Effigy Mounds
Historic Resource Study
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American Indian History

Paleo-Indian Period (12,000-9,000 years BP)

The earliest reliable evidence of people in North America comes from the Paleo-Indian Period, which dates to about 12,000 to 9,000 years before present (BP). People likely entered what is now Iowa about the time the last Wisconsin ice sheets began to retreat from the mid-continent. As warmer climates developed and the glaciers receded, pockets of lush and habitable land emerged. Early Iowans who settled in these pockets survived as migratory hunters, initially pursuing large megafauna, such as mammoth and wooly mastodon. Gradually then adopted a more diverse hunter-gatherer economy, including smaller game such as bison, elk, and deer, and supplemented by plant foraging. [16]

Diagnostic archeological remnants of the Paleo-Indians include the fluted Clovis and Folsom flaked stone spear points. Other common tools of the period include chipped stone adzes and scrapers. Isolated finds of these stone tools have been discovered in Allamakee County and other Iowa locations, but few other cultural remains have been associated with these early peoples. The nomadic bands of Paleo-Indians likely lived in small, scattered groups, using transportable shelters made from brush or animal skins. [17]

Archaic Period (9,000-2,500 BP)

The warmer and drier climate that characterized the Archaic Period initiated important shifts in the lives of early American Indians. As the climate became arid and prairies expanded, humans gravitated to the wetter river valleys, where pockets of relatively dense populations developed in some places. Rock shelters were used when groups congregated for the winter after spending much of the year traveling from seasonal camps distributed across the landscape. In their examination of the various tools used by humans from this period, archeologists have shown that the Archaic hunter-gatherers added stemmed and notched projectile points, atlatls or spearthrowers, stone axes, pecked and ground stone tools, specialized fishing gear, gouges, milling stones, and awls to their tool kits. The use of copper tools—including "rat tail" projectile points, celts, and ornaments—in the middle to late Archaic period became common in the region. Copper was obtained through trade with groups of the Old Copper complex to the north, who had been accessing the extensive Lake Superior copper deposits since at least 7,000 BP. [18]

As the climate ameliorated towards the end of the late Archaic Period (4,500-2,500 BP), populations in the region that now includes Iowa grew, and a semi-sedentary, communal culture gradually emerged, replacing the highly mobile, nomadic lifestyle. The late Archaic residents continued to hunt elk, bear, bison, deer, and a variety of small animals that thrived in the area, but they complemented their hunting with products from the forests and rivers, such as berries, nuts, fish, and mussels. [19]

Towards the end of the Archaic Period, sometimes referred to as the Terminal Archaic, mound building appeared in the area as an accompanying mortuary practice to the Red Ochre burial ceremonies. The use of communal cemeteries became increasingly common and various religious and ceremonial burial practices developed. These practices established a cultural and spiritual foundation that, according to James Stoltman, represents a complex "on the fence" between the Archaic and Woodland traditions. [20] Bright red hematite was sprinkled in gravesites of the Red Ochre Culture—a practice that reflected an important cultural shift in the region's early human history, highlighting changes associated with communal living. The mounds of the Red Ochre Culture typically were large, dome-shaped conicals and often contained multiple burials with red hematite-stained artifacts fashioned from exotic materials such as Lake Superior copper and non-local lithics, including Wyandotte Chert. Unfortunately, little else is known of this culture, as reliable radiocarbon dates are scarce and few human physical remains have been studied to date. [21] The occurrence of a Red Ochre Culture component at Effigy Mounds National Monument is uncertain. During excavations at the Sny Magill Unit (1952), Paul Beaubien noted extensive red hematite layers below or adjacent to four burials within Mound 43, however, Beaubien conceded that:

The occurrence of at least some red ochre has been reported from so many Woodland complexes in adjacent states—Hopewell, effigy mound, red ochre, and Clam River—that the presence of some in a mound cannot be sufficiently diagnostic to identify a culture or time period. Mound 43 is regarded as a Woodland manifestation, however, because of the examples of the typical chipped stone industry it contained and the fact that red ochre does not constitute an unexpected find in a burial mound of that Pattern. [22]

Woodland Period (2,500-750 BP)

The Woodland Period's stable climate fostered significant strides in the social and cultural development of local American Indians. Accompanying an expansion of trade and communication along the Mississippi River, the manufacture of pottery and the development of efficient and specialized tools enhanced the living experience of the increasingly sedentary Woodland Period residents, while the use of both wild and cultivated plants also gained importance. It was during this period that the rituals and burial practices derived from late Archaic religious traditions blossomed into the tradition and culture of the Woodland mound building Indians. [23]

