Effigy Mounds
Administrative History
NPS Logo

Chapter One:

Early Residents

Primitive hunters followed the retreating ice sheets into what became northeastern Iowa; they were the area's first known human occupants. Although no habitation sites have been found within the boundaries of the national monument, the mounds, rock shelters, and other artifacts bear witness to prehistoric occupation of the area. Projectile points of the Folsom and Clovis fluted types, elsewhere dated to well over 10,000 years of age, have been found in Allamakee County and at other locations in eastern Iowa.

These first inhabitants probably lived in small groups of closely allied families, depending for their subsistence on hunting mammoth and other prehistoric elephantine animals as well as extinct forms of horses and large bison. The Paleo-Indians used chipped stone points to tip their darts and propelled them with spear-throwers to bring down their game. Apparently they lived in temporary shelters of brush or skins, for no houses attributable to them have been found, although scattered remains of their game kills and hunting camps are known. [5]

By 6—7000 years ago, Archaic Hunter—Gatherers occupied the mounds area. [6] The people of this culture usually in habited areas at least partly covered by forests, and their tools reflect this change in environment. In addition to projectile points, they used stone axes and adzes, gouges, scrapers, and awls. A more striking development of the late Archaic period was the use of copper tools, apparently as a result of association with people from the Lake Superior region, who used native copper to make tools and other trade goods. The Archaic people seem to have used bone sparingly, either for implements or ornaments. While they still hunted with atlatl-thrown darts, their prey was the more familiar deer, elk, bear, bison, and the smaller animals of the region. They also relied to a greater extent on other forest and riverine products for subsistence, gathering the fresh—water mussels and probably fish from the rivers, and berries, fruits, and nuts from the forests. The variation in tool types and the different styles of projectile points indicate that the Archaic occupants were greater in number and had more contacts with outside groups than their predecessors. [7]

Many primitive peoples built mounds as burial tumuli for their dead or for other reasons. Prehistoric and historic mounds are found throughout northeastern Europe, northern Asia, and the eastern part of North America. In the United States, mounds can be found from Maine to Georgia and as far west as the western Dakotas and Kansas. [8] They span the time period from at least 3200 years ago into the historic era. In form and function, the mounds included large "artificial mountains" which served as the bases for temples at the Cahokia site in Illinois and elsewhere, the sizeable and elaborate Hopewell tumuli of the Ohio River valley, and simple humps of earth piled up to cover one burial. [9]

The first known burial mounds in what is today the United States were built in Wisconsin during the late Archaic period. [10] These internments were usually under round, dome—shaped mounds, now commonly called "conicals," and were characterized by a layer or layers of red—pigmented earth around the burial. These red strata, usually ground up iron ore, gave the name "Red Ochre culture" to the people who practiced this distinctive type of burial, and some of these sites have been radio carbon dated to as early as 1200-1500 B.C. [11]

The next period, called the Early Woodland, began roughly 3000 years ago, although the date varies depending upon the area under discussion. While retaining their basic but widely varied stone tool kit, the Early Woodland people used bone and antler implements and made pottery for storage. The pottery was initially crude and thick, and tempered with crushed rock; by the beginning of the Christian Era, it was thinner and decorated. The later, decorated pottery has been located within Effigy Mounds National Monument. The Late Woodland culture (circa 500 A.D.) used the bow to propel their projectiles. There is a question as to when the cultivation of crops began in the monument area, or whether any sort of farming at all was practiced, but it seems certain the Early Woodland people gathered and stored the wild rice that is abundant in the locality. The availability of wild rice may have precluded the need to practice the horticulture that was beginning in the southwest. The Woodland people may have also widened or intensified their exploitation of other forest, riparian, and wildlife resources. The occasional presence of sea shells from the Gulf of Mexico, obsidian from the Rocky Mountains, and sheet mica from the Carolinas in addition to freshwater pearls and copper artifacts demonstrates the Woodland people's increasingly widespread contact with other cultures. [12]

There is only one mound in northeastern Iowa ascribed to the Early Woodland occupants: a large conical in the French Town mound group near Guttenberg, Iowa. Excavation of that mound revealed a prepared floor, several small pits, some with burials, either extended or semi-flexed, and red ochre "paint" (ground hematite) scattered throughout the mound. [13]

Probably the best known and most elaborate of the prehistoric burial mounds are those of the Hopewell Phase of the Middle Woodland Culture. The Hopewell mounds were named after the Ohio farm where they were first excavated and are of a considerably later period than the Red Ochre burials. The Hopewell mounds were large, frequently covered with geometric structures, and usually contained a wealth of grave goods, often elaborate objects including copper breastplates and beads from some distance away. Most authorities agree that the Hopewell people believed in a hereafter and that they were conspicuous consumptionists, at least where the burial of certain citizens was concerned. This distinctive culture lasted several hundred years, spreading from its nucleus in Central Ohio to western Missouri and north to the upper Mississippi River valley. [14]

