- Historic Sites
“…and The Mound-builders Vanished From The Earth”
What became of the prehistoric race that built the elaborate ceremonial mounds found in the Ohio and Mississippi valleys? Nineteenth-century America had a romantic but self-serving answer
June 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 4
Their culture flourished and expanded for hundreds of years, reaching a strange climax about 1500 with the development of the so-called Southern Cult, a religious movement typified by grotesque decorative styles employing figures of buzzards and snakes, flying horned serpents, weeping eyes, skulls, and eerie faces. The appearance of this cult has been explained as a shock reaction springing from the bloody and disastrous invasion of de Soto and his Spaniards in 1539–43, but recent research has shown that it antedates de Soto, and may have been an expression of vitality rather than terror, its symbols representing harvest and renewal rather than death and nightmare.
But by the end of the sixteenth century the Temple Mound culture was in decay, and its important centers —Cahokia in Illinois, Etowah in Georgia, Spiro in Oklahoma, Moundville in Alabama, and others—were abandoned. They were already in decline when the white man appeared, and they withered at his touch. The ancient customs lingered, reduced and diluted; about the huge mounds of revered ancestors the familiar rituals and festivals continued, but in a mechanical, ever less meaningful way, until their inner nature was forgotten and their practitioners could no longer remember that it was their own great-great-grandfathers who had built the mounds. The Creek, Chickasaw, and Choctaw Indians who occupied the Southeast when the Europeans came were in all likelihood the unknowing descendants of the Temple Mound folk. But only the Natchez Indians maintained their old ways into the eighteenth century, when the French destroyed their culture.
Archaeologists today, having disposed of the Mound Builder legend, busily search for detailed knowledge of the development, decline, and possible relationships of the Adena, Hopewell, and Temple Mound people, reducing romance to a complex series of phases, aspects, and cultural traditions. They smile at the fancies of yesteryear. Some of the mounds remain, celebrated locally as tourist attractions; and it is difficult now to comprehend the intensity of interest they provoked a century and more ago, or to grasp the deeper motives that led so many to believe that they were the work of superior beings hidden in the mists of time. Yet there is magic in the mounds now, despite the labors of those who have shown us why we must not talk of a nation of Mound Builders. Looking at these mysterious grassy monuments, one succumbs easily to fantasy, and feels the presence of the ghosts of departed grandeur; and then, in warm understanding, one reaches out across the decades to the makers of the Mound Builder myth.