Why and How did Native
Americans Build Mounds
Architect Richard Thornton is a member of an alliance of Creek, Choctaw and
Seminole scholars, who over the past seven years have been intensely studying
the heritage of the Muskogean peoples. Much of their activities have involved
re-examination of the archives of the early Spanish, English and French
exploration of the Southeastern United States. We have asked Richard to provide
AccessGenealogy with some of his work. As we add to these articles we will
also be providing a question and answer section for the reader to ask questions
When English and Scottish settlers
first arrived in what was to become the United States,
they encountered literally thousands of abandoned
earthen and shell mounds that seemed not to be
associated with occupied Indian villages. Typically, the
new arrivals assumed that the ?savages? were
intellectually incapable of carrying out major public
works. Therefore, they speculated that Europeans or
advanced societies from the Middle East had once lived
in the New World until they were exterminated by the
Indians. It would not be for another 200 years that the
public would become generally aware that about 90-95% of
the societies who built those mounds had died of
diseases or had been enslaved in the decades following
Spanish exploration of the region.
Some tribes in the Lower Mississippi Valley were still
occupying mounds when French settlers arrived, so there
was no French speculation about the origin of abandoned
mounds. The best known of these last mound builders were
the Natchez. They also stopped building mounds after the
?Indian mound? is the common name for a variety of solid
structures erected by some of the indigenous peoples of
the United States. Most Native American tribes did not
build mounds. The majority were constructed in the Lower
Southeast, Ohio River Valley, Tennessee River Valley and
the Mississippi River Valley. Some shell mounds can be
found along the entire length of the United States?
Mounds could be built out of topsoil, packed clay,
detritus from the cleaning of plazas, sea shells,
freshwater mussel shells or fieldstones. All of the
largest mounds were built out of packed clay.
All of the mounds were built with individual human
labor. Native Americans had no beasts of burden or
excavation machinery. Soil, clay, or stones were carried
in baskets on the backs of laborers to the top or flanks
of the mound and then dumped. Hundreds of thousands of
man-hours of work were required to build each of the
larger mounds. It is likely that the shells in shell
mounds were thrown there after large community feasts.
Between 900 AD and 1600 AD most mounds in the Lower
Southeast were plastered with bands of brightly colored
clays. The more advanced societies of the Lower
Southeast and Mississippi Basin had professional
architects, who laid out the structures in advance, then
directed the work crews. It is believed that mound
construction in the Ohio Valley and Lower Southeast
during the period between 200 BC and 600 AD was
supervised by religious leaders.
Uses of Mounds
The earliest mounds seem to have functioned both as
public landmarks for seasonal gatherings and platforms
for villages. Many of the shell mounds within the
interior of the Southeast seem merely to have been piles
of discarded freshwater mussel shells that marked the
location of annual harvests and feasts. Burial mounds
were built in the Southeast throughout several cultural
periods. The massive geometric earthworks of the
Hopewell Culture apparently defined locations of major
regional trade festivals and religious gatherings. On
the other hand, the pyramidal mounds of the Southeast,
western Tennessee and Louisiana either were the bases of
temples or the locations of important rituals. Some
pyramidal mounds, built between 300 AD and 750 AD were
the bases of mortuary temples, where human remains were
applied special rituals and then cremated. Beginning
around 700 AD in southern Florida, 900 AD farther north
and 1000 AD in the middle Mississippi Basin, both
pyramidal and conical mounds were the bases of
conventional temples or the houses of important leaders.
This architectural tradition continued until the 1600s,
when most mound construction stopped in the Southeast.
The earliest known mound is located near Watkins Brake,
LA. It consists of an earthen ring over 300 feet (100m)
in diameter with conical mounds of varying size
dispersed around the crest of the ring. Archaeologists
believe that it was constructed around 3500 BC as a
ceremonial center for a community that migrated
Between 2500 BC and 1200 BC many shell rings were
constructed along the South Atlantic Coast. The largest
concentration of shell ring construction is found on
Sapelo Island, GA at the mouth of the Altamaha River.
Some of the rings were quite large and apparently were
the bases of small villages. More typical rings are
about an acre in size or larger. Some shell rings were
constructed in southern Florida, New England coast and
the Mid-Atlantic coast after most construction stopped
in the Southeast.
