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The incredible and oft-overlooked legacy of the Mound Builders
In 1539, the conquistador Hernando de Soto arrived in Florida with an expedition of 620 men, 220 horses, and nine ships. His aims were various—including searching for a new route to China—but like the other Spanish invaders of his time, he sought gold.
De Soto’s ill-fated quest may have traversed parts of modern-day Georgia, the Carolinas, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Texas. It claimed the life of De Soto himself (as well as numerous members of his expedition and opposing Native Americans killed in battle). Three years after the expedition had begun, only 311 of the 620 members of his expedition made it back to Mexico City alive (the former Aztec city had only been absorbed into “New Spain” about 20 years before). These survivors recounted tales of indigenous tribes who buried their honored dead in giant earthwork mounds, upon which wooden temples were constructed.
Twenty years later, a French expedition to establish a colony in present-day St. Augustine, brought French artist Jacques Le Moyne to Florida. He created a painting that depicted indigenous tribes burying a chief beneath a mound, an image later preserved in an engraving.
Le Moyne captioned his painting:
“Sometimes the deceased king of this province is buried with great solemnity, and his great cup from which he was accustomed to drink is placed on a tumulus with many arrows set about it.” (quoted in Silverberg1)
But the French were soon driven out of Florida by the Spanish. It wasn’t until 1673 that the French sent further explorers into the Southeast. Though they encountered indigenous tribes, they encountered no tribes who lived among great tomb-like mounds. These peoples had vanished without a trace. To them, North America seemed an empty continent, with few civilizations that rivaled the colonists’ own in the realm of the built environment.
Over the next two centuries, as the thirteen British colonies transitioned into the expansionist United States, more white settlers arrived to the Southeast and the Midwest, and many of them came across gigantic mounds. Many local indigenous peoples claimed no knowledge of the origin of the mounds. To many white American settlers, it was inconceivable that the Native Americans they encountered were capable of building mounds and monumental architecture. They hypothesized that the mounds could only be the work of ancient Vikings or long-lost Jewish tribes. After building great tombs and cities in North America, these mythical proto-Western colonists had been overrun and extinguished by Native American invaders. It was a racist theory facilitated by the embryonic state of archaeology at the time.
In a way, the white American mythologies of long-lost civilizations formed an attempt to compete with the early archaeological exploits of French, German, and British expeditions to Greece and the Middle East in the late 19th century. In America too could be found great ruins—there was the work of the Ancestral Pueblo peoples (then known as Anasazi, their descendants the Pueblos who still lived in adobe dwellings), and there were the Mound Builders, an almost-Atlantean presence whose apparent mythological hubris led to their destruction.
The suggestion of a non-indigenous origin for the Mounds was especially ironic, because De Soto and the early French colonists had observed Native American tribes with these traditions just a few hundred years before.
It was only through the late 19th and early 20th century efforts of the Smithsonian Institution’s Bureau of Ethnology (an institution with a controversial history2) that serious—albeit seriously flawed—archaeological investigations were pursued at the Mounds. This scientific process reaffirmed the truth—several cultures of indigenous Americans had indeed been the authors of the Mounds.
It’s a good thing the Smithsonian pursued the work when it did, because the Mounds were disappearing quickly—tragically leveled by farmers and the US military-industrial complex in the construction of World War II bases and factories. Only a few dramatic examples of the Mounds survive today. But the examples that still exist—such as Ohio’s Great Serpent Mound and Illinois’ Cahokia settlement—are absolutely spectacular.
What we now know is that smallpox and other European diseases decimated the Mound Building populations in the years between De Soto and the American West. It is estimated that a population of 60 million in the Americas was reduced to 6 million by disease between 1492 and 1592,3 leading to a population crash that wiped out many different cultures; the overgrowth that claimed the Mound Building cities over the next two hundred years gave Europeans the false impression that these areas had been unoccupied for a very long time, it at all. If they did notice the Mounds, they classified them as deeply ancient.
In fact, long before European colonization, indigenous civilizations known as the Adena and Hopewell cultures built mounds as part of their settlements. Some were forts, some were tombs, and some also had temple-like functions.
At Cahokia, just across the Mississippi River from the modern city of St. Louis, Missouri, the Mississipian culture built what is called Monks Mound, an earthwork with similar dimensions at its base as the Great Pyramid of Giza. In the year 1000 CE, some archaeologists believe that Cahokia might have possessed 40,000 residents, a larger population than London had at the same time.
I visited Cahokia in 2020, part of a cross-country trip during that fateful year.4 The site was impressive, at 100 feet (or 30m) Monks Mound is much taller than you realize at first glance. The fact that St. Louis was visible from its peak indicated that people had been living in this location for a very long time.
It is to my eternal chagrin that my primary school education—as well I suspect that of most other Americans’ education—never addressed the Mound Builders. In elementary school we covered indigenous Latin American civilizations such as the Inca and Maya, local Chumash tribes (when I was in school in Los Angeles) and Nacotchtank tribes (when I moved to the D.C. area, Nacotchtank being the origin name for the “Anacostia” River). But we never discussed the Adena or the Hopewell, the builders of the mounds. For too many, American history begins at Plymouth and Jamestown, the Seven Years’ War, and Britain’s decision to place a tax on colonial postage (in hindsight, probably not the measure to get you upset enough to start a revolution).
So, next time you visit the Midwest or Southeast United States, see if there are any Mound Builder sites nearby (a guide to Mound Builder sites can be found here). You may be surprised, and realize that the buildings of the United States are just the latest form of architecture built atop an ancient, indigenous legacy.
Robert Silverberg, The Mound Builders (Athens, OH: Ohio UP, 1986). This book, while dated, formed the principal research source for this post. While dated in some respects, Silverberg’s book is a highly engaging read, telling the story of the history of science by going through the baffling histories 19th century mound-mythology promoters proposed, and how the Smithsonian helped restore indigenous history to the legacy of the Mound Builders. Silverberg is—he’s still alive—a very interesting person, a prolific sci-fi novelist who resorted to some interesting writing tactics to pay off his debts. Another popular book discussing the Mound Builders is Charles C. Mann’s modern bestseller, 1491.
In 1990, the Smithsonian began the process of repatriating 3,000 indigenous remains and other artifacts collected by the Bureau of American Ethnology. Woodbury, Richard B., and Nathalie F. S. Woodbury. “The Rise and Fall of the Bureau of American Ethnology.” Journal of the Southwest 41, no. 3 (1999): 283–96. Link.