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Pyramid Builders of North America

Hopewell Culture Earthen Pyramids – H. Rowe 2008, Wikimedia Commons

In the eastern parts of the United States, where the states of Illinois, Kentucky, Ohio, Mississippi, and Louisiana are now located, a large and advanced indigenous culture left their lasting legacy through impressive earthworks, commonly called “mounds.” Usually referred to as the Mound Builders, these structures actually are earthen pyramids. Many pyramids had several levels with platforms and buildings on top. Since these were not created out of stone, as were the Mayan and Aztec pyramids of Mexico and Central America, over centuries the earthen structures eroded and blended into softly curved hills covered by grass. Thousands upon thousands of these pyramids blanketed the region, built by successive civilizations, connected through networks of rivers and roads. These Native American cultures interacted and traded extensively, as shown by widespread presence of artifacts from coastal, Great Lakes, mountainous, and Gulf regions.  

Pyramid Builder cultures Hopewell Period – H. Rowe 2010 Wikimedia Commons

Why were they called Mound Builders and not Pyramid Builders? Archeologist Edwin Barnhart thinks there is residue of European superiority in selecting this term. To call the structures pyramids gives them an elevated status, implying a well-organized and advanced culture. The common European mythos about indigenous Americans held them to be an inferior race, little more than savages, whose widely dispersed villages and simpler lifestyles implied a primitive culture. This view made it easier to usurp their lands and disrupt their societies, opening the “frontier” to settlement by a more “developed” society. After all, it was the Manifest Destiny of European invaders to take over this New World that was barely settled with few primitive inhabitants.

Admitting that the Native Americans had advanced, complex cultures with ability to build immense structures, govern large populations, and maintain a widespread network would remove European excuses for ruthless confiscation and domination. Growing awareness of these advanced cultures is challenging long-held beliefs. Dr. Barnhart brings this into sharp relief in his excellent series for The Great Courses Plus, “Ancient Civilizations of North America.”

Since having to stay mostly at home due to coronavirus precautions, I’ve been participating in more webinars, zoom meetings and conferences, podcasts, and virtual on-line programs. Dr. Barnhart, head of the Maya Exploration Center, has recently created a series of podcasts through a platform called Patreon. As a member, I’ve listened to all 4 podcasts to date and find them totally fascinating. One podcast was about the Adena culture, one of the earlier pyramid builders of North America. I became so interested that I subscribed to his Great Courses program. Both my husband and I have spent many enjoyable and educational hours learning from Dr. Barnhart about the long, impressive history of advanced civilizations in what is now the U.S.

Great Courses Plus – Ancient Civilizations of North America

Why isn’t this perspective on pre-contact North American history taught in school?  Even though a lifelong fan of history, especially ancient civilizations, I had only the slightest exposure to the indigenous cultures of my country. What I’ve learned in these programs vastly expanded my concept of the peoples and societies that came before European settlement. This is something that every American would benefit from knowing. It helps us appreciate our rich heritage and also acknowledge what has been lost in the dismantling of indigenous cultures.

My next several blogposts will cover some of the great civilizations of North America. This is also to honor Native American Heritage Day on November 27.

My blogposts will start with the Pyramid Builders, though Dr. Barnhart’s programs start by exploring the origins of North American peoples. The latest research verifies through DNA evidence that they came across the Bering Strait from Asia. The Great Courses Programs cover Clovis, the first paleolithic culture, and Archaic period information. The Pyramid Builders started the first coherent civilizations bringing together far-flung Archaic practices, evolving through several stages.

  • Adena Culture – about 3,000 years ago the Adena culture built conical burial mounds in modern-day Ohio. They had a shared concept of an afterlife shown by their burial practices. It is thought they were the first habitual tobacco smokers, for ritual purposes. Their influence spread widely across the region.
  • Hopewell Culture – following Adena was the Hopewell culture, known for building massive earthen pyramids and other huge structures. They spread the practice of burying important dead in earthen mounds, and influenced all the eastern North America peoples through their trade networks and art traditions. They had knowledge of mathematics and astronomy, using these to orient ceremonial structures to solar and lunar events. Their numerous complexes with geometric patterns are found all across Ohio.
  • Mississippian Culture – about 1,200 years ago the Mississippian culture introduced use of bow and arrow and expanded reliance on farming. They build cities with defensive walls indicating increased warfare. Their influence spread with a large corpus of art and extensive trade networks. The mythological creation stories brought by this culture are still part of traditions among many current indigenous nations.   

Poverty Point Culture

Artists conception of the Poverty Point archaeological site near Epps, Louisiana at it’s height. UNESCO World Heritage Site 2014 . H. Rowe 2016, Wikimedia Commons.

Even before these cultures, an intriguing structure was built 3,500 years ago at a location called Poverty Point, in the northeast corner of Louisiana. Dr. Barnhart calls this North America’s first city. It was a planned community built on 900 acres that once had up to 5,000 inhabitants, the largest settlement in North American at that time. Situated next to the Mississippi River, the houses were arranged in several rows forming a huge crescent. The ridges forming these rows were 4-6 feet high and 140-200 feet apart. In the central plaza were pyramid structures, including one of the oldest pyramids ever built anywhere. The largest pyramid was 50 feet high and 500 feet long, aligned east to west. A large bird effigy mound was also there, 70 feet high and 640 feet across. On the western side of the plaza were deep pits that once held huge wooden posts serving as calendar markers. Watching the sun’s shadows, residents could predict the changing of the seasons and the main solar stations such as solstice and equinox.

Poverty Point was occupied for 1,000 years, thriving from 1730 – 1350 BCE. People of this culture also occupied villages that extended for nearly 100 miles on either side of the Mississippi River, including over 100 sites. To build such great projects, a sustained investment of human labor was required, along with organizational skill, leadership, and dedication of the society. Archeologists have excavated numerous artifacts including pottery, tools, figurines, and cooking objects. There were stone cooking balls heated in bonfires and dropped into pits with food. Human figures and animal effigies were possibly used for religious purposes. Artifacts of flint, iron ore, slate, copper, quartz, and soapstone, some from over 600 miles away, attest to broad trading patterns. Uniquely, they used stone to make beads while other cultures used softer materials like bone and shell. Many beads depict animals commonly found nearby, such as owls, dogs, locusts, and turkey vultures.  

Poverty Point Artifacts, Wikimedia Commons.

Poverty Point especially interests me, since I’m originally from Louisiana. All those years growing up, and I was never aware of this huge ancient city! Visiting Poverty Point is definitely on my bucket list.

My next blogposts will give more details of the Adena, Hopewell, and Mississippian cultures.

Author in Mayan dress.

3 Comments

  1. ixcanaan says:

    This is fascinating, Lennie! Thanks!!

  2. Heather says:

    enjoyed this, Lennie.

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