Reports of early European explorers
The artist Jacques Le Moyne ,who had accompanied French settlers to northeastern Florida in the 1560s, likewise noted many Native American groups using existing mounds and constructing others. He produced a series of watercolor paintings depicting scenes of native life. Although most of his paintings have been lost, some engravings were copied from the originals and published in 1591 by a Flemish company. Among these is a depiction of the burial of an aboriginal Floridian tribal chief, an occasion of great mourning and ceremony. The original caption reads:
Maturin Le Petit, a Jesuit priest (1619), and Le Page du Pratz (1758), a French explorer, both observed the Natchez [The Natchez are a Native American people who originally lived in the Natchez Bluffs area, near the present-day city of Natchez, Mississippi. They spoke a language isolate that has no known close relatives, although it may be very distantly related to the Muskogean languages of the Creek...] in what was later Mississippi. Having a population of some 4,000, the Natchez were devout worshippers of the sun . They occupied at least nine villages and were presided over by a paramount chief— known as the Great Sun— who wielded absolute power. Both observers noted the high temple mounds which the Natchez had built so that the Great Sun could commune with God, the sun. His large residence was built atop the highest mound, from
Later explorers to the same regions, only a few decades after mound-building settlements had been reported, found the regions largely depopulated, the residential settlements vanished, and the mounds untended. Since there had been little violent conflict with Europeans during that period, the most plausible explanation is that European diseases such as smallpox and influenza had decimated most of the Native Americans who had comprised the last mound-builder civilization.
[Swadesh believed that some of the Native languages around the Gulf of Mexico, including both Florida and Texas, were transposed Arawaks, and this has been suggested fot the Natchez as well. Mayan trade among the Arawaks did rerach as far Eastward as Puerto Rico, as evidenced by the many Mayan-style ball stadiums and the presence of imported jadeite trade items. The Mayans also influenced peoples in Colombia and there is some evidence of cultural exchange between Northern South America and the Gulf coast of the Southern United states.]
The Hopewell culture rose as the Adena seemed to fade. The former spread southward as far as Florida. Rather than being a cohesive nationalistic identity, the organization appeared more informal, as a network of trading relationships. Trade goods were exchanged; architectural ideas, religious concepts, and other socio-political concepts shared or borrowed. There is evidence some of the groups in the Hopewell culture were practising formal agriculture. This culture lasted about 700 years, to be followed by the much more advanced Mississippian culture.
The latter is famous for Monk's Mound, located in Collinsville, Illinois. Monk's Mound covers fourteen acres and rises to a height of one hundred feet. It is part of a Cahokia site that is considered to have supported a population of up to 20 thousand people in a very sophisticated social structure ruled by a chief and a strong shamanistic religious body.
The Cahokia site is also well known for its sun calendars, named Woodhenges because they were built of logs. Excavations also indicate the site was surrounded by two miles of wood stockade, an indication, perhaps, that defence remained a need, despite the size of the settlement.
The Mississipian culture reached fruition in the lower Mississippi Valley, the area between St. Louis and New Orleans. Trade certainly continued as a means of cultural transmission. By 600 A.D. this culture developed a religious elite, in ritual and in art. Mexican influences became evident, human sacrifice among them. Some religious images, symbols and designs also derived from points far south. [Emphasis Added by Dale D.]
Members of De Soto's expedition, beginning in Florida in 1538 saw the Mississipian culture first hand. So, too, did later French traders who lived with the Natchez Indians for a time. By then, however, the culture was in serious decline, ravaged by the communicable diseases introduced by the Europeans. The culture's infrastructure was disintegrated as its elites were blamed for the diseases and then exterminated.
Mound building extended from New York State to Florida and other Gulf States and westward as far as Nebraska and Arkansas. That it helped support a major culture is evidenced by one lasting "˜federation' to the 18th and early 19th centuries. The Cherokee, as an example, numbered some 60 thousand people in 100 settlements.
