Green Moundbuilders book cover with author George Milner with white beard

The Moundbuilders of the Eastern Woodlands

The so-called “moundbuilders” of the Eastern Woodlands in the present-day United States were among the most complex cultures of pre-European societies. Yet growing archeological evidence remains under-recognized in American life.

That’s from anthropologist George Milner’s 2005 book “The Moundbuilders: Ancient Peoples of Eastern North America.”

I’ve read about an array of Amerindian communities, but the moundbuilders, which appeared to be densely populated from Ohio down to Louisana, mostly west of the Appalachian mountains and east of the Mississippi River, especially interest me. This is the first book I read dedicated to this civilization, though they get referenced often in other places. Below I share some notes for my future reference.

Here are my notes:

  • Thomas Jefferson was among early excavators of mound builders, wrote about assuming native Americans came from Asia
  • St. Louis was once known as Mound City but leveled many of them for development
  • When did people cross Beringa? 15k old Monte Verde in Chile suggests by then and two theories for avoiding glaciers: either the rugged Pacific coast or over mountains to get to an ice free channel
  • Clovis civilization is oldest found in eastern U.S., about 13,400 years ago though Meadowcroft Rockshelter in southwest PA (outside Pittsburgh) might be older — arguments for 19,000 years old
  • See the below chart from the book showing the number of archaeological “components” or individual sites in the Midwest and southeast of eastern woodlands, serving as an approximation of population in this part of the world (Other research has pointed to millions living in the Americas, more than Europe)
  • Little evidence or what early Paleoindians ate (megafauna or no?), though Shawnee-Minisink in eastern PA has signed of fish bones and fruit
  • “The involuntary builders of such refuse heaps” wrote William S Webb on first semi-permanent or seasonal camps
  • Bruce Smith on “the container revolution” of modern global commerce
  • Around 4500 BC, nomadic ways of life began declining, Amerindians spent more time in base camps for longer periods of time (Middens began to be more common)
  • By 4000 BC: exchange of non local materials began to grow quickly (copper, marine shell, steatite, banded slate and colorful cherts especially)
  • Watson Brake in present-day Louisiana is thought to be an early mound from around 3500 BCE
  • Gerard Fowke a century ago, and Jon Gibson more recently have attempted estimates on labor force required for mound building over centuries of ceremonial periods
  • Why are all the mounds in Midwest and southeast? In part the Appalachian mountains. (See map below, taken from the book)
  • Adena mounds typically covered grave sites
  • Moundbuilders Country Club
  • Serpent mound of Ohio is an exception from others
  • Native cultigens and nuts show up in diets 2k years ago; Maize and beans appear 1k years ago in large quantities but both happened over longer period and in a few big multi generational bursts
  • Judith Bense: fish more important than shellfish in diet but harder to survive in fossil record
  • Some age and sex variety in who is buried in mounds: Lyle Konigsberg
  • Special burials are not necessarily consistent with these people living with excess ornamentation
  • Why did mound-building stop? Author says shifting opinion on the idea that it was tied to broad cultural shifts, perhaps less distinction in how some leaders were celebrated
  • See below illustration of Cahokia from the book, though author notes the floodplain would have been much wetter in reality
An illustration of Cahokia, in present-day Ohio, though the author argues it would have been swampier.
  • Mounds continued years 400-1k AD but they were smaller and less elaborate
  • The Mississippi chiefs period was highly volatile
  • Around 1000 CE came the rise of chiefdoms
  • Cahokia sacrifices
  • No evidence of highly specialized crafts people (158)
  • No evidence of high burials being people who ate better (limited inequality)
  • Chiefdoms largely fell by the 15th century as the little ice age fully came on, likely caused collapse
  • Second millennium AD, Monogahela and Iroquois in PA among others into northeastern and mid Atlantic states
  • Only by 1300 CE did beans and later squash get added to maize from a few hundred years ago to eastern woodlands diets — the three sisters of the Iroquois
  • 1300-1500 rise of larger mid Atlantic populations
  • Around 1600 AD, the Iroquois five nations established to limit warring especially upstate New York
  • References population estimates before contact between 2-18 million (In contrast to 1491 book)
  • Author is skeptical of higher population estimates that extrapolate from Timucua and other indigenous groups that lost population due to disease and so assume all groups passed off smallpox before Europeans got there — notes there wasn’t that much regular communication
  • “While the United States and Canada were almost certainly occupied by more than 2 million people in AD 1500, it is difficult to believe there were more than two or three times that number.”

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