Close Window


Mound Builders

From: Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes, Third Edition.

In the eastern part of North America, especially along the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys, there are thousands of mounds not formed by geological processes. Although it was realized long ago that these earthworks, many of them enormous and some in the shape of animals, were human-made, it was not known who the makers were. Archaeologists of this century and the last have since provided the answers. It is now known that the Mound Builders were Prehistoric Indians whose cultures lasted many centuries. The Mound Builders have been classified as four different cultural groups: Poverty Point, Adena, Hopewell, and Mississippian.

The various Mound Builders lived during the phase of North American prehistory known as the Formative period, which followed the Paleolithic and Archaic periods. The Formative period lasted from about 1000 B.C.E. until C.E. 1500 and was characterized by farming, house building, village life, pottery, weaving, plus other advances in technology. Along with peoples of the Southwest Cultures, the Mound Builders had the most complex and organized way of life of all the Indians north of Mexico during this period. Some of their villages expanded into actual cities.

Poverty Point Culture

The Poverty Point site near present-day Floyd in northern Louisiana represents the earliest evidence of mound building. Flourishing at an early stage—the various mounds constructed between 1800 to 500 B.C.E., and apparently by a nonagricultural people (although some scholars theorize a certain amount of farming among them)—Poverty Point can be called a transitional culture between Archaic Indians and Formative Indians.

The largest mound at Poverty Point—70 feet high and 710 by 640 feet wide—resembles a bird with outspread wings and was probably built for a ceremonial purpose. The site has five smaller conical mounds, four to 21 feet high, plus six concentric earthen ridges, the outermost with a diameter of two-thirds of a mile. Unlike later Mound Builders, Poverty Point Indians did not use any of their mounds for burials. The ridges are known to have held structures.

Poverty Point artifacts include finely crafted stone beads and pendants, clay figurines, and flint tools. The presence of copper, lead, and soapstone artifacts indicate widespread trade contacts.

More than 100 Poverty Point sites have been located in Louisiana, Arkansas, and Mississippi, with other sites in Tennessee, Missouri, and Florida also showing Poverty Point influences. Whether Poverty Point peoples migrated northward and helped create the next great mound building culture, the Adena culture, is not known.

Adena Culture

The Adena culture lasted from approximately 1000 B.C.E. to C.E. 200. The name Adena, pronounced uh-DEE-nuh, comes from an estate near Chillicothe, Ohio, where a large mound stands. The peoples of the Adena culture also built mounds in territory that is now Kentucky, West Virginia, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and New York, primarily along the Ohio valley.

Most of the Adena earthworks were burial mounds. Earthen hillocks were built up over burial pits or log-lined tombs. To make these imposing mounds in honor of their deceased leaders, the Indians dug up earth with sticks, bones, and shells and carried it to the burial site in woven baskets or animal-skin bags. With each new burial, another layer of dirt was dumped on a mound, making it even higher.

Adena Indians buried objects along with their leaders, just as the ancient Egyptians buried objects with their pharaohs under the great pyramids. At Adena sites, archaeologists have found beautifully crafted tools and ceremonial objects, including a wide range of stone, wood, bone, and copper tools; pottery; cloth woven from plant fibers; bone masks; stone pipes; stone tablets, often with bird designs; ornaments made from a mineral called mica; pearl beads; and stone and copper gorgets (worn over the throat).

In addition to burial mounds, Adena Indians constructed mounds with symbolic shapes. A famous example is the present-day Serpent Mound near Peebles, Ohio. This earthwork is a rounded mound about 2 to 6 feet high, 4 to 20 feet across, and 1,348 feet long. When viewed from above, it has the shape of a snake, with head and jaws seeming to close on another mound (possibly representing an egg) and a coiled tail. (It is assumed the Serpent Mound is of the Adena culture rather than Hopewell because a nearby burial mound has yielded Adena artifacts, but no artifacts have been found in the serpent itself.) Other Adena earthworks have geometric shapes, ridges of earth laid out in circles and usually surrounding the burial mounds.

Adena Indians were primarily hunter-gatherers. They found enough game and wild plant foods in their homelands to be able to live in permanent villages of pole-framed houses covered with mud and thatch. Some among them might have grown sunflowers and pumpkins for food. Many of them eventually cultivated tobacco for smoking rituals.

It is not known for certain what became of the Adena Indians. Some of them might have been the ancestors of the Hopewell Indians whose culture came to displace them. Or perhaps Hopewell Indians were outsiders who invaded Adena territory and killed off remaining Adena peoples.

Hopewell Culture

The Hopewell (or Hopewellian) culture lasted from about 200 B.C.E. to C.E. 700. Like the Adena culture, it was centered along the Ohio valley. Yet archaeologists have found Hopewell mounds and objects over a much wider area composed of the Illinois river valley, the Mississippi river valley, plus many other river valleys of the Midwest and East.

Hopewell Indians established a wide trading network. At Hopewell sites, archaeologists have found objects made of raw materials from distant locations, including obsidian (black volcanic glass) from as far away as the Rocky Mountains, copper from the Great Lakes, shells from the Atlantic Ocean, mica from the Appalachian Mountains, and alligator skulls and teeth from Florida. Hopewell peoples were highly skilled craftsmen. They shaped raw materials into exquisite objects, such as stone pipes with human and animal carvings; pottery with designs; ceramic figurines; obsidian spear points and knife blades; mica mirrors; shell drinking cups; pearl jewelry; gold and mica silhouettes (delicately carved in flat profiles); and copper headdresses and breast ornaments.

