Prehistoric Mound-Builders Probably 'Mississippians'

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Prehistoric Mound-Builders Probably 'Mississippians'


The Mound Builders of Madison County have been written up a number of times in this column. Details have been given about the Bogie mounds, the Moberly mound, and the one at Round Hill. In the foreword to the book, People of the River, by Michael and Kathleen Gear, much is given about the pre-Indian people called the "Mississippians." I believe our mound builders were a branch of this group. The mounds they built were not as large, but were similar in nature. According to the Gears, the natives of the Eastern Woodlands of 5,000 years ago were hunters who lived on deer, turkey, possum, coon and turtle, plus some edible plants. Around 1500 B.C. corn was introduced, leading to a growing agricultural civilization with a complex economic system. The domestication of corn gave the Mississippians a high energy food resource, and the people finally had a surplus of food. This led to a population explosion. This stable economic base brought to the top powerful chiefs who consolidated the scattered villages and began collecting taxes. Artisans developed a special pottery that was traded for thousands of miles. Trade routes spanned the continent and goods moved from Florida, the Yellowstone, the Gulf Coast, Ontario, Michigan, Montana, and Virginia. They traded with the highly developed civilizations of Mexico. The Mississippians had a body of mathematical and astronomical knowledge that allowed them to plan their towns with a standard unit of measurement and to align each of their mounds according to solar and stellar positions. According to the Gears, at Cahokia, in Illinois, the mounds were arranged so that it was possible for them to chart the exact position of the sun when it rose and set on the equinox and solstice. In Arkansas, they knew the azimuths of Vega, Aldebaran, Rigel, Fomalhaur, Canopus and Castor, and built their towns and ceremonial centers accordingly. The Gears believe that the Mississippian peoples knew more about astronomy than does the average modern day American. By 1541, when de Soto came up the Mississippi River, the mound builders' civilization had all but disappeared. The large population centers were abandoned as were thousands of acres of fields. What happened? According to the Gears, the climate, which had been moist and tropical for 200 years after 900 A.D., changed between 1100 and 1200 A. D. Until 1550 strong, dry winds blew in from the Pacific and brought drought. Rainfall declined by 50% and crop yields fell. To sustain the population, more land was cleared, causing erosion and flooding. Floods resulted in stunted corn growth, and ensuing malnutrition. Famine ravaged the population centers. Wars followed. Villages began to disperse. The Mississippian way of life, with intensive agriculture, was replaced by a simpler tribal structure. Hunting returned. Large temple towns vanished. The Gears have done an excellent job of describing the rise and fall of the Mississippians and their huge mounds, some the size of large buildings of our day. Our Madison County mounds are smaller, but I believe our mound builders were a part of that same civilization. The Gears book, People of the River, is a fictional story set near Cahokia, Illinois, at the peak of the Mississippians crisis. The rains wont come, the corn wont grow, the people are hungry and desperate..


Dr. Fred Engle




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Dr. Fred Engle, “Prehistoric Mound-Builders Probably 'Mississippians',” Madison's Heritage Online, accessed March 3, 2024,