Moundbuilders, Myths, and Misunderstandings

   When Cyrus Thomas began his excavations of the thousands of earthen structures across the eastern and central United States for the Smithsonian in the late 19th century he began to unravel for the first time the true meaning of these amazing and enigmatic piles of dirt, which had generated every form of fantastic speculation since the first Europeans had arrived.  Almost from the time the pioneers began to move out of the eastern floodplains and into the vast continental interior, they began to encounter many complex and extensive burial and other earth structures. Many of the most elaborate of these were located in the vast Ohio River Valley system and its extended environs throughout the midwest and southeast, often covering many acres of cleared land.

It quickly became apparent to even these early settlers that the native tribes and peoples they had thus far run into (and over--in most cases) lacked the apparent technological or social organizational level to construct these often immense individual mounds or complexes.  The ignorance (or reluctance to speak) of these mounds by the native peoples themselves led some ethnocentric Europeans to quickly assume that those large, artificial structure could not have been built by the peoples they were then encountering.  Of course, this was a most convenient oversight for those pioneers to make; because, for whatever reason either deliberate or otherwise, it was in their collective best interest to deny any potential long term relationship with the existing tribes and these earlier, more advanced cultures.  It was, after all, always morally easier to take the land from those who could not otherwise establish a long, pre-existing claim to it.  Then, too, there was the problem of dating the mounds and complexes themselves.  Archaeology was not even in its infancy yet, and the parallel cultures of central and south America had already entered into the realm of myth by the arrival of the 19th cent.  Ironically, it would be Thomas Jefferson (advanced as always in his thinking) who would conduct the first 'scientific' excavation of a small burial mound on his own property in VA (using the earliest recorded example of stratigraphic digging) and come to the conclusion that the distance in time between the mounds and the present was, indeed, considerable.


In the meantime mounds had been looted, leveled, or incorporated into more modern layouts. (A trip through the Scioto Valley in Ohio--the very center of the moundbuilders' world--will reveal a mound in every old cemetery, or as property line boundaries, and other such convenient markers.)  As burials were exposed the apparent differences in head shape, body size, and artistic expression of the mound occupants led many to speculate some connection with many different, more distant peoples.  They were descendants of the Aztecs (either lost or on some missionary trek north).  Conversely, others preferred to make them the more distant progenitors of those Central American high civilizations, correctly guessing at the relative antiquity of the moundbuilders. Then, of course, the most popular theory relegated them to the biblical mystery of The Lost Tribes of Israel, an idea that would culminate with the inclusion of this particular myth with Joseph Smith and the amazing tale of the lost Book of Mormon.   The Lost Tribes Theory was a  more popular idea and one that had religious backing to help off-set a little of the moral dilemma of displacing those who could not possibly then be descendants of those travelers.  At any rate, whatever the source of these unknown peoples, they had to be accounted for in some way other than as the direct ancestors of the obviously heathen and less advanced native peoples that the pioneers were bumping into wherever they went.  Between early farmers who plowed down countless smaller mounds and complexes and the more or less deliberate destruction of misguided "researchers" or outright plundering by 'relic hunters', only a small percentage of the larger and more important complexes survived into the 20th Century.


When Cyrus Thomas and his disciples began their excavations in many parts of the midwest and southeast in the late 1800's popular mythology played these many mistaken ideas against one another. New ideas of 'science', such as phrenology (the study of skull shape and measurements) often fueled the speculation that the moundbuilders could not have been the ancestors of living native peoples, due to apparently common head shape variations, regardless of what the causes of such variations might have been.  However, as Thomas and his associates, employing for the first time meticulous excavation and recording techniques, began to correlate their finds, they observed many obvious similarities in burial practices (stone box graves similar to recent Shawnee burials in Tenn., for example) and pottery manufacturing styles with unbroken stylistic sequences to early existing types which could not be ignored.  More importantly, they were also able to clearly distinguish three separate, but continuous phases of mound building across a wide area.  We now call these Adena(early), Hopewell (middle) and Mississippian (late) and the entire period The Woolland Period.

