The various cultures collectively termed Mound Builders were inhabitants of North America who, during a 5,000-year period, constructed various styles of earthen mounds for religious, ceremonial, burial, and elite residential purposes. These included the pre-Columbian cultures of the Archaic period, Woodland period (Calusa culture Adena and Hopewell cultures), and Mississippian period; dating from roughly 3500 BCE (the construction of Watson Brake) to the 16th century CE, and living in regions of the Great Lakes, the Ohio River Valley, and the Mississippi River valley and its tributary waters.
Since the 19th century, the prevailing scholarly consensus has been that the mounds were constructed by indigenous peoples of the Americas. Sixteenth-century Spanish explorers met natives living in a number of later Mississippian cities, described their cultures, and left artifacts. Research and study of these cultures and peoples has been based mostly on archaeology and anthropology.
The namesake cultural trait of the Mound Builders was the building of mounds and other earthworks. These burial and ceremonial structures were typically flat-topped pyramids or platform mounds, flat-topped or rounded cones, elongated ridges, and sometimes a variety of other forms. They were generally built as part of complex villages. The early earthworks built in Louisiana around 3500 BCE are the only ones known to have been built by a hunter-gatherer culture.
The best-known flat-topped pyramidal structure, which at more than 100 ft (30 m) tall is the largest pre-Columbian earthwork north of Mexico, is Monks Mound at Cahokia in present-day Collinsville, Illinois. At its maximum about CE 1150, Cahokia was an urban settlement with 20,000–30,000 people; this population was not exceeded by North American European settlements until after 1800.
Some effigy mounds were constructed in the shapes or outlines of culturally significant animals. The most famous effigy mound, Serpent Mound in southern Ohio, ranges from 1 to just over 3 ft tall (30–100 cm)., 20 ft (6 m) wide, more than 1,330 ft (405 m) long, and shaped as an undulating serpent.
Many different tribal groups and chiefdoms, involving an array of beliefs and unique cultures over thousands of years, built mounds as expressions of their cultures. The general term, "mound builder", covered their shared architectural practice of earthwork mound construction. This practice, believed to be associated with a cosmology that had a cross-cultural appeal, may indicate common cultural antecedents. The first mound building was an early marker of political and social complexity among the cultures in the Eastern United States. Watson Brake in Louisiana, constructed about 3500 BCE during the Middle Archaic period, is the oldest dated mound complex in North America. It is one of 11 mound complexes from this period found in the Lower Mississippi Valley.
These mound builders were organized; hundreds or even thousands of workers had to dig up tons of earth with the hand tools available, the soil had to be moved long distances, and finally, workers had to create the shape the builder had planned.
The most complete reference for these earthworks is Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley, written by Ephraim G. Squier and Edwin H. Davis. It was published in 1848 by the Smithsonian Institution. Since many of the features which the authors documented have since been destroyed or diminished by farming and development, their surveys, sketches, and descriptions are still used by modern archaeologists. All of the sites which they identified as located in Kentucky came from the manuscripts of C. S. Rafinesque.
Reports of early European explorers
Hernando de Soto, the Spanish conquistador, who during 1540–1542, traversed what became the Southeast United States, encountered many different mound-builder peoples, perhaps descendants of the great Mississippian culture. The mound-building tradition still existed in the southeast during the mid-16th century. De Soto observed people living in fortified towns with lofty mounds and plazas, and surmised that many of the mounds served as foundations for priestly temples. Near present-day Augusta, Georgia, de Soto encountered a mound-building group ruled by a queen, Cofitachequi. She told him that the mounds within her territory served as the burial places for nobles.
The artist Jacques Le Moyne, who had accompanied French settlers to northeastern Florida during the 1560s, likewise noted many Native American groups using existing mounds and constructing others. He produced a series of watercolor paintings depicting scenes of native life. Although most of his paintings have been lost, some engravings were copied from the originals and published in 1591 by a Flemish company. Among these is a depiction of the burial of an aboriginal Floridian tribal chief, an occasion of great mourning and ceremony. The original caption reads:
|“||Sometimes the deceased king of this province is buried with great solemnity, and his great cup from which he was accustomed to drink is placed on a tumulus with many arrows set about it.||”|
—Jacques Le Moyne, 1560s
Maturin Le Petit, a Jesuit priest, met the Natchez people as did Le Page du Pratz (1758), a French explorer. Both observed them in the area that later became Mississippi. The Natchez were devout worshippers of the sun. Having a population of some 4,000, they occupied at least nine villages and were presided over by a paramount chief, known as the Great Sun, who wielded absolute power. Both observers noted the high temple mounds which the Natchez had built so that the Great Sun could commune with God, the sun. His large residence was built atop the highest mound, from “which, every morning, he greeted the rising sun, invoking thanks and blowing tobacco smoke to the four cardinal directions.”
Later explorers to the same regions, only a few decades after mound-building settlements had been reported, found the regions largely depopulated, the residents vanished, and the mounds untended. Since little violent conflict with Europeans had occurred in that area during that period, the most plausible explanation is that infectious diseases from the Old World, such as smallpox and influenza, had decimated most of the Native Americans who had comprised the last mound-builder civilization.
Radiocarbon dating has established the age of the earliest Archaic mound complex in southeastern Louisiana. One of the two Monte Sano Site mounds, excavated in 1967 before being destroyed for new construction at Baton Rouge, was dated at 6220 BP (plus or minus 140 years). Researchers at the time thought that such societies were not organizationally capable of this type of construction. It has since been dated as about 6500 BP, or 4500 BCE, although not all agree.