Little is known about the Effigy Mound Builders as a distinct group; the first mounds built in the shapes of animals or birds appeared during the Late Woodland period. Whether this was a spontaneous modification of existing practices or the imposition of an idea from a newly intrusive people is unclear, although effigy mound building seems to have begun a little later than the Hopewell phase. Apart from the unique shape of the mounds they built, their culture did not differ markedly from that of their neighbors. They too were hunter—gatherers, using stone, bone and antler implements to exploit the forests and rivers, and making pottery. Construction of the effigy—shaped mounds was restricted to roughly northern Illinois, southern Wisconsin, and eastern Iowa, and they were built between approximately 700 and 1300 A.D. Mound Builders continued to construct conical- and linear-shaped mounds during this period; frequently the two mound types are located side-by-side. [15] After effigy-shaped mound building ceased, linear and especially conical mound construction persisted, although on a much reduced scale, into at least the sixteenth and possibly into the early seventeenth century. [16]

Effigy mounds appear in five basic forms. Some look like birds in flight as seen from above and are, as one might expect, called bird mounds. Another group is shaped like an animal, or an animal skin, seen from above. These are usually called lizard or turtle mounds because they all have tails, although none of the remaining effigies of this type really resemble turtles. A third set of mound types, called variously panther, wildcat, elephant, and other names, resembles a tailed animal lying on its side. The fourth group is composed of representations of a tailless animal lying on its side and are most commonly called bear mounds, although occasionally one might be termed a buffalo or a wildcat. Finally, there are a few mounds built in the image of humans. [17]

Some of the animal—shaped mounds have ears while some do not; some have tails that point up and some down; some have longer legs and some shorter; and some have more features on their faces than others. Most seem to be lying on their right sides, with their heads positioned downstream to the closest major waterway, but one early writer hypothesized that the side the effigies laid on was less important than was the fact that their feet usually were toward the river they were following downstream. [18]

One scholar estimated that approximately fifty effigy mounds of all shapes exist today in eastern Iowa. [19] Among the two dozen within the national monument, only two forms are represented: those of bears and birds.

The Effigy Mound Builders seem to have followed certain common practices. One, as mentioned above, was that most effigies seem to be proceeding downstream; even the majority of the bird effigies appear to be flying downstream. Another was that very few bodies were interred in each effigy mound; one or two burials per mound seems to have been the norm, and many contained no remains. Although smaller in size, many of the conical mounds contain more burials, both absolutely and relative to their cubic size, than do the effigy-shaped tumuli. A third custom was the paucity of burial goods. The effigy mound builders did not include with their dead the wealth of material the Hopewellians did. This almost complete lack of artifacts accompanying the dead clearly indicates a culture distinct from the Hopewellian, even though mounds with Hopewell—type grave goods have been excavated in the same area, and apparently were constructed at roughly the same time as the effigy mounds. [20]

Just as no one knows why effigy mound building started, no one knows why it ended. Perhaps the more flamboyant Mississippian culture, moving upriver from the south, supplanted the older Woodland lifestyle. The Mississippian culture differed considerably from the Woodland. The Mississippian culture was based on cultivation, primarily of corn, which was supplemented by gathering the resources of stream and forest. There were no significant changes in the tools the Mississippians used save for the addition of bison scapular hoes and a few other agricultural implements.

effigy shapes
Figure 1. The four most common effigy shapes.

The Upper Mississippians, also called the Oneota, built a few scattered linear and conical mounds over the next century or two. These were as simple in construction as those built at the very beginning of the Woodland period, and contained very few and quite plain grave goods. From time to time the Mississippian people dug into one of the existing old mounds to bury one of their dead, but usually they placed their internments in their own cemeteries.

Mississippian villages tended to be larger in size, located in open areas rather than forests, and more permanent in location than the habitation sites of earlier peoples. The principal reason for the bigger villages was the population increase that accompanied the change to an economy based more on horticulture. In some cases (although not within the national monument), defense against intruders was another reason for the construction of larger villages. [21]

The Oneota evolved into the Ioway, Oto, and other Siouan-speaking tribes that inhabited the Midwest when the first Europeans arrived. However, the historic Ioway, Oto, and Woodland Sioux had no tribal legends nor oral traditions concerning the burial mounds. When asked by Euro—Americans, they did not know who built them, or when, or why.

The neighboring Winnebago had a legend that a chief was told by his spirit to construct an effigy mound and that this would be a place of refuge when the tribe was attacked. Winnebago tradition also held that the tribal homeland was far to the southwest, from whence they had been forced to flee by constant and extremely cruel attacks by the Spanish. According to this tradition, the Winnebago were given refuge in the Iowa—Wisconsin area by their linguistic cousins, the Sioux. Thus, the significance of this Winnebago tale is muted. [22]

There is no evidence that the same clan or people occupied this area throughout all of the mound building period. Indeed, there is indirect evidence that new people, or at least their ideas, entered the area periodically. It is apparent, however, that basic cultural traditions continued throughout most of the period.

Northeastern Iowa may have been a watershed between cultural areas. It was on the fringes of the Hopewellian, the Effigy Mound Building, the Eastern Woodland, and the Mississippian cultures, and thus able to fend off aspects of encroaching lifestyles that were not adaptable to existing mores. Not until after the arrival of the significantly different Mississippian culture was there a modification of the inhabitants' lifestyle, and a loss of old cultural traditions. [23]

<<< Previous <<< Contents >>> Next >>>

Last Updated: 08-Oct-2003