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North American Mound Builders: Adena, Hopewell & Mississippian

North American Mound

After the conquest of South America, the first Spanish explorers encountered rich and complex Indian civilizations. In contrast, the vast territories of North America seem pristine and devoid of any truly organized society.

Forgotten indian populations?

In the 18th century, the pioneers, who crossed the Mississippi and Ohio valleys, were surprised to find curious mounds of earth covered with brush and trees.

Soon were discovered similar mounds throughout current central and southern United States. Some of these mounds represent gigantic animals while others are pyramids with the flat end (Temple Mounds) and whose base extends over several kilometers. A few still form cones about thirty meters high.

It quickly becomes clear that these mounds are not of natural origin but that they were built by man. This discovery contradicts the knowledge of the time on the first North American Indians, presented as semi-nomadic hunters or fishermen, sometimes farmers, whose civilization hardly seems advanced.

The settlers also discovered, especially in the region of the Ohio River and its confluences and near the future city of Newark, in the State of Ohio, earth walls about 5 meters high defining circular zones as well as octagonal and rectangular which can extend over 40 hectares. One wonders then if these places did not shelter an Indian culture today disappeared. This assumption is reinforced by a new discovery.

An advanced society which practiced funeral rites

Inside these ancient indian mounds were found a large number of objects proving the skill of those who made them: stone engravings, finely worked shells, bird-shaped pipes, hands and snakes made of mica, carved pipes and pottery. Bones were placed next to these objects: would these mounds be burial mounds?

As in other civilizations with similar beliefs (in Egypt, for example), these objects are buried with the deceased to follow him in his future life. The tall, flat pyramids appear to be religious buildings, and the animal-shaped mounds are said to have a ritual function. As for the earth walls, they probably had to circumscribe sacred spaces.

We later discovered a site where a large undulating snake, 407 m long, known as the Serpent Mound, is drawn. But it is only with the appearance of aerial photography, the only one capable of giving a general view, that the drawing can be appreciated at its true value.

Recognition of giant mound builders

All of these constructions obviously belong to civilizations prior to the Spanish conquest, but the name and origin of these builders, nicknamed “Mounds Builders”, remains to be known.

Several theories have been put forward, some quite fanciful, such as that which sees the work of Vikings who would’ve arrived in America long before Christopher Columbus. Nobody, on the other hand, thought that these cultures could be that of the American Indians: their descendants seemed indeed incapable of producing similar works of art.

However, in 1839, the ethnologist Samuel Morton, who examined many skulls found in the mounds, proves that they are identical to those of the Indians of the 19th century: the mounds are therefore undoubtedly the work of their ancestors. The accounts of a certain Hernando de Soto (1499-1542), who claims to have seen Indians in the southeast of the United States build similar mounds, supports his theory.

But this testimony was not discovered until late, and Morton's conclusions remain disputed for a long time. It was not until 1881, and the establishment by the American Congress of a commission of inquiry led by the archaeologist S. Thomas which believed in the theory of a disappeared population, that the authorship of this culture of mounds was finally recognized as belonging to North American Indians.

Who were these mound builders?

Adena Indians

The first known mound builders were the Adenas. This culture, which is illustrated by numerous burial mounds, developed and flourished between 1000 and 300 BC in Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Indiana. Important figures are buried in wooden log graves, completely burnt during funeral rites, before being covered with a conical mound. The Adenas are responsible for the amazing Serpent Mound.

Hopewell Culture

From 300 BC, Hopewell culture develops and perfects the technique of mounds. The constructions become larger, with walls 5 meters high. The objects found in the mounds testify to the existence of a complex economic, social and religious network. The Hopewells export their crafts in exchange for exotic materials (shells, obsidian, shark teeth).

Mississippian people

The last group of mound builders, the Mississippians, came after the Hopewell period. This culture is characterized by the truncated pyramids at the top of which are erected temples. Skilled craftsmen, these Indians built mounds until the 16th century, but their culture did not survive the arrival of Europeans.

People and Civilization