Watson Brake is located in the floodplain of the Ouachita River near Monroe in northern Louisiana. Securely dated to about 5,400 years ago (around 3500 BCE), in the Middle Archaic period, it consists of a formation of 11 mounds from 3 to 25 ft (1-8 m) tall, connected by ridges to form an oval nearly 900 ft (270 m) across. In the Americas, building of complex earthwork mounds started at an early date, well before the pyramids of Egypt were constructed. Watson Brake was being constructed nearly 2,000 years before the better-known Poverty Point, and building continued for 500 years. Middle Archaic mound construction seems to have ceased about 2800 BC, and scholars have not ascertained the reason, but it may have been because of changes in river patterns or other environmental factors.
With the 1990s dating of Watson Brake and similar complexes, scholars established that preagricultural, preceramic American societies could organize to accomplish complex construction during extended periods of time, invalidating scholars' traditional ideas of Archaic society. Watson Brake was built by a hunter-gatherer society, the people of which occupied the area on only a seasonal basis, but where successive generations organized to build the complex mounds over a 500-year period. Their food consisted mostly of fish and deer, as well as available plants.
Poverty Point, built about 1500 BCE in what is now Louisiana, is a prominent example of Late Archaic mound-builder construction (around 2500 BCE – 1000 BCE). It is a striking complex of more than one square mile, where six earthwork crescent ridges were built in concentric arrangement, interrupted by radial aisles. Three mounds are also part of the main complex, and evidence of residences extends for about 3 miles along the bank of Bayou Macon. It is the major site among 100 associated with the Poverty Point culture and is one of the best-known early examples of earthwork monumental architecture. Unlike the localized societies during the Middle Archaic, this culture showed evidence of a wide trading network outside its area, which is one of its distinguishing characteristics.
Horr's Island, Florida, now a gated community next to Marco Island, when excavated by Michael Russo in 1980 found an Archaic Indian village site. Mound A was a burial mound that dated to 3400 BCE, making it the oldest known burial mound in North America.
The oldest mound associated with the Woodland period was the mortuary mound and pond complex at the Fort Center site in Glade County, Florida. 2012 excavations and dating by Thompson and Pluckhahn show that work began around 2600 BCE, seven centuries before the mound-builders in Ohio.
The Archaic period was followed by the Woodland period (circa 1000 BCE). Some well-understood examples are the Adena culture of Ohio, West Virginia, and parts of nearby states. The subsequent Hopewell culture built monuments from present-day Illinois to Ohio; it is renowned for its geometric earthworks. The Adena and Hopewell were not the only mound-building peoples during this time period. Contemporaneous mound-building cultures existed throughout what is now the Eastern United States, stretching as far south as Crystal River in western Florida. During this time, in parts of present-day Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana, the Hopewellian Marksville culture degenerated and was succeeded by the Baytown culture. Reasons for degeneration include attacks from other tribes or the impact of severe climatic changes undermining agriculture.
Coles Creek culture
The Coles Creek culture is a Late Woodland culture (700-1200 CE) in the Lower Mississippi Valley in the Southern United States that marks a significant change of the cultural history of the area. Population and cultural and political complexity increased, especially by the end of the Coles Creek period. Although many of the classic traits of chiefdom societies were not yet made, by CE 1000, the formation of simple elite polities had begun. Coles Creek sites are found in Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Mississippi, and Texas. The Coles Creek culture is considered ancestral to the Plaquemine culture.
Around 900–1450 CE, the Mississippian culture developed and spread through the Eastern United States, primarily along the river valleys. The largest regional center where the Mississippian culture is first definitely developed is located in Illinois near the Mississippi, and is referred to presently as Cahokia. It had several regional variants including the Middle Mississippian culture of Cahokia, the South Appalachian Mississippian variant at Moundville and Etowah, the Plaquemine Mississippian variant in south Louisiana and Mississippi, and the Caddoan Mississippian culture of northwestern Louisiana, eastern Texas, and southwestern Arkansas. Like the Mound Builders of the Ohio, these people built gigantic mounds as burial and ceremonial places.
Fort Ancient culture
Fort Ancient is the name for a Native American culture that flourished from 1000-1650 CE among a people who predominantly inhabited land along the Ohio River in areas of modern-day southern Ohio, northern Kentucky, and western West Virginia.
A continuation of the Coles Creek culture in the lower Mississippi River Valley in western Mississippi and eastern Louisiana. Examples include the Medora Site in West Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana; and the Anna and Emerald Mound sites in Mississippi. Sites inhabited by Plaquemine peopless continued to be used as vacant ceremonial centers without large village areas much as their Coles Creek ancestors had done, although their layout began to show influences from Middle Mississippian peoples to the north. The Winterville and Holly Bluff (Lake George) sites in western Mississippi are good examples that exemplify this change of layout, but continuation of site usage. During the Terminal Coles Creek period (CE 1150 to 1250), contact increased with Mississippian cultures centered upriver near St. Louis, Missouri. This resulted in the adaption of new pottery techniques, as well as new ceremonial objects and possibly new social patterns during the Plaquemine period. As more Mississippian culture influences were absorbed, the Plaquemine area as a distinct culture began to shrink after CE 1350. Eventually, the last enclave of purely Plaquemine culture was the Natchez Bluffs area, while the Yazoo Basin and adjacent areas of Louisiana became a hybrid Plaquemine-Mississippian culture. This division was recorded by Europeans when they first arrived in the area. In the Natchez Bluffs area, the Taensa and Natchez people had held out against Mississippian influence and continued to use the same sites as their ancestors, and the Plaquemine culture is considered directly ancestral to these historic period groups encountered by Europeans. Groups who appear to have absorbed more Mississippian influence were identified as those tribes speaking the Tunican, Chitimachan, and Muskogean languages.
Archaeological culture maps
Mound builders Facts for Kids. Kiddle Encyclopedia.