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The Mound Builders- the Adena, Hopewell, and Cahokia

Updated on September 6, 2014

Travels through the Mississippi and Ohio Valleys are filled with scenic landscapes, views that might be passed by with nothing more than a second glance at the beauty they bestow. Upon careful inspection, you might notice the rolling slope of a hill; if you're paying particular attention to the signs along the road, you might just understand that what you've seen is an important part of American history.

Unbelievable remains are still in existence, which bear record to some of North America's earliest civilizations. Yes, the Egyptians built the pyramids, but even before that, Native Americans were constructing enormous communities that were centered around giant semicircular mounds perched on the bluffs that overlook the mighty Mississippi River.

More than a thousand years before Columbus set sail, a group of Native Americans had already been living and trading across half the continent. They had established trade routes in the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys; they traded precious metals with present day Canada; and left behind evidence of flint mined in the present day state of Indiana. These people were the Mound Builders; they were Americans before the advent of what we know as America.

The mound builders had more than a few reasons for the hills they created. Many different Native American cultures built the mounds over a period of thousands of years. Constructed from dirt, sand, gravel, debris, and ancient artifacts; it is often hard to distinguish their appearance from the natural landscapes that surround them today. Mounds can be sporadically found throughout the Mississippi and Ohio Valleys. Over 5,000 mounds were built in North America between 7000 B.C. and A.D. 1700.

The mounds found in North America occur both as single structures and groupings. Built entirely by hand, transportation of soil and rocks was done without the use of wheeled vehicles or animal labor. Sizes and shapes of the mounds vary. They were used for burial, something that was done with great ceremony, and as effigies. Some also distinguish themselves as intricately planned geometric landscaping. They served as tombs; they served as foundations for houses and temples; and they were even used as marks to identify territories.

Temples built atop the mounds were a place of sacred worship. Worshippers would approach the temples by climbing sets of steep stairs or ramps built up the sides of the mounds themselves. Depending upon the culture, reverence may have been shown for the Mother Earth, who was worshipped as the "giver of life." In which case the mound was seen as a symbol of the womb.

Archaeologists have marked three different periods during which mound building occurred in North America; the Archaic Period, the Woodland Period, and the Mississippian Period. The Adena, Hopewell (Woodland Period), and Cahokia (Mississippian Period) cultures were each adept at the craft they've become known for; they were indeed builders of mounds.

Burial Mounds Ohio
Burial Mounds Ohio | Source

What is a burial mound?

What is a burial mound? To some that would seem a silly question, but why bury the dead in mounds? How were they planned? Were they planned at all, or did they just appear indiscriminately as members of the community passed on?

Burial mounds were planned, and they were built in layers. Families had their own personal mounds, similar to the family plots in cemeteries today. Constructed in layers, each level of the mound contains members of the community buried according to their station. Lesser members of the tribe were cremated before being entombed in tiny logs; the logs were then covered with dirt. Burials of chiefs, shamans, and priests would have been accompanied by great ceremony. Like the Egyptians, their bodies would have been kept company by cultural items such as pottery, projectile points, beads, and pipes.

Effigy Mounds

Effigy mounds were well planned and constructed into shapes that depicted creatures like birds and bears. Their purpose was both religious and social. Archaeologists believe that these types of mounds are connected to the constellations and the celebrations of the winter and summer solstices. Effigy mounds were also occasionally used for burial.

Effigy mounds were only erected during the late Woodland Period, and most of these particular mounds are located in present day Wisconsin.

Effigy Mounds
Effigy Mounds

Geometric Mounds

Geometric mounds were usually circular, square, or rectangular. They were mainly used for ceremonial purposes, but in later years they were also used as tombs. It is also believed that the geometric mounds may have been used as observatories.

Geometric Mounds
Geometric Mounds

The Woodland Period and the Adena

The Woodland Period lasted more than a thousand years, dating from about 500 B.C. to A.D. 700. During this period cultures developed in the North American Eastern Woodlands, which stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Plains. The early Woodland peoples were nomadic; they moved from place to place, season to season, to hunt, fish, and gather wild plants. Over time, these groups conquered the cultivation of plants, and eventually they began to settle in small communities. The earliest of these communities were small, consisting of only two or three households; later communities were larger, possibly home to as many as 100 people.

