A number have come and gone. Some left accounts of themselves through their evolution such as Ancient Rome and Greece. They started as one thing and ended as another. Great foraging armies spread their DNA across the landscape. Alexander’s Army made it to India.

Some were wiped out such as the Incas and Aztecs and their histories were obscured by the Spanish, who sought to supplant their religion and history with a more European one.

The Mound Builders 

A lesser known and acknowledged subject in American history is the life and culture of pre-Columbian civilizations in North America. We know quite a bit about Meso-America (Aztecs, Maya, Olmecs) and South American civilizations, but little about North American societies because those who built mound cities were gone when Europeans arrived, and they left no record as to why they disbanded.

Archeologists have named the general civilization Mound Builders,  various peoples who lived in the Ohio River and Mississippi regions and flourished from around 1,000 BC to around 1400 AD.

The mound builders lived in large independent city states, one of the largest being Cahokia, with a population around 40,000 in the 13th century, comparable in size to medieval London. As the largest city it was also the most important trading city in the region, as items crafted in Cahokia can be found all over central North America. Today Cahokia is part of the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site and is a UN World Heritage Site.

They worked extensively in jade and copper.

Mound Builder culture began to decline in the 14th century and is believed to have collapsed around 1400 AD. Theories include the use of unsustainable agriculture, pollution of waterways, climate change (The Little Ice Age), and flooding. The Spanish, who arrived in the 16th century, found long abandoned cities, and they hoped to loot gold or silver but only found (relatively worthless) copper.

The Mound Builders produced a number of artifacts for archaeologists to discover, including pottery, flint items, stone statues, and copper items. Native Americans in North America generally are not known for metal working, however many Native American cultures had knowledge of copper working. In Wisconsin copper tools and weapons have been uncovered dating to 3,000-1,000 BC.

I have only a passing interest in this culture, but as with them all, it’s interesting that it was, and its end is an enigma.

copper weapons and spear points


  1. There is some talk amongst the historians and such that the various Mound Builders had links with Mayan and Aztec cultures, due to similarities with iconography and such.

    Though many of the mounds were animalistic in shape, especially snakes and such. So…

    • Yes, it looks like some sort of cultural bleed over, but the details of a lot of that are inferred. It doesn’t make them invalid but the fog of history in this regard is significant.

  2. What is the saying, “The winners write the history?” The America’s winners were the European immigrants.

    I’ve read a few of Frank Joseph’s books
    and visited the mounds at Wickliffe, KY. There is a place on the CO/OK border near Springfield, CO that has carved into the rocks what seem to be Nordic runes, along with Indian art.

    There is an Oregon Coast tribe, the Suislaw (if memory serves) who Japanese visitors can understand. Chinese mined jade from British Columbia, so say some “experts”.

    Examples go on and on.

    • Kennewick Man causes the Local tribes headaches in Washington. They won’t allow his DNA to be tested because it might not show that THEY were the “First People”.

  3. It looks like, when white settlers arrived, the culture that had kept some form of cohesiveness was long gone, leaving tribes as the highest form of government. Imagine a nation-state hitting Europe around the worst part of the Dark Ages. Would they have treated Europeans the same?

    • Europe was in the iron age during the “Dark Ages”. These people never got into the Bronze Age. However, your point is taken. If machine age people hit iron age Europe, the new culture would have likely rolled them up.

  4. Supposedly the mounds in the Mississippi River floodplain were man-made, temporary evacuation areas used in times of flooding.

  5. The Mound-Builders are interesting, but they don’t seem to have had writing, and left so little behind, and that most of what the archaeologists say is little more than guesswork overlaid by whatever modern/personal\ narrative the individual archaeologist wants to promote.


    • The mounds are there and there were artifacts there, now mostly in museums. If they had hieratic writing systems the way that the Aztecs (as an example) did, there isn’t evidence of it. A lot of mounds were built – maybe as a refuge for floods as Don suggests, above.

      They did have the ability to work copper, a skill that was lost for whatever reason, by the time that Europeans arrived.

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