Doubtless, as with other cultures worldwide, mound building began for burial purposes with ritualistic significances developing around the sites. Other mounds known as effigy mounds, notably the one quarter mile long Adena Serpent Mound in Ohio, were symbolic. Platform mounds, perhaps the oldest mound form in Meso-America, thought to originate with the Olmecs, did not make their appearance in the north until the Mississipian period. [Emphasis Added by Dale D.]
Most of the history of the mound builders has been lost, many of their artifacts destroyed, their oral history distorted by time and re-telling. The evidence remaining suggests the social organization and cultural strength of a sophisticated civilization in the western hemisphere far predating the arrival of Europeans.
THE MOUND-BUILDERS AND MEXICANS.THERE is as yet great confusion in our knowledge if the different races of ancient America. For, admitting that the Sioux language, or any North American Indian language, presents traces of Asiatic derivation, this would simply prove that the Sioux came from Asia. But it would not explain the origin of the Aztec race, nor would it cast the least light on the nature of the Mound-Builders, or tell us who or what the people were whom Hoei-shin found, possibly in Mexico. With regard to these early races, some observations by an American writer may not be deemed out of place: 1--
"Centuries before the Red Indian appeared on the Northern Continent, a race (perhaps of a kindred stock) of higher civilisation dwelt on the western prairies. The 'Mound-Builders,' as they are appropriately called, left their remarkable lines of earth-works from the Lower Mississippi to the Ohio. These structures, on which successive forests of various growths have flourished and died, still survive, and surprise the stranger by their intricacy, skill, and the evidences of vast labour which they display.
[paragraph continues] Some are temples, some burial-places, some are fortifications, some are gardens, some are representations on a gigantic scale of the forms of animals and birds, for what purpose it is difficult to explain. Among these structures are mounds in the form of truncated pyramids, which seem to be the first suggestions of the pyramidal and terraced structures in Central America and Mexico, which, perhaps; formed the highest material works of this mysterious race. They must have conducted an inland commerce over a vast territory, and obtained or purchased mica from the North Carolina mountains, copper from Lake Superior, obsidian from Mexico, specular iron from Missouri, and salt from Michigan--articles which the Red Indians never possessed, except by accident. They understood a rude agriculture, and the arts of weaving and of moulding pottery and figures of animals. They even at times melted copper, and used it in instruments, though they never seem to have done this with iron. The forms of their skulls, and the evidences from their arts, show a milder and more cultivated race than any the whites have ever known north of Central America. Who they were, whence they came, of what blood or stock, is hidden in the mists of a far antiquity. They spread their busy life, and left their traces over the whole Central West, perhaps existing there as long as the Anglo-Saxon race has existed, and then they perished--their only history being written on the ground, a record obliterated by the growth of forests for uncounted centuries, but now partly deciphered by a people of whom they never dreamt. Before even the Mound-Builders, lived a lower and more primeval race, the companions, in all probability, of the fossil animals, a race whose skulls are just being discovered near Chicago, and whose contemporaries have left their stone implements beneath the volcanic deposits of the Sierras. This prehistoric and primeval man belonged to tribes as low and degraded as the present Australians; indeed, of a type more nearly approaching the simian than any hitherto discovered (with the single exception of that of the 'Neanderthal' skull.)"
The extinction of such a vast and widely-spread race as was that of the Mound-Builders, in all probability by the fierce and powerful Red Indian, indicates an immense extent of time. For as by no possibility could any mere migrations from Asia have sufficed to sweep them away, it follows that their exterminators must have long been growing in numbers before they could effectually put an end to them. The writer from whom I have quoted remarks, probably with truth, that the Mound-Builders were a milder and gentler race than their successors, and far more intellectual, as is shown by their skulls. The thoroughness with which this numerous and widely-spread people were exterminated, and the fact that no tradition of them has ever been found among the Red Indians, indicate a very remote age as the period of their disappearance. And yet it is quite certain that if, as Hoei-shin asserts, the mild and highly-refined religion of Buddha ever took root among early Americans, it must have been with such people as the Mound-Builders who practised some vast and dreamy Nature-worship, which would render them peculiarly susceptible to the teachings of the monks. For that they did practise some such religion would appear from this, that since works like theirs were in every other part of the world invariably erected under the influence of belief, it is very unlikely that they formed structures many miles in length, employing probably the labour of millions, for mere amusement. It must have been either among such a race, or by
highly-civilised Aztecs, that the monks were welcomed. But it is most unlikely that Buddhism ever made any mark upon the Aztec monarchy itself, or upon the fierce Tolteks. Had it done so, we should find its traces to this day. There is a wonderful leaven in Buddhism; it penetrates deeply wherever it goes; it changes strong and energetic faiths; it even blended intimately with the vigorous Greek element in Northern India.