Early Woodland Stage (2,500-2,100 BP)

Accompanying the new traditions of pottery making and the cultivation of plants such as squash and sunflower, mound building became increasingly common and played a vital role in the religious and cultural identity of American Indians in the Early Woodland Period. Mound building was practiced over a period of about three millennia and each culture produced distinctive forms, beginning with the simple conical mounds of the Early Woodland, adding the compound and linear mounds of the Middle Woodland, and culminating with the elaborate effigy mounds of the Late Woodland. Mound building occurred not only in the Mississippi River Valley, but also throughout northeastern Europe, northern Asia, and eastern North America. Woodland burial mounds are found throughout the eastern United States, while effigy mounds are limited to Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, with groups of 20 to 30 common and large groups of 100 occasionally reported, including the Harper's Ferry Mound Group, where 895 mounds were reported. [24] More than 100 years of agricultural activities have destroyed nearly all of the large mound groups and spared only isolated mounds and small mound groups, leading Paul Beaubien to suggest:

It is believed that the Sny-Magill group is numerically the largest surviving group of prehistoric Indian mounds in the United States. In 1933, Dr. Charles R. Keyes, former State Archaeologist of Iowa, indicated that this was the largest group of mounds remaining in the effigy mound region, and his allegation has not been refuted to my knowledge. [25]

Early Woodland mound builders typically constructed shallow-relief and conical-shaped mounds over burial sites, typically measuring about 30 feet in diameter and 2 to 3 feet in height. [26] Some of the oldest mounds at the monument, such as Mound 43 of the Sny Magill Unit, likely were constructed during this period. [27] Excavation of a large conical mound near Guttenberg, Iowa, considered by some to be the only one in the area created in the Early Woodland, revealed a prepared floor, several small pits, burials, and the continued use of red ochre in the burial ceremony, carried over from the Terminal Archaic. Some archeologists believe the mounds reflect the practical organizational skills of their makers, as well as the communal development of religious and artistic consciousness. [28]

Conical Mound
Conical Mound.
Courtesy of National Park Service

Middle Woodland Stage (2,100-1,400 BP)

Expanding trade networks, increasingly complex burial practices, and thinner, finer pottery characterized the Middle Woodland. It was at the beginning of this stage that the mound building traditions in the Mississippi Valley region were influenced by the burial practices of the Hopewell Culture of the Ohio River Valley, through an exchange system commonly referred to as the Hopewell Interaction Sphere (HIS). The HIS was a wide-ranging exchange network centered in eastern North America and extending west into the Plains, involving the trade of exotic materials and artifacts and the shared practice of mound building and funerary rituals. Items such as copper from the Great Lakes region, obsidian from the Rocky Mountains, and other exotic materials including mica, galena, marine shell, and nonlocal chert, occasionally were included as burial objects within the grave sites, reflecting the expanding HIS trade and communication networks. Although the mechanisms of the HIS are poorly understood, it is likely that the trade network functioned without a central control. [29]

The monument features numerous conical-shaped Middle Woodland mounds, three of which are adjacent to the visitor center. Typically, mounds of this period were large in size and contained a variety of grave artifacts. Influenced by their dealings with members of the Hopewell Interaction Sphere, the mound builders placed extended burials in rectangular tombs, with burial pits dug into the topsoil. Cremation of the deceased also became increasingly common in the Upper Mississippi River Valley during this time. Before burial, local Woodland Period residents often wrapped deceased bodies in animal hide or plant fibers and placed them on a wooden platform or in trees. The bodies were later reburied in mounds. The practice of secondary burial may have been used during the winter months, when mound building was not practical or during food-gathering seasons, when people were camped far away from the major mound groups. Towards the end of the Middle Woodland, compound mounds—conical mounds linked by a chain of linear or stick-shaped mounds—began to be constructed. One such compound mound at the monument measures over 475 feet long. [30]

Effigy Mound Region.
Courtesy of National Park Service

Late Woodland Stage (1,400-750 BP)

