The History Of Indigenous Mounds In America

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.

  • Monte Sano – Baton Rouge, LA

    Why isn't this a picture of Monte Sano Mounds? Because in 1967, they were demolished to build a highway. Why not? They were only the oldest indigenous mounds in America, according to some archaeologists. However, it's something those in the know continue to argue about. Most agree that they were built prior to 5000 BCE. 

    Before the were destroyed, archeologists had three days to salvage inside the mounts. Platforms that they found inside the mounds included cremated remains and funerary objects, suggesting at least some of the mounds were used for burial. The Monte Sano mounds are part of the King George Island Mound Site, most of which is now underneath the city of Baton Rouge.

    The picture shows the nearby LSU Campus Mounds, named because, of course, they are located on the current Louisiana State University campus. They are 6,000 years old, and still, they are younger than the Monte Sano mounds were upon their destruction. 

  • Poverty Point – Pioneer, LA

    Poverty Point – Pioneer, LA
    Photo: United States Army Corps of Engineers / Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

    Poverty Point is a pretty ironic name for an enormous mound complex built by a group of rich people. The name comes from a plantation that used to be located on the grounds in the 1800s – a theme among mounds in the Southeast.

    Poverty Point is the largest-known complex of its time, which was around 3,000 years ago. The largest mound is currently around 70 feet tall but was probably once closer to 100 feet in height. It is surrounded by six concentric semi-circles, which are around a foot tall today but were probably around 6 feet tall – with dwellings on top of them – in their time. The complex also included circular wooden structures of unknown purpose. The entire complex was (most likely) an extremely active trading and ceremonial center, with people from many different tribes living in or near it as well as passing through it for trade.

    So what happened to it? Nobody is really sure. The complex had not been used for thousands of years by the time the Europeans arrived and severely damaged the oral history of tribes in the area. They also plowed fields and built houses all over the area, as happened to mound sites all over the country.

    But it wasn't just cultural issues that kept Poverty Point hidden in plain sight. The complex takes up 2,700 acres. It's too big to see from the ground. Even when the Army Corps of Engineers took aerial photos of the area in 1938, nobody noticed that the ridges that made plowing fields and building houses complicated were in a pattern, or that the huge mound on the otherwise flat land might be something unusual. It wasn't until 1952 that archaeologist James Ford saw the pictures and began to investigate. 

    Today, of course, it is recognized as a marvel of architecture and engineering, and as of 2014, it is protected as a a UNESCO World Heritage site. So, even though a highway runs through it, Poverty Point is in much less danger of destruction than it used to be.

  • Serpent Mound – Peeblesville, OH

    Serpent Mound – Peeblesville, OH
    Photo: Heironymous Rowe / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    The 1,300-foot-long, 3-foot-high Serpent Mound in Ohio is perhaps the most famous of all the mounds in what is now the United States. It is the world's largest surviving animal effigy mound.

    Recent research suggests it was built around 321 BCE and that it is a construction of the Adena people, who also built the adjacent conical mound near it. The purpose of the Serpent Mound is not entirely clear, but it was ceremonial. Dating the era of the mound was complicated by the fact that it had been repaired several times, but many agree that the most recent dating reveals that its builders were the ancestors of today's Anishinaabeg, Miami-Ilinois, Shawnee, Kickapoo, Meskwaki, and Asakiwaki people. 

    In 2015, a man broke through barriers in the middle of the night for a joy ride over one of the mounds in the complex in a truck. A few years before that, a group of people was caught attempting to plant crystals in the Serpent Mound itself. Increased security cameras were installed to protect the mounds both from those who don't respect their significance and those who want to appropriate the mysteries of their culture.

  • Cahokia Mounds – Collinsville, IL

    Cahokia Mounds – Collinsville, IL
    Photo: Skubasteve834 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    Some people might know Cahokia from its appearance in Laurell K. Hamilton's Merry Gentry fiction series, where faeries who immigrated to the United States during Jefferson's administration settle in it. In fact, it was built and settled by a sophisticated Mississippian society in 800-1400 CE

    The Cahokia Mounds site is second in size only to Poverty Point. Cahokia is located on 2,220 acres on the border between Missouri and Illinois, near St. Louis – and it includes Monks Mound, the tallest earthwork in the country at 100 feet. The mound is named for Trappist monks who used to live on some of the nearby mounds. They didn't live on Monks Mound, however. Its terraces were used for terrace farming. (Why not? What better use of an ancient monument than to grow peas?)

    Cahokia has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1982, so there's no farming there now. People did gather on Monks Mound to watch the 2017 solar eclipse, however. But Bill Iseminger, assistant director of the site, discouraged ceremonies. “We don’t sanction those kinds of activities because we don’t know what would be appropriate for the people who once lived here,’’ he said. So, Cahokia's mounds and mysteries are more respected these days.

  • Ocmulgee National Monument – Macon, GA

    Ocmulgee National Monument – Macon, GA
    Photo: Judson McCranie / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    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

    Moundville – Moundville, AL
    Photo: Jeffrey Reed / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    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.