clothes and was carried from place to place so he would never touch the ground. Only certain people were permitted into his presence, and they had to follow strict rules when approaching him. No one could watch him eat or even touch the dishes from which he ate. During the few times that he walked, servants spread mats on the path before him. He rarely even used his hands. One French Catholic priest reported that if he wanted to give the remains of his meal to relatives, “he pushed the dishes to them with his feet.”
Spanish explorers who wrote about the Natchez tell of the Great Sun’s practice of greeting his elder brother, the Sun in the sky, with ritual song and prayer. Every month, the entire tribe went to the temple and paid tribute to the Great Sun. He generally appeared before them wearing a feathered crown and seated in an ornate chair carried by eight throne bearers. When the French destroyed the Natchez, they captured the Great Sun and sent him into slavery in the Caribbean.
It is not known what language was spoken by the Temple Mound Builders, or even if different groups of them spoke the same language.
Adena mounds were usually cone-shaped and contained many burial remains. They were used repeatedly for generations. The Adena mounds were probably also used for religious purposes other than burial. The most famous Adena earthwork is Serpent Mound in Adams County, Ohio, a 5-foot-high, 20-foot-wide (1.5-meter-high, 6-meter-wide) mound shaped like a snake that measures 800 feet long (244 meters) from the mouth to the tail. If it could be stretched out in a straight line, it would measure about 1,300 feet (396 meters). The snake has an egg-shaped object in its mouth. The mound cannot be fully viewed from ground level because it lies on top of a 100-foot (31-meter) ridge. It may have been built as a message to the gods that lived above in the air or the sky.
The Hopewell’s Grave Creek Mound in Moundville, West Village, is among the largest man-made earthworks ever created. It required three million basketloads of earth to build, and they transported all of the earth without horses or carts. Fort Ancient, near Lebanon, Ohio, has walls that extend more than 3.5 miles (4 kilometers) and stand from 4 to 23 feet (1 to 7 meters) high. The continuity of the walls is broken only by seventy openings. The Hopewell built it about three centuries before the arrival of Christopher Columbus (1451–1506).
The most impressive structures of the Mississippian culture were the temple mounds that loomed over their towns and villages. These mounds were built entirely of dirt carried to the site in baskets, a process that took a long time. Some mounds were massive. The one known as Monk’s Mound at Cahokia, was built in a series of fourteen stages between 900 and 1150. When finished it stood 100 feet (31 meters) high and covered more than 16 acres at its base.
The mounds were rectangular in shape and flat on top. They were used both as temples and as burial sites. When the mounds were filled with bodies, more room was made by leveling the top, adding another level of earth, and raising a fresh temple complex. The tops of other mounds became sites for trading, festivals, and other public functions.
Mississippian temples, like the society’s houses, were built from wood and interwoven cane stalks or small branches covered with a plaster made from mud. Some farmers had two separate houses: an open home with good air circulation for warm weather, and an insulated home with a fireplace and areas dug beneath the floor to store food in cold weather.
Members of the Adena, Hopewell, and Mississippian cultures wore decorated loincloths (flaps of material that covered the back and front and were suspended from the waist) and necklaces made from engraved stones. Mississippians often adorned their bodies with tattoos or painted their faces. Some very wealthy people wore headdresses decorated with feathers, animal fur, pearls, or even precious metals such as copper or galena, an ore of lead. The rulers of the Mississippian culture went to their graves in fancy dress.
The Adena gathered native plants, many of which are now considered weeds. They ate goosefoot, giant ragweed, pigweed, hickory nuts, bottle gourds, squash, and sunflowers. They did not eat corn, like the later Mississippian people, because at that time the only corn that grew in North America was not well suited to the climate where the Adena lived. They used the little bit of corn they grew only for ceremonies.
Much of the early Mississippian diet was based on hunting and fishing. When the people learned to grow large supplies of corn and beans, they moved beyond what hunting and gathering alone allowed. A variety of corn that could withstand cold, wet weather was introduced to the Mississippi Valley between 800 and 1000 ce . About the same time, fast-growing beans—kidney, navy, pinto, snap, and pole—were brought from Mexico. The beans were allowed to climb up the stalks of growing corn.
The Mississippian, like the Adena and the Hopewell, suffered from a variety of diseases, including arthritis, infections by parasites, and tuberculosis, a lung disease. Pictures on ancient pots show people with bent spines, a deformity that often is associated with tuberculosis. The pots might have held herbal remedies to treat the ailment.
Hopewell works of art showed a delicate, free-flowing style. Artists made shell drinking cups, gold silhouettes, and effigy pipes in the image of frogs, owls, and alligators. Artists used copper to fashion beads, collars, pendants, and effigies. At one gravesite, a large headdress was discovered with imitation deer antlers made of copper-covered wood.
Mississippian mound builders expressed their culture through their pottery, which was often of outstanding quality and even displayed a sense of humor. One existing example is a jar shaped in the form of a very fat human leg and foot, while another depicts a face with a comical expression. Small statues have been found that may have been intended for use in their temples or as burial goods to accompany a Great Sun or a Lesser Sun into the afterlife. Such ceramics may have played a central role in the trade between the Mississippian and a large network that extended from the Gulf of Mexico in the south and the Great Lakes in the north, and from the Rocky Mountains in the west to the Appalachians in the east. Skilled artists made baskets, pottery, leather garments, shell beads, copper ornaments, and stone tools. The shell, copper, and various types of stone must have been imported, because they do not naturally occur near the homeland of the Temple Mound Builders.
The Natchez were the last of the Mississippian culture. Eighteenth-century French observers in the homeland of the Natchez described their social ranking system. The most important people were the Great Sun and his relatives, who made up the upper class. Below them were the nobles, followed by the honest men, and at the bottom were the despised commoners known as the “Stinkards.”
The Great Sun could only marry partners from the lowest class of the society, the Stinkards. The Great Sun’s brothers (the Lesser Suns) and his sisters (the Women Suns) also could only marry Stinkards. But the children of the Women Suns were permitted to keep their mother’s social rank, and one of them would usually become the next Great Sun when his uncle died. The children of the Great Sun and the Lesser Suns did not retain their parents’ high rank.
Stinkards who married into the top social class remained Stinkards all their lives. They could not eat with their spouses and had to stand in their presence. If they offended their high-ranking spouses in any way, they could be killed and replaced. The only way Stinkards could improve their own status was by showing extreme bravery during wartime.
The Adena broke up their daily routine by playing games and holding athletic contests; the whole village probably participated. Children had toys like dolls, little canoes, and sleds, and adults had dice made from bones to use for gambling.
The Mississippian culture shared some customs with modern Native American tribes. Experts who study the remains of ancient cities say that Cahokia contained large ball courts and special stones that were probably used for playing a game called Chunkey. In this game, stones were rolled across the ground while players threw spears at the spot where they believed the stones would stop. The winner was the player who landed his spear nearest the stone’s stopping place. The Great Plains tribes played Chunkey during the nineteenth century.
Death and burial
During the earliest Adena period, people wrapped bodies in bark. In later times, they sometimes left them outdoors until predators, weather, or other natural processes had removed the flesh from the bones; then they were buried. Sometimes they cremated the bodies or buried them, rather than leaving them outdoors. They set the bodies in their graves either stretched out full length or flexed, with the knees drawn up. Corpses of honored dead were coated with red dye or graphite (a type of soft lead) and covered with hundreds of delicate shell beads.
Adena mounds were designed to hold many bodies over a period of years. A mound might begin as a shallow pit grave, with a small pile of dirt heaped over it. As more corpses were added, more and more earth was also added to the mound, which sometimes reached a height of 70 feet (21 meters).
The Hopewell built huge burial houses. They performed cremations in clay-lined pits. They surrounded the dead with special grave goods, and often covered individual graves with low earthen mounds. Top members of society received spectacular burials. Their corpses were surrounded with high quality artistic goods made of wood and metal.