Beginning around 1600 BC and continuing though to around
1000 AD, native peoples living in the interior of the
eastern United States constructed dome shaped mounds
from either earth or fresh water mussel shells at
locations where they congregated seasonally to fish,
harvest shellfish or hunt. Some of these mounds were
possibly used for burials.
Between 1200 BC and 500 BC massive semi-circular
platforms were constructed in northern Louisiana and
used as the bases of permanent villages. The larger
villages, such as near Poverty Point, LA also
constructed mounds on top of these platforms in the
shapes of animals.
Between around 800 BC and 200 BCD, an ethnic group, now
known as the Adena People constructed hundreds of dome
and cone shaped mounds in the Ohio River basin.
During the same period as the Adena Culture, Native
peoples in the Southeast built many burial cairns and
some large effigies out of fieldstone. They also
constructed some cone shaped, earthen burial mounds.
Between 200 BC and 500 AD, participants in the Hopewell
Trading Network built mounds and earthworks. Initially
the mounds were simple cones like those of their
neighbors the Adena. Over time they grew to massive,
complex geometric forms. Toward the end of the Hopewell
Period some of their mounds resembled the earthen
pyramids of the Lower Southeast. Very few Hopewell
houses have been discovered by archaeologists.
Apparently, the villages were small seasonal settlements
and did not contain mounds.
The Native peoples in the Lower Southeast possibly
traded with those of the Hopewell Culture, but built
permanent communities and ceremonial centers that
resembled more the architecture of that time in Mexico.
Around 0 AD, a massive pyramidal shaped mound that
covered two acres was begun on the Etowah River in
northwestern Georgia. Adjacent to it was a large plaza,
smaller mounds and houses. The town around the mound was
occupied for about 600 years. During that same era,
Kolomoki, a town with as many as 20 mounds, that seems
to have been a ceremonial center, was occupied in
southwestern Georgia. There were also large complexes in
the Okefenokee Swamp of Georgia and northern Florida.
Beginning around 300 AD an advanced culture began
developing in southern Florida in the vicinity of Lake
Okeechobee. By 700 AD, large towns with dozens of
earthen structures were evolving in the region. Several
of the towns seemed to have been influenced by the
In 900 AD a large trading center was founded on the
Ocmulgee River in what is now Macon, GA. Construction
began on earthen mounds in the simplified forms of Maya
A little after 1000 AD, construction was begun on a
massive mound near modern day St. Louis at a site now
known as Cahokia. About that time, another major town
was founded on the Etowah River in NW Georgia, now known
as Etowah. About 1100 a very large ceremonial town began
developing on the Black Warrior River near Tuscaloosa,
AL. Monks Mound at Cahokia, Mound A at Etowah and Mound
A near Tuscaloosa eventually became the largest, second
largest and third largest mounds, respectively,
constructed north of Mexico.
Between 1250 AD and 1300 AD there seems to have been a
cultural or political change in the Southeast. Mounds
built after this time tended to be smaller. Most towns
were smaller two, but the number of towns grew
Mound building stopped in most of the Southeast around
1600 AD, but continued for another hundred years on a
smaller scale, in the Lower Mississippi River Valley.
Architectural Forms of Mounds
Most mussel shell mounds were irregular ovals.
Truncated four sided pyramids
Truncated five sided pyramids
Since most Indian mounds in the United States have been
abandoned since 1600 AD or earlier, erosion, cultivation and exploratory
excavations have radically changed their appearance from when they were in use.
Visitors to historic sites, where mounds have been preserved, do not realize
that they were once earthen buildings with brightly colored decorative motifs on
the side. Most mounds also had large ceremonial ramps or at least wooden steps
leading to the top. As a result, laymen often view the remnants of these huge
structures as something akin to landscaping, rather than true forms of public
The Great Temple Mound at Ocmulgee & acropolis dominated a 12
mile long cluster of villages.
Photo: Photo and model by Richard Thornton, Architect
Notes About this Material
Source: Richard Thornton, an alliance of Muskogean scholars, professors and
professionals. Copyright Richard Thornton, Blairsville, GA, 2010. Used here with