Travel Guides Crafted by Experienced Archaeologists & Historians

Pre-Columbian Mounds & Mound Builders of North America

A number of Pre-Columbian cultures in North America from the Archaic Period to the Mississippian period built many different types of mounds and related earthworks for a variety of purposes. The reasons for their construction range from burial mounds, ceremonial and ritual uses, to more secular and political functions. These mounds and earthworks are an important part of the cultural heritage of the indigenous peoples of North America. In pre-Columbian Eastern and Central North America they were the only significant monumental constructions.

A Brief Introduction to 'Mound Builders' & their Mounds

Pre-Columbian North America was home to a variety of indigenous cultures that built mounds and earthworks for a variety of purposes. These cultures, collectively referred to as “mound builders,” flourished from the Archaic period (8000-1000 BC) to the Mississippian period (800-1600 AD).

During the Archaic period, many Native American cultures built mounds for burial purposes. These mounds were typically conical or oval-shaped and were used to inter the remains of important individuals or groups of people. In some cases, these mounds were also used to mark territorial boundaries or to signify the presence of a particular group or community.

One of the most famous mound builder cultures of the Archaic period was the Adena culture, which flourished in the Ohio Valley and parts of the eastern United States between 1000 BC and 1 AD. The Adena people built elaborate burial mounds, often containing grave goods such as pottery, jewellery, and other artifacts. They also built circular enclosures, known as “sacred circles,” which were used for ceremonial purposes.

During the Woodland period (1000 BC – 1000 AD), various Native American cultures continued to build mounds and earthworks for a variety of purposes. The Hopewell culture, which flourished in the eastern United States between 200 BC and 500 AD, is known for its elaborate earthworks, including mounds, geometric enclosures, and effigy mounds. The Hopewell people built these earthworks for ceremonial and ritual purposes, as well as for burial and to mark territorial boundaries.

The Mississippian period, which lasted from 800-1600 AD, saw the rise of several powerful Native American societies that built elaborate mounds and earthworks. The most well-known of these cultures is the Mississippian culture, which built large, complex settlements featuring mounds, plazas, and palisades. The Mississippian people built mounds for a variety of purposes, including as platforms for buildings, as burial sites, and for ceremonial and ritual purposes.

One of the most famous Mississippian sites is Cahokia, located near present-day St. Louis, Missouri. Cahokia was a large, complex settlement featuring dozens of mounds, including the 100-foot-tall Monks Mound, which was the largest prehistoric earthwork in North America. The people of Cahokia also built a number of other mounds, including burial mounds and platform mounds, as well as a network of palisades and plazas.

Other notable Mississippian cultures that built mounds and earthworks include the Oneota culture, which flourished in the Upper Midwest, and the Fort Ancient culture, which flourished in the Ohio Valley. Both of these cultures built mounds and earthworks for a variety of purposes, including as platforms for buildings, for ceremonial and ritual purposes, and for burial.

The 'Mound Builder Myth'

The so-called ‘Mound Builder myth’ refers to the erroneous belief, popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries, that the mounds found throughout the eastern United States were built by a lost civilisation of white Europeans. These whites had brought their advanced architectural and engineering skills with them. And had almost surely been wiped out by the ‘red man’. And it was the task of the new wave of white colonists to reclaim North America. 

The Mound Builder myth was used to support the idea that Native Americans were inferior to Europeans and did not have the skills or knowledge to build the mounds themselves. This belief was used to justify the displacement and exploitation of Native American cultures, as well as the theft and destruction of many of their cultural artifacts and sites.

The myth persisted despite Thomas Jefferson’s early attempts at archaeology on the mounds at Monticello showing these monuments were in fact built by Native Americans. As Jason Colavito sets out in his book, The Mound Builder Myth, Fake History and the Hunt for a “Lost White Race”, this myth was peddled by some of the most powerful, white men in the land. With the specific intention to create  false ancient history of North America. A false narrative that would have devastating consequences for Native communities.

The myth persisted for well over a century after Thomas Jefferson’s pioneering work, and despite his conclusions. But it has now been conclusively debunked by modern archaeology, which has shown that the mounds and earthworks were built by various Native American cultures over a period of hundreds of years. These cultures had their own sophisticated systems of knowledge and technology, and were more than capable of building the mounds and earthworks on their own. And attached great religious, social and political significance to these monuments. Today, the Mound Builder myth is widely considered to be nothing more than a baseless and harmful  narrative based on racist and Eurocentric stereotype of indigenous cultures.

Visiting Mounds & Earthworks in North America

Cahokia Mounds State Historic State

Cahokia Mounds are the remains of what was the largest and most complex urban settlement in the USA before the arrival of European colonists. The earliest evidence for human activity dates to about 500 AD, and by 1200 AD there were over 120 mounds and covered an area estimated at about six square miles. Today the archaeological site is in Cahokia Mounds State Park just east of St Louis and on the other side of the Mississippi River, which gives its name to the culture that built these impressive mounds

Effigy Mounds National Monument

Located along the Upper Mississippi River Valley, the Effigy Mounds National Monument comprises over 200 earthen tumuli erected by indigenous populations of the area. Many of these mounds are shaped like animals, such as bears and birds; the largest is the Great Bear Mound. Various Native communities living in Iowa regard the mounds as sacred. A visitor’s centre explains more about the heritage of the site and the people who built them.

Etowah Indian Mounds State Historical Site

Georgia’s archaeology is famous for its large earthen mounds, and among the best known are those at Etowah. Archaeologists call the people who built it members of the Mississippian Culture, and it remains the most extant site associated with this culture in the American Southeast. The mounds were constructed between 1000 and 1550 AD and are accompanied by a plaza, settlement area, and defensive ditch. An onsite museum showcases artefacts recovered from excavations.

Pinson Mounds State Archaeological Park

About 11 miles south of Jackson, Tennessee, outside the small town of Pinson, lies one of the largest mound sites in the Eastern United States. The site is a ceremonial earthwork complex that includes 17 mounds, covers an area of approximately 1,200 acres, and contains the second-highest surviving mound in the United States. There is no evidence that these were fortified settlements, rather it seems they were built for burial and ceremonial purposes. Besides the mounds, there is an onsite museum and six miles of hiking trail.

Serpent Mound

Serpent Mound is a large earthen mound, one of the most spectacular effigy mounds, in the shape of a snake. The tail is thrice coiled, out of which the body emerges looping back and forth seven times before ending at the head, which was placed near the edge of a cliff above a stream. The mouth of the serpent is open, and extends around a 37 metre-long hollow oval feature – as if swallowing an egg. In all the snake is over 400 metres in length and the height of the body varies from about 30 cm to a metre, making this the largest of the effigy mounds of the eastern United States.