Like Adena peoples, Hopewell Indians placed these objects in tombs and under mounds. The Hopewell burial mounds were generally larger than Adena mounds. Many of them covered multiple burials and stood 30 to 40 feet high. Other Hopewell earthworks represented creatures. Still others served as walls, as much as 50 feet high and 200 feet wide at the base. These are often laid out in geometric shapes. At a Hopewell site in Newark, Ohio, over an area of four square miles, are found walls or enclosures in different shapes, including circles, parallel lines, a square, and an octagon.

The existence of these mounds indicates that Hopewell Indians had a highly organized society. Villagers had to work in unison to build the giant earthworks, with their leaders and priests directing them. The trading expeditions required cooperation among the different villages.

The development of farming allowed villages to expand. Enough corn, beans, squash, and other crops could be cultivated to support growing populations. Hopewell villagers lived in domed structures, framed with poles and covered with sheets of bark, woven mats, or animal skins. The Hopewell dwellings were much like the wigwams of Algonquians.

Perhaps Hopewell Indians were direct ancestors of the later Indian tribes of eastern North America. Yet there is no proof of what happened to them and why their great culture fell into a state of decay. Changes in the climate, with prolonged periods of drought as well as crop failures, might have brought about the cultural decline. Warfare and epidemics could have also depleted their numbers and disrupted their way of life.

Mississippian Culture

The age of mound building was not over, however. Starting in about C.E. 700, around the time of the demise of the Hopewell culture, a new culture evolved throughout much of eastern North America. It was centered along the Mississippi River and is therefore referred to as the Mississippian culture. Mississippian sites can be found from Florida to Oklahoma and as far north as Wisconsin. Mississippian Indians constructed mounds for a new purpose. They situated their places of worship on top of them. As a result, Mississippian Indians are also known as Temple Mound Builders.

One of the most intriguing aspects in the study of prehistory is the question of contacts and influences between different cultures. Without hard evidence, such as an object from one culture found at the archaeological site of another, scholars have to guess about cultural connections, based on similarities in arts and crafts and other customs. A connection between the great Meso-american civilizations—Olmec, Maya, Toltec, and Aztec—with early Indian cultures north of Mexico has long been theorized. For example, the Mississippian practice of placing temples on top of mounds is similar to the Mesoamerican practice of placing temples on top of stone pyramids. At various times in prehistory, Indians very likely crossed the Gulf of Mexico in boats, perhaps even venturing up the Mississippi River to trade or to resettle, which would explain cultural similarities.

A typical Mississippian mound had sloping sides and a flat top where the temple stood. Log steps ran up one side to a pole-and-thatch structure. Some of the mounds had terraced sides where other, smaller structures stood. These were homes of priests and nobles. The higher the rank of an individual, the higher he lived on the mound. The chieftain or king of a particular village often lived on top of his own mound. Other villagers—merchants, craftsmen, soldiers, hunters, farmers, and laborers—lived in pole-and-thatch huts surrounding the mounds. Some Mississippian dwellings were pithouses, with vertical logs extending from rectangular pits. Villagers conducted their business in the village's central open plaza.

The temple mounds could be enormous. For example, Monk's Mound at the Cahokia site near present-day East St. Louis, Illinois, covered 16 acres and stood 100 feet high. Archaeologists have guessed that it was built in 14 different stages, from about C.E. 900 to about 1150. Cahokia, once a great village—more properly called a city because it housed more than 30,000 Indians—contained 85 mounds in all, both temple and burial mounds. In one burial mound, archaeologists have found remains of 110 young women, probably a sacrifice to the gods. The Native American city, covering about 4,000 acres near the Mississippi River where the Illinois River flows into it, had a central urban area and five suburbs.

Cahokia was the largest Mississippian population center. Other large villages are known as Moundville in Alabama; Etowah and Ocmulgee in Georgia; Hiwassee Island in Tennessee; Spiro in Oklahoma; Belcher in Louisiana; Aztalan in Wisconsin; and Mount Royal in Florida. (Many Temple Mound sites are state parks that welcome visitors. At some of them, there are ongoing archaeological excavations.)

In order to support such large, centralized populations, Mississippian Indians had to practice farming on a large scale. They grew corn, beans, squash, pumpkins, and tobacco in the rich silt of riverbeds.

In addition to being master farmers, the Temple Mound Builders were skilled craftsmen, working in a variety of materials—clay, shells, marble, mica, a mineral called chert, copper, and feathers. They made highly refined tools, pottery, masks, gorgets, pipes, headdresses, and carvings.

Many of the ceremonial objects found at the Mississippian sites reveal symbols of death and human sacrifice—skulls, bones, buzzards, and weeping eyes. It is thought that the Temple Mound religion, called the Death Cult (or Buzzard Cult or Southern Cult), and its powerful priests served to unify the various villages. Trade between villages also helped to keep the peace.

For some reason—warfare, overpopulation, drought, famine—the great Mississippian villages were abandoned. Cahokia ceased to be a thriving center about 1250. One theory has it that before European explorers reached the Temple Mound Indians, their diseases did. Coastal Indians might have unknowingly spread the European diseases inland through trade, starting deadly epidemics.

In any case, by about 1550, the period of mound building had ended. Many eastern Indians, especially the Southeast Indians, continued to use the ancient mounds. Some of them, such as the Choctaw and Creek, might have been direct descendants of the Temple Mound Builders. Some tribes continued to practice many of the ancient customs of the Mound Builders, in particular the Natchez.


Text Citation (Chicago Manual of Style format):

Waldman, Carl. "Mound Builders." Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes, Third Edition. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2006. American History Online. Facts On File, Inc.
ItemID=WE52&iPin=ind2391&SingleRecord=True (accessed April 29, 2016).

Other Citation Formats:

Modern Language Association (MLA) Format
American Psychological Association (APA) Format

Additional Citation Information


Return to Top

Record URL: