Mound Builders

All Sources -
Updated Media sources (1) About content Print Topic Share Topic
views updated

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 BC–AD 400), while temple mounds predominated during the Mississippian period (after AD 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 BC The purpose of these 11 mounds is unclear. Other mounds date to the 3d millennium BC The Archaic mound-building tradition culminated at the Poverty Point Site, in West Carroll Parish, La., between 1800 BC and 500 BC Six concentric ridges surround two large mounds, one of which reaches 65 ft (20 m) high.

During the Woodland period (c.500 BC–AD 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 BC–AD 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.AD 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 AD 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).

views updated


Mound Builders were prehistoric American Indians, named for their practice of burying their dead in large mounds. Beginning about three thousand years ago, they built extensive earthworks from the Great Lakes down through the Mississippi River Valley and into the Gulf of Mexico region. These mounds, many of which survive today, consisted of several hundred tons of dirt, clay, and stone, and were built on a large scale in spite of the fact that the builders had no beasts of burden and did not use the wheel. The Adena people were one group of Mound Builders. They arose in the Ohio River Valley around 400 b.c. They were hunters and gatherers, and also fished. They settled in villages scattered over a wide area. The largest Adena mound is the Grave Creek Mound at Moundsville, West Virginia; it measures 900 feet (270 meters) in circumference and 70 feet (21 meters) in height. Scholars believe that as the Adena traded with other groups of American Indians, the practice of mound-building spread.

Other Mound Builders were the Hopewell and the Mississippian people. The Hopewell were hunters and gatherers but they also cultivated corn and squash. They settled in the Midwestern United States, where their burial mounds can still be found; the largest site is in Newark, Ohio. Objects such as shells, shark teeth, and volcanic glass discovered in the Hopewell earthworks reveal that they traded with distant tribes. This trade network collapsed about a.d. 500 and the Hopewell died out. The Mississippians, who settled in the Mississippi valley and in what is today the southern United States, were the only Mound Builders to have contact with the Europeans. Their culture emerged about a.d. 700 and lasted into the 1700s. The Mississippians were farmers and raised livestock. In addition to their mounds, the largest of which is found at Cahokia, Illinois, they built cities, which were among the earliest in North America. Since many of their earthworks (c. 12001500) include temples atop the mounds, the Mississippians may have traded with the Indians of Mexico (such as the Aztec or Maya), and were influenced by them.

See also: Great Serpent Mound

views updated

Mound Builders Name given to the Native North Americans responsible for groups of ancient earth mounds found in the Ohio and Mississippi river valleys. The mounds contain skeletons or ashes with buried ceremonial objects.