Long before Europeans arrived in the land that would become America, the ancestors of today's indigenous people built and maintained thriving communities. Their languages, cultural practices, and oral histories were passed down to their descendants, who have maintained them as well as possible considering the war, genocide, disease, and cultural destruction that began almost as soon as the Europeans arrived. But the ancestors also left physical evidence of their history: Structures (often elaborate and enormous) of dirt, rock, and sometimes shell for burial, ceremonial, and other purposes – some known, some unknown. In English, these structures are called mounds.
Naturally, the Europeans could not imagine that the people they considered "primitive" would have been able to build such structures. For a long time, they believed that another "race" had lived on the land before the indigenous people they met, and those people had built the mounds. In 1787, Benjamin Smith Barton proposed that the mounds were built by Vikings. And in 1836, the "Walum Olum" hoax suggested that wooden tablets (forged, of course) revealed that the mound builders came from Asia across the Bering Strait – a theory that held on to for quite some time even after the tablets were revealed to be a hoax. And, of course, there were those who believed the mound builders were from Atlantis or were aliens.
But what are indigenous mounds, really? They have been lots of things to lots of different people over the generations, from leaders to looters, and they are still important to indigenous people today. For example, in August 2017, the Mvskoke (Creek) people repatriated the remains of 113 of their ancestors, along with 42 funerary objects, in the Ocmulgee Mounds in Macon, Georgia. The Mvskoke people have lived in Oklahoma since the 1830s, when they were forced from their ancestral home in what is now Alabama/Georgia by President Andrew Jackson's removal policy, AKA the Trail of Tears.
American indigenous mounds have survived hurricanes, floods, archaeologists, looters, and tourists. They are classified according to archaeological time periods as Archaic (9600-1000 BCE), Woodland (1000 BCE-900 CE), and Mississippian (900 CE-1600 CE). Today, some are preserved as parks or cultural centers while others are on private land, often inaccessible to the descendants of their builders. There are way too many mounds to include all of them, but this list presents a short history of indigenous mounds in America.
Ocmulgee National Monument – Macon, GA
Often, we don't know why people abandoned mound complexes, but we do know why the people of the Ocmulgee Mounds area left: Hernando de Soto and his crew arrived from Spain in 1540, bringing them diseases for which they had no immunity. It is estimated that around three quarters of them died.
Prior to that disaster, the site was home – or at least as pass-through site – for many people, even before the first mounds were built around 900 CE. The Ocmulgee culture flourished until around 1200 CE, when the site was all but abandoned. However, around 1350, another group of people, called the Lamar people, established a mound complex near Ocmulgee. They built mounds, including a famous spiral one, for ceremonial purposes, which were added to those of the Ocmulgee. The Ocmulgee mounds had burial and ceremonial uses, and there were also earth lodges where people lived or where council meetings were held.
The Muscogee (Creek) people, the descendants of the Ocmulgee mound-builders, protected the mounds through treaties for as long as they could, but when President Andrew Jackson forced their removal to Oklahoma in the 1830s, the mounds were taken along with the rest of the land. During the Civil War, the Battle of Dunlap Hill was fought near the mounds – and Dunlap Hill is actually a Civil War-era mound, built as a defensive position. After that, the Ocmulgee mounds were damaged by developers and looters until the 1930s, when the Smithsonian stepped in and helped designate them as a national monument.
Today's Muscogee (Creek) people house their government in a building designed like the earth lodges where their ancestors held council meetings. Called the Mound Building, it is located in Okmulgee, Oklahoma.
Moundville – Moundville, AL
The Moundville site is second in size to Cahokia, which is its contemporary chronologically. This Mississippian culture mound complex is located near Tuscaloosa, AL, and it was active between 1000 and 1450 CE. The site was a political and ceremonial center where many people lived.
A roughly square area formerly surrounded on three sides by a wooden enclosure contains 26 mounds, the larger ones for the homes of nobility. In the center of the plaza are the two largest mounds, one of them a 58-foot pyramid with two ramps. Excavations revealed that the town grew corn and imported luxury goods like copper, mica, and marine shells.The site is known for its intricate pottery, stonework, and embossed copper.
Around 1350 CE, the site ceased being a town and functioned as a ceremonial center only, before it was almost entirely abandoned by the 1500s. The town was called Carthage until 1894, when it was renamed for the mounds. In 1947, a Methodist minister wrote an Easter play called "The Road to Calvary," which was performed at sunrise on the mounds until 1999. Today, the site is an archaeological park run by the University of Alabama.
Effigy Mounds – Harpers Ferry, IAPhoto: NPS Photo / Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
The Effigy Mound culture is a late Mississippian one, and the builders are known for mounds in the shape of animals, including many bear and bird mounds along the Mississippi River in Iowa and Wisconsin as well as turtles and panthers near Lakes Michigan and Winnebago. While the effigy mounds were for ceremonial purposes, the people also built conical mounds for burial.
The Effigy Mound National Monument in northeastern Iowa protects 200 mounds, including 31 which are bear or bird effigies. At 2,526 acres, it includes the largest concentration of intact mounds in the country – partly because in 1959, archaeologists at Effigy Mounds began to question the wisdom of excavation, especially of burial and ceremonial mounds, and prohibited further destructive testing of the mounds. By the 1970s, emphasis had shifted to preservation of the mounds, which meant that the structures were among the most well preserved by the time the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) passed in 1990.
NAGPRA re-established the connection between the descendants of the mound builders and the mounds themselves as well as created more respectful rules for handling artifacts, especially, human remains. Descendants of the Effigy Mounds builders are now citizens of 20 indigenous nations, some of whom migrated or were forced from their homelands near the mounds.
Etowah Mounds – Cartersville, GA
From 1000 to 1550 CE, the Etowah Mound complex was a thriving political and ceremonial center. Today, it is the most intact Mississippian mound complex in the country.
The 54-acre site includes six mounds, a plaza, a village site, borrow pits (where land was dug to build mounds), and a defensive ditch. The tallest mound, at 63 feet tall, was most likely the platform for the priest-chief's home. Other mounds include the graves of nobility, who were buried in elaborate outfits with items they would need in the afterlife. Some of the 125-pound stone effigies still have pigment, and many of the shell, wood, copper, and stone ornaments found in the mounds are fully intact.
"Etowah" comes from the Muscogee (Creek) word "etvlwv" (pronounced "etalwa"), which can be translated as "tribal town." A tribal town is a community and political group whose membership is inherited through the mother – even for today's Muscogee people.