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Mysterious Mounds

Originally Published in MotorHome Magazine

Though different groups of prehistoric Americans built mounds at various times and places,
only in Iowa and a few other areas were the mounds built in effigies, or shapes, of birds
and animals. “There’s still a great deal we have yet to learn about these mounds,” National
Park Ranger Kenneth Block proclaimed, as we stood outside the visitor center of Effigy
Mounds National Monument. Tucked away in the rolling landscape of northeastern Iowa, the
center features woodland and Mississippi prehistoric cultures, through an auditorium
presentation, artifacts and a herbarium. Before starting up the trail, ranger Kristen
Maxfield treated our group to an atlatl demonstration. The atlatl was a device into which a
spear was fitted for throwing, increasing its speed and distance. That was one way these
prehistoric people survived, hunting small and large game with spears, catching fish with
bone hooks, and eating rice, nuts, berries, acorns, fruit, clams and freshwater mussels.
Survival for these hunters and food gatherers meant living in caves in winter and in
temporary camps along the Mississippi River in summer. Looking at the steep hills that
surrounded us, we followed a winding trail up into a dense woods of mixed deciduous trees.
Here are 195 ceremonial and burial mounds rising from the forest floor, 31 of them in the
form of bird or bear effigies. By A.D. 350, the Effigy Mounds culture of late woodland
Indians inhabited the upper Mississippi River. At the time Europeans arrived in the New
World, these natives had virtually disappeared, leaving their mysterious earthworks behind.
It is presumed that the effigy-mound builders evolved into a farming culture that continued
to build only conical mounds. Our bluff-top trail weaved around, back and forth in the
deciduous forest. We were walking in the pathway of those early people and hoping to sense
their harmony with the forest and the river. The cycle of the seasons was their rhythm of
life. Here on these river-bluff lands are found some of the largest and best-preserved
mounds in the Midwest. What did the mounds mean to these prehistoric people? How did
shaping begin? Why did mound building end? What did the animal shapes mean to these people?
There are many unanswered questions, and there are no written records to explain them.
Mounds were built in different shapes: conical, linear, compound and effigy. Compound
mounds are made of conical and linear mounds joined together, similar in shape to a
barbell. One compound mound has seven conicals and a length of approximately 300 feet. The
earliest mounds, conical shapes, were built around 500 B.C. Effigy-mound building began
about A.D. 600 and continued in this area to approximately 1250. Although this culture
continued to build conical mounds, it is best characterized by the construction of
animal-shape (effigy) mounds. In neighboring states, effigy mounds take the shapes of lynx,
bison, water spirits, lizards and turtles. Here at Iowa’s Effigy Mounds, the predominant
shapes are bears and birds. Conical mounds are the most numerous, reaching a height of up
to 10 feet and diameters of 10 to 20 feet. These burial mounds usually contain the remains
of several individuals — men, women and children — indicating the mounds contain the
remains of the general populace. Their dead were buried in four ways: cremation, extended
(similar to a coffin burial), tuck (similar to the fetal position) and bundle. Bundle
burials were placed into a mound at one time, and the mound was constructed over the
remains. Historians think that everyone participated in mound building, using their baskets
and hides to carry the dirt from nearby areas and dumping it on top of the mound. Using
only digging sticks, clam shells and baskets, much effort was required to move all that
earth. Uprising low bits of land greeted us down trail. A pebble outline indicated the
animal shapes. When we came to Little Bear Mound, we paused and studied its long,
hump-shape profile. Great Bear Mound, a short distance ahead, is the largest effigy mound
in Iowa: 70 feet across at the shoulders, 137 feet long and 3.5 feet high. Archaeologists
have told us that the fire pit often placed in the heart or head of an animal could be an
altar used during funeral rites. The animal shapes of these mounds probably had a mystical
meaning, possibly associated with the groups that built them. Religious practices were
thought by these people to bring them success in the hunt and increase the number of game
animals. The interpretive Fire Point Trail winds through a forest of red and white oak,
sugar maple and basswood to the high bluffs overlooking the Mississippi. The scenic
overlook at the trail’s end provided us with a breathtaking 180-degree view of the river
bottomlands below. Several barges, pushed by a tug, were slowly making their way upriver.
This was a spot to linger and soak up the scene before us. Birders were standing nearby
with spotter scopes in hand, watching the skies for hawks, herons, egrets and perhaps the
majestic bald eagle. These forests, prairies and river bottoms were used by prehistoric
people for more than 10,000 years. We had come to seek out the sacred sites and mounds of
early Native Americans, to sense the harmony of this interesting place, and we were the
richer for it.

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