The Effigy Mound People

Effigy Mound Culture represents a successful social and environmental adaptation by Late Woodland people (A.D. 600-1000) in the Upper Mississippi Valley and surrounding Driftless (unglaciated) Region.

Effigy Mound people practiced a sophisticated version of what anthropologists refer to as a seasonal round. Building on thousands of years of Archaic and Woodland traditions, Effigy Mound people perfected the ability to develop social and religious structures to frame and give meaning to the convergence and dispersal of kin groups in relation to seasonally available resources.

This elaborate system of movement included spring congregations of small family groups at large, multi-band gatherings at specific locations near resource rich areas along major river valleys. These areas were usually close to the confluence of tributaries with the Mississippi and were locations representing “sacred landscapes” that had been used by previous generations of Woodland peoples. During these gatherings people likely exchanged news, traded goods, found marriage partners, buried the deceased and engaged in rituals that integrated the different bands with each other and the cycles of the natural world. Archaeologists infer these gatherings took place from the distribution and types of sites attributed to Effigy Mound people as well as comparison with historic groups who also engaged in similar spring/summer congregations.

As fall approached, small family bands began to break off and head into the interior in search of mast trees and rock shelters to inhabit through the winter. From these interior rock shelters, Effigy Mound people had easy access to large deer herds who had also migrated inland in search of winter shelter and food. As spring warmed, these small family groups would once again head to a location where they would re-unite with their kin from other bands.

At Effigy Mound sites, archaeologists often find small chipped stone projectile points used to tip arrows and very thin, cordmarked pottery often referred to as Madison ware. For many decades this pottery was deemed un-interesting and inferior to the Hopewell and Mississippian ceramics that came before and after. Recently archaeologists have re-examined Effigy Mound pottery in a new light, realizing that many of the cord impressed designs on the rim and neck were created from the impressions of elaborately woven collars. When looking at the hundreds of hours required weaving the collars with intricate designs, the sophistication of these vessels and symbolic meaning of the decorations is seen in much better detail. Although archaeologists have not yet “decoded” the meaning of these complicated decorations, they do know that they likely contain complex messages related to Effigy Mound symbolism and cosmology. Thus the supposedly “simple” late Woodland pottery is anything but in many ways.

The most well known, in a superficial way, but most confounding aspect of Effigy Mound culture is the effigy mounds themselves. Since Europeans and Americans first began exploring, conquering and settling the region, people have pontificated on the meaning of these mounds. Interpretations have ranged from claiming they were built by a “vanished race of mound builders,” to being tribal clan totems, boundary markers and monuments for observing the stars. Only recently have archaeologists began to confer with contemporary Native communities in the Midwest about the possible meaning of the mounds. Although making direct connections between current and past people is challenging, there can be no doubt that a better understanding of Native religious and cosmological beliefs offers much toward understanding the effigy mounds in a more humanistic, and accurate way.

The convergence of archaeological data and discussions with contemporary native people has led to the belief that these “enigmatic” mounds were in fact constructed during the gatherings described above as part of integrative rituals and in fact represent “maps” of the cosmology of Effigy Mound people. The construction of balanced mound groups containing Upper World (Thunderbird) and underworld (Bear and Water Panther) spirit representations near their respective habitats (Thunderbirds on ridges and along major valleys and Water panthers emerging from springs and lakes) may be one indication of the role these mound constructions played in maintaining universal balance and integration. Despite these possible gains in understanding, these monumental constructions are complex and we are likely only scratching the surface of what they meant to the people who built them.

What happened to the Effigy Mound people is one of the many “unsolved mysteries” of Upper Midwest archaeology. At the present, many archaeologists believe that despite the success of their seasonal round, population pressures eventually stressed this tradition of mobility to the breaking point. Evidence for this is seen in the gradual “filling” up of secondary and tertiary valleys with habitation and mound sites, indicating that it was becoming increasingly difficult for people to move freely as interior areas were already occupied. The evidence for more corn cultivation and accumulation of larger mussel shell middens along the Mississippi indicates that some people were staying there longer as populations occupying the upland valleys prevented them from migrating inland. There is also evidence for a catastrophic collapse in deer populations, with cave art showing desperate hunters resorting to killing pregnant deer in the late winter. Although such emergency measures would temporarily keep away starvation, it would contribute to further decline in the deer population. As the time-tested traditions of the Effigy Mound people began to fail, populations were susceptible to new ideas emanating from the south. These ideas and ways of seeing the world were very different from traditional Woodland ways, and would have a profound impact on Native history in the region for hundreds of years.

A good place to learn more about the Effigy Mound People of the Upper Mississippi is the website for Effigy Mounds National Monument. This offsite link will take you there.

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