In the Late Woodland, fine, cord-impressed pottery was introduced; small, arrowhead projectile points replaced the larger spear or dart points; and the use of bows for hunting spread throughout the region. A predominance of stone tools made from locally available materials suggests that long distance trade decreased during this period. [31] The Late Woodland also is defined by the regional, cultural phenomenon of effigy mound building. Conical mounds continued to be produced, but the construction of mounds in the shape of animals became common. Effigy mounds largely were confined to a region bounded by northern Illinois, southern Wisconsin, southeastern Minnesota, and eastern Iowa, and the mounds typically took the shape of five basic, categorical forms. These basic forms included: birds; animals in plan view (turtles and lizards); tailed animals lying on their side (panthers and wildcats); tailless animals lying on their side (bears or buffalos); and, rarely, humans. Many effigies from the Late Woodland appear to be lying on their right side, with the heads or feet positioned downstream in the direction of the closest major waterway. Within the monument, for example, there are thirtyone effigy mounds—all of which are birds or bears. Effigy mounds—and many shallow conical and linear mounds—rarely were constructed to heights greater than a few feet above the ground surface, leading to Stoltman and Christiansen's adopted rule-of-thumb for finding effigy mounds on survey: "walk until your toes curl up." [32]

While effigy mound building practices shared in the ceremonial burial traditions of the earlier Hopewell and Red Ochre Cultures, effigy mounds typically lacked the inclusion of exotic trade goods characteristic of these earlier mounds. This lack of artifacts within effigy mounds suggests that even though expanded networks of trade and communication infiltrated the Iowan region, the effigy mound builders in northeastern Iowa remained culturally distinct from Hopewell. Some archeologists interpret the variations in effigy mound styles as representing territoriality and increased tensions between regional peoples, perhaps resulting from population pressure. [33]

To build the effigy mounds, the Late Woodland residents typically gathered dirt from the surrounding area and carried it in baskets to the mound site, where shallow excavated pits carved in the shape of animals provided the template for the effigy mound. This construction technique recently was confirmed at the monument using ground penetrating radar, which indicated that the mounds are composed of varying levels of "clumpiness"— interpreted by the archeologists as evidence of clusters of basket loads. These studies also have shown that the mounds are highly magnetic, indicating that they are composed of "A" horizon topsoils transported from some distance away from the mounds. [34] Sometimes bodies in flexed or fetal positions where placed in the interior at the base of the mounds, although it appears that many effigy mounds do not contain burials. The size of the mounds varied—one bear-shaped mound at the monument measures more than 137 feet in length, while many measure less than 75 feet in length.

Bird Mounds
Aerial View of Bird Mounds.
Courtesy of National Park Service

Recent consultation with traditionally associated American Indians provides clues to the meaning of the effigy mounds. [35] In Indian mythology, the mounds are considered sacred space, capable of bridging man, nature, and the spirit world. While sometimes serving a burial function, R. Clark Mallam argued that the mounds "should also be viewed as artistic creations which symbolically integrate prehistoric beliefs and values." The mounds, he continued, "may have been the means by which humans ... sought to define and express their philosophical convictions about the universe, the life force, and the intricate web of natural and cultural relationships into which they were bonded at the hunting and gathering level." [36] Mallam further suggested that the mounds not only demarcated prime hunting and gathering territories, but they also provided sociocultural integration for distinct groups across the region, likely serving as a locus for large regional gatherings. [37]

Over time, a contemporaneous Upper Mississippian manifestation, known as Oneota, replaced the Woodland culture in some locations. The origins of Oneota remain unclear, but it is apparent by the presence of exotic items at several "exchange center" sites, such as those in the densely populated La Crosse region, that Oneota peoples were involved in the Mississippian interaction sphere and exchanged trade goods with Cahokia and other people in the region. Like the Middle Mississippian Culture, Oneota established its foundation on agricultural cultivation, situating their large villages in open areas as opposed to the forests. With population increase came warfare and the intergroup hostilities during this period certainly helped to split groups into various factions. While the tradition of effigy mound building came to an end in the Late Woodland, some scattered, conical mounds were built over the next few hundred years, perhaps as late as the seventeenth century. The scarcity of Oneota archeological sites in the Prairie du Chien region may indicate that the area was a buffer zone between Oneota peoples of the La Crosse area and people further south along the Mississippi River, or it may simply reflect incomplete Oneota archeological survey coverage of the area. Over time, Oneota peoples likely developed into the Ioway, Oto, Winnebago, Sauk, Fox, and other Siouan-speaking tribes that inhabited the Midwest when Europeans arrived in the area. [38]

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Last Updated: 08-Oct-2003