Lessons from Travels: The Mound Builders

by Carl Strang

There was a time when I thought of the North American landscape in an ideal sense, wanting my ecological studies to delve into the interactions of organisms and their history without any messy intrusions of human influence. Certainly my experiences as a graduate student in the Alaskan wilderness supported that point of view. As I spent more time in the field and continued to observe, and think, I gradually came to the realization that this ideal vanished thousands of years ago as humans filled the continent and influenced it strongly. That understanding became more concrete as I visited earthworks created by Native American civilizations. My first such encounter was Serpent Mound in Ohio.

It is difficult to have a proper perspective from ground level. The shape is a winding narrow mound with a mouth-like extension at one end embracing a separate oval shape.

It is difficult to have a proper perspective from ground level. The shape is a winding narrow mound with a mouth-like extension at one end embracing a separate oval shape.

The whole has been compared to a snake, with the oval either representing its head or perhaps an egg the snake is about to swallow. My own interpretation is much different. It reminds me of an ovary and oviduct with its expanded, embracing end, and thus has fertility symbology.

In 2005 I made a couple trips that included a number of stops at other mound-builder sites. Mound City in Ohio was the first stop.

This site has been studied and preserved, as part of the Hopewell Culture National Historic Park, with interpretive amenities for the public.

This site has been studied and preserved, as part of the Hopewell Culture National Historic Park, with interpretive amenities for the public.

The Hopewell culture flourished around the first 400 years A.D. during the Woodland Period, a transitional time when people with a hunting gathering culture increasingly were including agriculture in their economy.

A defining boundary ring a few feet high contains various sizes and shapes of mounds.

A defining boundary ring a few feet high contains various sizes and shapes of mounds.

Sophisticated works of art, many of them based on animal forms, have been found in Hopewell sites.

Excavation of a mound revealed that it had been constructed over a charnel house (the walls indicated by the posts), which had been burned along with the accumulated human remains it had housed.

Excavation of a mound revealed that it had been constructed over a charnel house (the walls indicated by the posts), which had been burned along with the accumulated human remains it had housed.

Already it becomes clear that mounds had more than one function in these societies. The greatest mounds are in Illinois, at Cahokia.

This photo does not do justice to the largest mound at Cahokia, though the car, telephone poles and human figure silhouettes give some sense of its size.

This photo does not do justice to the largest mound at Cahokia, though the car, telephone poles and human figure silhouettes give some sense of its size.

Cahokia was the greatest center of the Mississippian Culture, which followed the Hopewell times and lasted until drought forced a decline beginning around 1400 A.D.

The view from the top of that high mound shows that its lesser neighbors were themselves substantial.

The view from the top of that high mound shows that its lesser neighbors were themselves substantial.

The Mississippian economy was strongly dependent upon agriculture.

This reconstructed ring of poles, nicknamed Woodhenge, apparently was a ceremonial observatory.

This reconstructed ring of poles, nicknamed Woodhenge, apparently was a ceremonial observatory.

The population around Cahokia was huge, a city by any definition, and it all was built and collapsed before Europeans or Americans arrived on the scene. The huge mounds were built basketload by basketload of excavated earth.

These mounds were of a third type, having buildings constructed on top of them. Moundville, in Alabama, is a site where one of the mounds has a reconstructed building on top.

Moundville was part of the Mississippian culture, and so was connected to Cahokia.

Moundville was part of the Mississippian culture, and so was connected to Cahokia.

Continuing south, I made a stop at Poverty Point in Louisiana. This Archaic Period town was much earlier than the sites described above, and in 1500 B.C. was the largest settlement in North America.

The trees give some sense of scale to this Poverty Point mound.

The trees give some sense of scale to this Poverty Point mound.

Emerald Mound is an impressive single construct in Mississippi. It was active later than Cahokia, but was still an expression of the Mississippian culture.

The climbing people show this moundlet was of good size.

The climbing people show this moundlet was of good size.

Here is that moundlet from the other end of a plain.

Here is that moundlet from the other end of a plain.

That plain is revealed to be the top of Emerald Mound, which qualifies as “enormous.” It is second in size only to the largest of the Cahokia mounds.

That plain is revealed to be the top of Emerald Mound, which qualifies as “enormous.” It is second in size only to the largest of the Cahokia mounds.

By the time Europeans came along, there was only a diminished remnant of the Mississippian culture, the Natchez people. Their mounds were much less impressive.

This is Temple Mound, at the Natchez Grand Village.

This is Temple Mound, at the Natchez Grand Village.

All of this serves as a cautionary reminder that the North American continent cannot be regarded as undisturbed in its ecology. It has a human history, beginning with the killing off of the megafauna, which began influencing things long before the landscape settled out of its glacial disturbance.

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