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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.
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.
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
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 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.
Where do you go to read reviews of books?
I’ll bet that none of these immediately come to mind: Historical Novel Society, Midwest Book Reviews, City Book Reviews, Library Thing, Book Riot, Bookish, Booklist, Foreword Reviews, or Bookpage. You’ll probably think of Kirkus, BookBub, Goodreads, NY Books, and Publishers Weekly. Or The New York Times Review of Books and Library Journal. . . for those lucky few authors.
Everyone who reads, whether print or ebooks, knows the ultimate review source: AMAZON. Where do you turn first when you want information about a book you’re interested in? Kudos if you didn’t answer Amazon — I know some people who have sworn off the behemoth of online shopping. Sadly, most readers simply find it too convenient to disdain this slick service and thus read mostly Amazon reviews.
But, there’s a world of hidden book review sources that few readers will see. These are reviews posted on individual blogs by a myriad of reviewers and hosts. The world of book blogging is huge. It’s easy for some great reviews to remain hidden, never to be seen by most readers.
My purpose in this blog series is to rescue hidden reviews of my recent book, The Prophetic Mayan Queen: K’inuuw Mat of Palenque. After it was published in January 2019, I took it on two blog tours. Each tour had 8 to 10 hosts who either wrote reviews, had guest reviewers, and/or did author interviews. It was great fun responding to their interview questions, even including a You Tube video. The book got several excellent reviews, but most were never posted on Amazon or Goodreads.
Here’s the review posted on Shannon Muir‘s blog.
Guest Review of The Prophetic Mayan Queen by Laura Lee
Wow. Whenever I read a book like this I cannot imagine the amount of research that must have gone into it. Leonide Martin’s bio says that she is a professor and Mayan researcher and I’m not surprised to hear that considering the depth of information in this book.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I know when I say that this book was
packed with info about Mayan culture that type of statement would turn a lot of
people off from reading it. You might be thinking something like, “Oh no, this
sounds dull or too hard to understand.” Honestly, I would probably have assumed
that too, but this book was SO not dull or hard to understand.
Martin seems to have a way with providing just the right amount of detail to draw the reader in and illustrate the world without dragging it down with a bunch of unnecessary stuff. I have read very few writers who can accomplish that and she seems to do it with ease.
Writing about history is one thing, but writing about a totally different world through the eyes of a 12 year-old girl is a totally different ballgame. Martin’s heroine, K’inuuw Mat was interesting, kind, motivated and, and this is the most important part– realistic! It was simply amazing to read about a girl who would have lived thousands of years ago and be reminded of my own self as a young woman.
What an experience this book was! I’m going to be keeping it in my library for future re-reads and to help me in my own historical writing. Maybe the goddess Ix Chel can bless me in my own work and make it just as historically accurate and entertaining as this one. I Cannot recommend this book highly enough if you’re on the fence about reading it! I give it all 5 stars!
Interview with the Author Leonide Martin
Where do you get the names for your characters? Most of the characters have historic names, and I use these as archeologists have spelled them. With progress in the ability of epigraphers to read Maya hieroglyphs, different spellings have emerged. My choice about which spelling to use is influenced by my past exposure to those names, and my sense of which spelling would be easier for English readers to understand. For fictional characters, I select Mayan words from a list that I’ve generated over the years. Mostly the translations of those words guide my selection, since I try to fit the name to the character.
How long did it take you to complete the book? Active writing took nearly two years, though I’d been collecting research for this time period all along. –
Which character do you love to hate? Probably my most villainous character in this book is Talol, wife of Kan Bahlam. She is jealous, scheming, and vengeful with no redeeming virtues. But, she deserves some sympathy because she is so deeply wounded by her amorous and disdaining husband. Talol does get to inflict considerable harm on those invoking her wrath, but meets poetic justice.
Tell us about your cover. Did you design it yourself? The inspiration for this book cover comes from the story itself, and my knowledge of solar phenomena at Palenque. I had the cover designed and completed by a graphic artist before I started writing the book, although I had already conceptualized the story. I knew how the story would end, and the cover depicts the final scene in which K’inuuw Mat stands on the top step of the Sun Temple built by Kan Bahlam. She honors him and his genius while symbolizing the continuous cycles of Mayan culture. I sent a sketch to my artist, gave him pictures of the temple, solar phenomena, and depictions of K’inuuw Mat on tablets at Palenque. He did a magnificent job! –