Wikijunior:Ancient Civilizations/Mound Builders

Where did they live?


The "Mound Builders" lived in what is today the eastern half of the United States and southern Canada, in North America.

Because the people who lived in these societies did not leave any written records, archaeologists look for similarities and differences between the mounds, and figure out which groups of Mound Builders interacted with each other.

What did their buildings look like?



The name for this society comes from the fact that they left large earthen mounds behind in what appears to be community centers of activity. Many of these earthen mounds have been removed by modern peoples in North America, but they were found in many of the same locations where current cities in the United States are now located. They also lived in Spiro which is now present day Oklahoma.

A major feature of most villages was a trading area where items could be exchanged for items that were made in places much more distant. It is known that these trading networks were quite large, and they may have even had contact with other major civilizations in North America like the Aztecs. Items such as obsidian knives have been found over 1000 miles from any known source of volcanic rock.

Often within these mounds, particularly some of the larger mounds, there have been the remains of what is assumed to be a major chief or king, based on the items that are found buried with the person. This was also a reason for why many of these mounds have disappeared, because early treasure hunters would dig through these mounds trying to find gold, silver, or other precious stones and jewelry.

When did they live there?

  • Early Woodland - Adena in Ohio, others in Illinois, Kentucky, West Virginia
  • Middle Woodland - Hopewell in Ohio, others in Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Kentucky
  • Late Woodland - Effigy Mounds in Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota
  • Mississippian - Cahokia Mounds in Illinois, Spiro Mounds in Oklahoma

What did they eat?


They ate a wide variety of food items, depending on where they were living. Corn (maize) was brought into the area from Mexico and was widely grown together with other vegetables like beans and squash. They also hunted both small animals like rabbits and squirrels and larger game animals like bison and various types of deer. In some lake regions, they ate wild rice, and also ate fish either from the ocean or from freshwater lakes and rivers. They dried many foods to eat in the winter. And they also drank water from freshwater rivers.

What did they wear?


It is not completely clear how they dressed. If you look at the traditional clothing of their descendants, it was probably simple clothing made for protection from the weather. Their clothing was probably made mostly from animal skins. It may have also included plant fibers, and might have been colored with plant-based dyes.

What did their writing look like?


As far as we know, the Mound Builders never invented written language with an alphabet. There are, however, images which have been carved into rocks and in caves, as well as inscribed onto everyday objects like pottery. These can be found throughout North America. These images are called petroglyphs.

Often these symbols were arranged to tell a story, or note something of significance to the people who drew these symbols. Usually these symbols would be used to remind a tribal elder about a story that would then be passed on to the next generation, and unless that oral history has been preserved, the story is usually lost

The ceremonial masks, jewelry, and artifacts come from a wide range of places. The Hopewell mounds had copper from Lake Superior, mica from North Carolina, and shells from the Gulf Coast. This might show that the beliefs were held in a wide area, or it might only show that the Mound Builders traded over a wide area.

The first evidence of humans burying the dead comes from the Mound Builders.

Are some of them famous even today?


We don't know the name of a single Mound Builder. Because the Mound Builders did not use writing, no names are known today. But we are still researching them, hopefully we will find names.

What happened to them?

  • There is some evidence (war, abandonment of some towns for small, stockaded settlements) that the civilization was in decline before the conquistadors arrived in Central America.
  • The diseases brought by the conquistadors spread quickly through the Americas. Lots of people died from European diseases like smallpox, especially in Mississippian towns where people lived close together.
  • By the time Europeans reached the Mississippi, many of the towns were empty.

What is left of them today?

  • They spread the cultivation of corn, beans, and squashes throughout Eastern (and Central?) North America. These foods were the most important foods of many Native Americans, were important foods to the Europeans who settled the land, and are still important today. North Americans eat a lot of corn and beans. Some squashes (like pumpkins) are important symbols of fall and Thanksgiving in the US.
  • They left many mounds, which archeologists still study today. Some of the mounds are set aside in parks and monuments, so that people can look at the mounds, and learn from them. Some of the mounds are burial mounds, which contain ornaments. Archeologists learn how people lived and dressed from what is left in the mounds.

It is believed that they are the ancestors of several Native American Indian groups in North America.

  • The Mississippian cultures left no written records, because they did not have a writing system like we have. They could not write books.
  • culture: stories, architecture, tools, and arts of Native Americans.
  • Native American Art is known around the world today.
  • Native American folk tales
  • Native American religious beliefs

Who lives there now?


Settlers from England and Europe often built their own towns on or near abandoned mound builder towns, because they were in good locations for farming or trade. In some cases, they forced the Native Americans out before settling. Some cities that were built on or near mound builder towns are Cahokia, Illinois; Marquette, Iowa; and Chillicothe, Ohio. Now, the people who live in these places are citizens of the USA or Canada. They study the history of Europe, and of the people who built the countries of North America. Their ancestors are mostly from Europe, Africa, and Asia.

Most of the people who live on or near mound builder towns don't even know it. Now, hundreds of years later, people are beginning to study the graves, towns, and temples of the mound builders.