Moundbuilding: Technology Challenge or Social Event?

With literally thousands of earthen mounds of all sizes scattered over much of the eastern United States the question is often asked, "How were they built and why are there so many?"  For us in the modern world looking at the tecnological level of the moundbuilders, who lacked any metal tools except for raw copper, it would appear a daunting task to build the huge earth burial structures of the Ohio Valley and the temple mound complexs of later Hopewell and Mississippian times such as Cahokia and others.  However, just as we marvel at the achievements of Neolithic farmers at Stonehenge and other places in the middle east and elsewhere, we should not lose sight of the fact that our own N. American native peoples were living in this same transitional, agricultural period and had the same needs and abilities to deal with the newly awakened forces of nature as their contemporaries in other parts of the world.


When it comes to the actual technological challenge of constructing the mounds themselves, experiments by many archeologists and others in constructing simple mounds using relatively small labor pools have shown that we may frequently overestimate the time or population levels required to actually pile up the dirt. Nor do the builders require tools beyong the level of simple digging sticks, often tipped with antler, and a variety of woven carrying baskets.  Several small mounds designed for individual burials have been built in as little as one day using student volunteer labor (the Kampsville project of the late 70's and early 80's in Illinois is one such example).  On-going reconstructive experiments in and around Stonehenge in England have recently revealed the ability of Neolithic peoples to concentrate themselves for such public works on a scale not always appreciated before now.  That many of these early, large mounds were built as burials for high status individuals also indicates a fairly centralized and cohesive social organization with powerful authority figures able to assemble and lead such complex, division of labor projects.  We should never underestimate the ability of these early peoples to both see and define the solution to a complex problem, but see also their ability to then execute what to us seems like a difficult, time-consuming task performed in the face of their normal challenges of a stone age existence--challenges we often see as beyond our own capability, therefore, beyond theirs as well.


It can be no coincidence that the appearance of mounds and other monumental building, public works projects appear at the earliest shifts to basic agricultural patterns nearly everywhere they are found in the world.  However, since the moundbuilders, unlike their contemporaries elsewhere, never proceeded culturally to the level of written records (at least not in North America) their technological abilities--as well as complex religious and social structures--are often overlooked.  However, the Great Serpent Mound in Ohio and other, later non-burial structures of some elaboration have not always been viewed at the same level of cultural achievement as the more durable stone remains of contemporary populations elsewhere.  These structures culminate, of course, in the building of the great Monks Mound at Cahokia in Illinois, the largest artificial structure in prehistoric north America.  To what degree the building of such massive structures was seen as a means of controlling large farming populations during those seasons when their labor in the fields was not needed exclusively we can only infer from such earlier projects in ancient Egypt and elsewhere. (Note: this author will be visiting the pyramids of Giza later this month for an upclose look at the greatest public works project of all human prehistory, perhaps. What a thrill!)  We should also begin to look more at the cultural anthropology of the moundbuilders, rather than seeing them as a purely archeological exercise, with a view to understanding the cultural and religious dynamics of why they were building mounds moreso than just marvelling at the way they were constructed and what we can find inside the structures themselves.


Despite the best efforts to protect the most visible of these great mounds, many were lost long before protection of them was seen as necessary. Many other smaller mounds continue to be plowed under in fields, unidentified along ridgetops, or otherwise lost to development or other destructive forces.  We are only coming to understand the full capabilities of these early farmers as to their abilities to record and interpret solar, lunar, and other celestial events along with the importance of the burial and other structures they built in recording or interpreting these events.  That mounds should be see as essential elements of a complex society rather than as merely the markers for high status indivduals is a relatively new idea in those areas where they have always been seen as a common element of local lore and environment, subject to the whims of modern needs for construction and destruction as deemed necessary.  While they may have been more simple to build than we had earlier believed, mounds were surely more integral parts of a complex society and social organization that we are still searching to understand.  More, not less, protection is needed for these amazing 'gifts' of dirt from our prehistoric past, for there is still much to learn that they may yet teach us.

For a closer look at how mounds were built and a detailed perspective on their cultural significance and influence on later peoples, the reader is urged to check-out A DARK WINGED SHADOW, the fourth installment in The People of the Stone saga of novels.  Set in the Ohio Valley in the early Adena period, it is a look at the origins of large-scale burial mound building from a novelist's, as well as an archeologist's perspective. It is an important and exciting story, wrapped in a prehistoric tale of political intrigue and sibiling rivalry on a most unusual scale.

To add your own comment or question click on Comment and log on to our easy to access and secure website.  Your ideas are welcomed and important.


Leave a Comment

Leave a Comment With Your Facebook Account!