Woodland villages required food sources, and besides hunting for game, the Woodland people began growing crops. Early settlers depended upon crops such as gourds, squash, and sunflowers. Later, corn (maize) would become as integral part of the Woodland people's diets, as tobacco cultivation would become a source of trade.

Archaeologists recognize the Adena as the first of the two major mound-building cultures during the Woodland Period. The Adena began their construction of mounds around 600 B.C., in the area we now know as southern Ohio.

Little information is known about the Adena culture, and the information we do have is based upon what has been found in the burial mounds they are famous for. Items found within the mounds themselves have been a window into a world that without them would be an elusive mystery.

The Adena mounds are generally conical in shape, and their sizes vary greatly. Mounds may be as large as 100 meters in diameter, and they are surrounded by moats. Each mound has only one access to its burial site, and the moats were built with single gateways for entrance.

Adena mounds (tombs) were constructed from the floor up. The tomb's base was made up of logs, surrounded by poles, topped with a platform, roofed with tree bark, and covered with soil. The weight often resulted in the tomb's collapse.

The Woodland Period and the Hopewell

The most complex of the mound building cultures during the Woodland Period, was that of the Hopewell in the Ohio Valley. The Hopewell culture flourished during the years between 100 B.C., until about A.D. 500. Their community was centered around religious ceremony and focused upon the death ritual. Hopewell mounds can be found throughout the modern day states of Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Missouri.

Leaders of the Hopewell were buried in huge mounds. At the time of burial, the deceased would be accompanied by all the wealth they would require in the afterlife. In one burial site, archaeologists discovered thousands of pearl beads, necklaces adorned with the teeth of grizzly bears, and ornaments made of copper.

Other objects that have been discovered tell us that the Hopewell participated in trade with other areas of North America. Shells and shark teeth from what is now Florida, pipestone from present day Minnesota, volcanic glass from Wyoming, and silver from the province of modern day Ontario.

Around A.D. 500, the trade networks began to collapse, and the Hopewell culture disbanded. Members took to the hills. Based on the large, sporadic earthworks that were created for defense, it is believed there was unrest in the area. Who created this unrest? Your guess is as good as mine. The supposed invaders remain unknown.

The last evidence of the Hopewell culture can be found in the earth walls they constructed. The people disappeared, but the mounds remain.

The Mississippian Period

As the Woodland Period came to a close, another mound culture emerged in the southeastern Mississippi Valley, in what is aptly known as the Mississippian Period. Mississippian communities began establishing themselves just after the year 900 A.D.

Mississippian people began building towns on the flood plains of the river. Regular flooding enriched the area's soil and produced excellent conditions for farming. The rivers were also conducive to trade.

Towns were built around large, flattop mounds, and other earthworks that would border the plaza, a place for public events. Temples, meetinghouses, and the homes of chiefs and priests were located on top of the mounds, declaring their importance. The mounds also supplied the entire community a place of refuge during times of flooding. Many of the towns were protected by stockades.

Artistry from the period can be seen in the many artifacts that have survived to give us a glimpse into the Mississippian people's history. They made a variety of decorative pottery, in the shapes of animals and human beings. The most common symbols are those of the falcon and the jaguar, something that has led historians to believe that the culture had undeniable ties to Mesoamerica.

Cahokia is known as the jewel of the Mississippian culture. Located in present day western Illinois, Cahokia was once home to more that 30,000 people. With over 100 mounds in the area, Monk's Mound, the tallest, stands ten stories high on a base that covers sixteen acres. While excavating the site, archaeologists discovered posts that were laid out in a circular pattern. It is believed that the posts were used as a calendar, that the people track time using the shadows cast by the sun, and that the position of those shadows gave farmers the knowledge to plant and sow their crops.

The Mississippian Period came to a close in the early 1700's, but not before European explorers had the opportunity to get a glimpse of them first hand. It is said that conflicts had a part in the demise of this once great culture, as did the diseases brought to the Americas by Europeans.

© 2014 Awdur

Cahokia Townsend Mural
Cahokia Townsend Mural


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