Meanwhile antiquarians are constantly collecting new facts, which indicate a mysterious knowledge by the Mexicans of many phenomena of the so-called Old World. Even while writing, I learn that Senor José Ostiz de Tapia has now in New York a museum of Mexican antiquities, which is said to be by far the most important ever yet made. This gentleman, who has been for many years investigating the archæology of Central America, has collected many thousand objects. One of these is a remarkable stone image, said, according to Indian tradition, to be that of Cucumaz, the God of the Air. "It is cut from a block of chocolate-coloured porphyry, is about two feet high, and about eighteen inches in diameter. The shape is that of a feathered serpent in a solid coil, from whose widely-distended mouth the head of a woman emerges, her arms and legs appearing between the coils. This is supposed to represent the creation of woman. The type of her face bears no likeness to that of any race which ever lived in Mexico, but much resembles
the sculptured faces found in Egyptian ruins. Another singular curiosity, that also appears to connect the New with the Old World in prehistoric times, is an image cut from a black stone in the likeness of a negro. Not only are the features of the true Ethiopian type, but the shape of the head and the conformation of the figure. Both these small statues are admirably carved and finished, although their worshippers were certainly ignorant of the use of iron."
So were the ancient Egyptians; but, like the Mexicans, they had copper, which the latter, as it has been proved, brought from Lake Superior; and the Egyptians made bronze as hard as iron, an art but recently rediscovered. Yet all such testimony requires thoroughly scientific treatment. The day has gone by when loose hearsay evidence and wild conjecture passed current for very fair archeology or ethnology. The man who cannot absolutely prove a fact beyond all suspicion of forgery, exaggeration, and chance coincidence, must be satisfied to offer his conjectures very modestly, and merely with the hope that they will attract the attention of others who may deem the hint thus given of sufficient importance to develop by further investigation. Discoveries like those of the Spanish archaeologist may be multiplied ad infinitum. But they prove nothing beyond an antecedent probability. And as I have kept this strictly in mind through every sentence of this work, having specially selected the illustration by Mr Roehrig on the affinities
of the languages in preference to others, ou account of its cautious spirit, I trust that I may not be accused of positively believing that the "discovery" of America by Buddhist monks is an established fact.