The remnants of Mississippian pottery and sculpture show that the people of this culture thought often about death and the afterlife. Upon the death of the Great Sun or his relatives—his mother White Woman, his brothers the Lesser Suns, and his sisters the Woman Suns—some of their spouses and servants believed that it was their duty and a great honor to accompany the deceased into the afterlife. They willingly went to their own deaths; others were not quite so willing, but were sent to their deaths anyway by Mississippian officials.
Some anthropologists (people who study cultures) believe Mississippian officials may have given drugs to people who were about to become human sacrifices. The drugs made the victims unconscious; they were then killed and buried with their ruler to accompany him or her into the next life. Unlike the people of the Adena and Hopewell cultures that came before, however, the Mississippian people apparently saw no need to bury their dead with fabulous treasures.
Current tribal issues
Until about 1800, when they began venturing beyond the eastern area of the continent, most English-speaking colonists did not encounter Native American mounds. When white settlement expanded beyond the Appalachian Mountains, many mounds were plowed over.
During the nineteenth century many Adena mounds were saved from destruction through the efforts of scholars such as Frederic Ward Putnam, director of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University. In 1887, Putnam raised more than $5,000, which enabled Harvard to buy an important mound in Ohio from its owner. In 1900, Harvard University gave Serpent Mound to the state of Ohio on the condition that it would be preserved and opened to the public.
Several of the Hopewell mounds have become part of the current American landscape, without regard to, or respect for, their historical meaning. For example, during World War II (1939-45; a war in which Great Britain, France, the United States, and their allies defeated Germany, Italy, and Japan), the U.S. Army built a training camp near the Hopewell Culture National Historical Park, formerly known as “Mound City,” and badly damaged the site. Grave Creek Mound in West Virginia has a racetrack built around its base and a saloon erected at the top. In Belpre, Ohio, there is a mound in the parking lot of a fast-food restaurant. In Newark, Ohio, part of the Newark Earthworks makes up a country club golf course. And in Huntington, West Virginia, visitors can observe a mound from a seat on a roller coaster ride.
During the twentieth century farmers, vandals, and highway builders destroyed many more of the mounds. The preservation of the mound builders’ earthworks and relics has become the responsibility of the states in which they are found, and some are operated as historical sites by those states.
Cahokia in Illinois is the site of the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, which preserves the remains of 68 of 120 of these ancient mounds, and the Cahokia Mounds State Park. Many of these sites are open to the public and feature museums and relics that celebrate and explain the region’s mound-building heritage.
Many existing earthworks have been worn down to rough shapes in overgrown rural fields and riversides, while others are being preserved. Of more than 1,100 known sites in the state of Arkansas, only two remain relatively untouched. The still uncertain fate of the mounds remains in the hands of present and future generations.
Evidence uncovered in 2003 by researcher Lisa A. Mills at the Hopewell Mound Group in Ohio has tied these ancient people with the Ojibway (see entry) and Kickapoo. Although the study was too small to reach more than uncertain conclusions, Mills also found some DNA links with other present-day Native American tribes—Apache (see entry), Iowa, Micmac (see entry), Pawnee (see entry), Pima (see entry), Seri, Southwest Sioux (see entry), and Yakima (see entry). To date, no tie to the Cherokee (see entry) tribe has been found, although many people believed these two groups were connected. The most startling information to emerge from this study is that DNA from the Hopewell samples is closely related to that of Asian people, especially those from China, Korea, Japan, and Mongolia.
Fowler, Melvin J., and Biloine Whiting Young. Cahokia, the Great Native American Metropolis. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2000.
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Pauketat, Timothy R. Ancient Cahokia and the Mississippians. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
Randall, E. O. The Masterpieces of the Ohio Mound Builders, the Hilltop Fortifications. New York: A.W. McGraw, 1997.
Shemie, Bonnie. Mounds of Earth and Shell. Montreal, Canada: Tundra Books, 1993.
Beck, Melinda. “The Lost Worlds of Ancient America.” Newsweek. Vol. 118 (fall–winter 1991): 24.
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George Cornell, Ph.D.; Associate Professor, History and American Studies, Michigan State University; Director, Native American Institute
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