By establishing long, uninterrupted sequences from the earliest to the latest types, which had been shown to have existed into historic times among tribes like the Natchez, Thomas was finally able to put to rest the myths of the moundbuilders as anything but the natural descendants of earlier stone age peoples and the ancestors of the then modern tribes of what we would call the Woodland Peoples.  The birth of modern American archaeology also got its first big boost from those trying to solve the moundbuilder problem, leading to the excavations and preservation of these remarkable structures at a time when their continued destruction and loss from our landscape due to ignorance or wanton indulgence had seemed inevitable in the face of "Progress".  Even today, we are still tapping into the mysteries of these amazing peoples and their knowledge of the heavens, plant domestication, and other universal human accomplishments for which they remain one of the closest and clearest windows reaching into our own stone age past.

For more information on the origins of the moundbuilders, their place in American prehistory, and their impact on our own geography and mythology, the reader is encouraged to read the fourth novel in The People of the Stone series. A DARK WINGED SHADOW, is set in the central Ohio Valley at the very beginnings of the amazing Adena culture and is based upon the actual findings of the excavation of the Criel Mound of the Kanawha Valley in WVA by Frederick Putnam and others.  The next novel in the series, THE CORN MAIDEN'S GIFT focuses on the rise and fall of the great Hopewell cultural explosion, perhaps the very highlight of Woodland prehistory in native North America.  Set in both the Scioto Valley near the heart of moundbuilding cultures and at the great ceremonial center of Cahokia in Illinois, this novel explores the processes that might have led to the decline and fall of these great cultural centers just prior to the arrival of the first Europeans (a theme explored in the sixth and final novel of the saga, CHILDREN OF THE CIRCLE).  THE CORN MAIDEN'S GIFT also includes the growing controversy over the role that contact with the advanced cultures surrounding the Gulf of Mexico might have plaid in the development and ultimate destruction of the Mississippian cultures of Cahokia and the American midwest.

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In his recent book 1491 Charles Mann talks a lot about very large mounds, some of  them constructed mainly of broken pottery, in the jungles of south america. How do these fit in time with the large mounds like Cahokia in this country and is there any information about their construction? Also, what percentage of mounds were excavated in this country at the time of Cyrus Thomas and others and are there many big mound excavations today?

In reply to William S. and his very good question about the recently identified large mound complexes of South America, I have looked at Mann's excellent and provacative book, 1491, again to verify that these mounds appear to be roughly contemporary with the high point of N. Am. mound construction during the Mississippian, or late prehistoric period of the central Mississippi region, including the great Cahokia complex.

The construction of the S. Am. mounds as described by Mann is quite spectacular.  One can only imagine that these huge piles of broken pottery may have been a substitute for dry earth in those rainforest areas where shallow water tables and constant rainfall must have made piling up large heaps of earth difficult at best.  This is only speculation, of course, and I suspect that there are major archeologist's chomping at the bit to get their shovels into those mounds, if everything Mann has described is borne out. No doubt there will eventually be quite exciting news about these recently discovered sites, at least we can hope.

Speaking of excavations in regards to William S's second question, there are very few large mounds remaining unexcavated in the Ohio Valley region that I am aware of.  Cyrus Thomas and others were very active in the late 19th century, and modern destruction and early 20th cent. looting took care of many others.  Also, it has become very expensive to mount such an extensive project.  Most schools concentrate on federal grants to work on endangered sites and on public lands primarily.  Besides, large mounds are time-consuming for the rewards and most archeologists already know what they are likely to find inside--not too glamorous for prospective grant writing these days.  Then, too, most of them were identified early on and became private property at a time when protection of them was unknown. Those few on public lands were generally excavated early on it seems.

I am personally aware of one large, unexcavated mound (one of the five largest in WV) located on the property of Camden Park, a privately owned amusement park just outside of Huntington, WV.  This mound has been protected by the Park owners for many decades and represents a unique, undisturbed opportunity for better equipped archeologists at some future date, perhaps.

I hope this satisfies some of William S.'s curiosity. I look forward to hearing more such questions or added comments in the future.  Everyone is reading different source material and it is good to get new information or points of view.

Tom Kuhn

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