Who Were the Mound Builders?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

The name "mound builders" refers to numerous ancestral Native American tribes that represent much of the cultural advancement of Native Americans in numerous locations in North America. It should be understood that the Mound Builders were not a single tribe. Instead, there were many groups living from the Gulf of Mexico to the Ohio River Valley and the Mississippi River that built different types of sophisticated mounds and had many more cultural advancements than are often credited to ancestral Americans.

Like many pre-Columbian cultures, the Mound Builders are believed to have used maize in agriculture.
Like many pre-Columbian cultures, the Mound Builders are believed to have used maize in agriculture.

The mounds, semi-rounded structures that rose from the earth, could serve several purposes. Effigy mounds were semi-animal shaped mounds. These might have been sites for worship or for burials. One of the most famous of these still in existence is the 1370 foot (417.58 m) long Serpent Mound located in Ohio. Other mounds looked like flat-topped pyramids and may have been used for religious ceremonies.

The Mound Builders may have chosen a location along the Mississippi River because it was conducive to trade.
The Mound Builders may have chosen a location along the Mississippi River because it was conducive to trade.

Different types of Mounds may date back to 2500 BCE and there’s strong evidence that the advancement of these cultures was significant. For instance, some archaeologists argue that many of the Mound Builders were practicing large scale farming as far back as 6000 BCE. Some people have the mistaken impression that the Native Americans were primarily nomadic and had always been so. These builder tribes show that this was definitely not the case, and advanced cultures and civilizations were not uncommon throughout America. These tribes faded, and it’s hard to tell which tribes could currently claim descendancy from different areas where mounds still exist or may have existed.

When Europeans first traveled to the Americas, they mistakenly assumed that Native Americans could not possibly have been the Mound Builders. In fact, this belief of wise cultures that had developed not only agriculture but also metallurgy, was used as evidence to expel Native Americans from lands they possessed. It was argued that Native Americans destroyed the Mound Builders and thus had no rights to the lands they occupied. This mistaken assumption did not account for a culture that transitioned from something seemingly more advanced to something simpler.

Due to the proliferation of mounds across North America, most archaeologists feel that there was a time in the distant past when numerous large Native American settlements existed. But it’s difficult to decide exactly what each group believed. Archaeologists believe each group of Mound Builders would have had its own set of religious practices and cultural standards, and that these might have differed significantly from the practices of other groups. Mound Builders were not a homogeneous people but many different groups of people with advanced culture.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


@JackWhack – I understand where you are coming from, but think of all the things we would not know if no one had dug into the mounds. One of the most interesting facts about North American mound builders came to light because of an excavation.

In Ohio, mounds full of the skeletons of giants were found. I'm not exaggerating. There are historical records of this.

The giants were from eight to nine feet tall, and many of them had not one but two rows of teeth in their skulls! Rumors or stories of such people would have remained myth if no one had dared excavate their remains.


I find it strange that the mound builders buried their dead above ground. Mound builders were Native Americans, and they usually held things like this sacred. So, why would they bury their dead in such a way that they could more easily be disturbed?

I detest the fact that researchers have dug up the dead in these mounds. They then put the dirt back where it was so that no one can tell the difference.

I know that they are curious about the past, but should they really be digging up the dead to get answers to their questions? Isn't it better just to let them rest in peace?


I often travel on the Natchez Trace from Mississippi to Nashville, and I have seen the mounds there that are a part of the history of Native Americans in the area. There is a rest stop in view of the mounds with a display of information about them.

The mounds are wider than they are tall, and they are rounded. I have walked out to them before. They are located in a wide open field.

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