It is, however, more than merely probable that we shall yet make very important discoveries as to the Mound-Builders of America. An immense stock of their remains are still buried, and, in the present rudimentary state of the archaeology of prehistoric man, little has been done--very little--with the material which has been gathered. The following brief notice from the Saturday Review of a recent work ou the subject, sums up in reality nearly all that is known of the mysterious race which once covered such an immense extent of American soil with works strikingly like those of the Old World:
"No one," says the reviewer, "will long remain in uncertainty whether the Mound-Builders were or were not the ancestors of the tribes who succeeded them in their possession. The author of 'Prehistoric Races' 1 is in no such perplexity; nor do we think that any one who compares the two will long remain in uncertainty. The vast size of the mound-works, their enormous number, and their elaborate formation, imply conditions wholly unlike those described in the volume already noticed. They imply not a thin population of free hunters and warriors, obtaining a fairly comfortable but uncertain sustenance by the chase and fishing and a scanty agriculture, but a vast nation,
well fed by the labour of a portion only of its available numbers, and therefore able to spend immense toil on such constructions; governed, probably, by powerful princes able to dispose of the exertions of their people at their pleasure; and, if Dr Foster is right, an extensive empire under a single rule, able to rely on the frontier defences for the security of the interior. We have lately noticed other works on this subject, and it will therefore suffice to state in this place that Dr Foster's book is one of the best and clearest accounts we have seen of those grand monuments of a forgotten race, and to note its peculiar merits. The most important of these is the distinct judgment expressed on the purpose of these works. They may be divided into three classes: the animal mounds, or imitations of animal forms, in rude but gigantic earthworks, chiefly to be found in Wisconsin, to which it is difficult to assign any object, except one of religion or commemoration; those which, square or round in shape, appear to have been intended as the foundations of temple observatories for the worship of the heavenly bodies, or of dwellings (often crowded together in such numbers that we can hardly assign any but the latter purpose), and yet not entrenched; and those works which are distinctly entrenchments, often containing mounds of the second class. It is possible, we suppose, that the mounds of the second class may have been separately stockaded, and in that case they would have been easily defensible; but where several are found near together with no entrenchments connecting them, it is difficult to think that defence was their primary purpose. On the other hand, the earthworks which enclose great spaces of land generally appear, by their form and location, to have been fortifications; and Dr Foster observes that they rarely appear in the centre of the region occupied by these monuments, but rather on its northern border, where the empire would be chiefly exposed to the incursions of warlike enemies. To the question, what has become of the builders, the author replies by citing traditions of the earlier and more civilised possessors of Mexico, which indicate that they once occupied
a much more northerly settlement, and were driven thence by conquering enemies. The absence of any relics of stone buildings on the mounds, compared with the grand stone ruins of Mexico, forms an obstacle to the identification of the earlier Mexicans with the Mound-Builders; but it is barely possible that a people who built entirely with wood in an alluvial country might learn to erect vast buildings of stone in one of a different character. And a long period may have elapsed between the ejection of the Mound-Builders and the Aztec conquest of Mexico--a period sufficient to account for great changes in the habits of the emigrant race. For we know, at least, that two successive forest growths have covered many of the mounds since they were abandoned, each of which must have occupied centuries, and may have occupied almost any length of time. The Indians appear to have had no tradition of the Mound-Builders, no story of their conquest, no legend even to account for the existence of the mounds. 'Our fathers found them here when they came' is surely not the sole reminiscence of a great war, and of the conquest of a civilised people and a fortified empire, that would linger among the children of the conquerors. Such an answer seems to imply either the interposition of a second race and a second extermination, or an enormous lapse of time, sufficient to extinguish the very memory of such a history as always lingers longest in the minds of a warlike race--a history, too, of which the monuments were always under their eyes."
Assuming these deductions as representing the state of our knowledge of the Mound-Builders, it would seem more probable that they preceded the present inhabitants in Western America by hundreds, or even thousands, of years, than that they were known to the Buddhist priests whom we suppose may have visited their land. It is possible--though it is as yet anything but capable of demonstration--that the civilised races of
old New Mexico, as we still see them represented in the Pueblos, were descended from the Mound-Builders, and that their ancestors were exterminated or driven to the south by a rude, fierce, semi-Mongol race, which, derived from Asia, gradually changed its characteristics with climate and intermixture, until it became the present Red Indian. For it is very certain that thousands of American Indians, particularly those of short stature, or of the dwarfish tribes, bear a most extraordinary likeness to Mongols. A closer study of the Indians remaining in New Mexico would throw light on this question. Meanwhile, it may be temporarily assumed that, as nearly every point in Hoei-shin's narrative seems to agree more or less with something known of the Mexican, Peruvian, or New Mexican history or legends, it was not with the old Mound-Builders that the monks came in contact.
Footnotes110:1 New York Times.
115:1 Prehistoric Races of the United States of America, by Y. W. Foster, LL.D., author of the "Physical Geography of the Mississippi Valley," &c. Chicago: Griggs & Co.; London: Trübuer & Cu., 1873.--Saturday Review, Aug. 30, 1874.