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Effigy Mounds Culture

For many thousands of years Wisconsin's inhabitants survived by hunting, fishing, and gathering wild plants. Each community moved often, traveling to places where food could be found in abundance. Springs and summers were spent in river valleys and near lakes. During cold weather, families separated from one another and moved into sheltered upland valleys. As the years passed, complex social and religious systems appeared, evolved, and vanished, leaving the basic pattern of life unchanged.

Between 700 BC and AD 0, pottery, domesticated plants, and the practice of building earthen burial mounds were introduced to Wisconsin. These changes marked the beginning of the Woodland Tradition (500 BC to ca. AD 1300). Still, patterns of living remained relatively stable until the beginning of the Late Woodland stage, between AD 600 and AD 900. Two important innovations -- the bow and arrow and corn horticulture -- swept across the region.

Within a span of only a couple centuries, a new and distinctive culture that archaeologists call "Effigy Mound" arose in Wisconsin. The culture is named for the distinctive burial mounds constructed by communities across the southern two-thirds of Wisconsin. Some effigies are recognizable as birds, animals such as bear or deer, spirit animals, or people. Other mounds are abstract, including long linear embankments or combinations of embankments with the dome-shaped mounds favored by earlier peoples.

Archaeologists believe Effigy Mound communities were egalitarian, as no evidence has been found for long-distance trade in exotic, valuable, or ritual items or for differential burial of possessions indicating rank or status. The effigy mound builders usually buried their dead in small pits or laid them on carefully prepared surfaces. The effigy mounds were then built over them like grave markers. Sometimes a humble object such as a cooking pot or an arrow was included in the mound, but more often no grave goods were left behind at all.

Some archaeologists and Native Americans also believe that the effigy mounds symbolized spirits of the sky, earth, and water. According to this premise each mound group was a picture of the Late Woodland universe, sculpted out of earth. In the period after European contact, many of the same animals were associated with important clans, or groups of related families. These clans may have existed a thousand years ago. By building the mounds together, the social and religious ties binding the mobile and sometimes scattered communities would have been reinforced.

During this time, community members also began to cooperate with each other to harvest corn, prepare fields, and process wild nuts, fish, and mussels for winter storage. These surpluses, and the ease with which individuals could hunt using bows and arrows tipped with triangular stone points, fueled a rise in population and reduced the need to move from place to place. Oval and keyhole-shaped pole-frame wigwams, some partly sunk into the ground, were built. Pottery became thinner and more fragile but also more efficient at transferring heat from cooking fires to the food inside. Many pots were decorated by pressing twisted fiber cords into the wet clay, creating elaborate designs.

By AD 900, some communities in eastern Wisconsin had begun to settle in semipermanent villages. Though not everyone adopted the new lifestyle at first, the presence of even a few settled villages created difficulty for mobile neighbors. Unable to pass freely from place to place, mobile groups had to choose between fighting, moving, or settling down themselves. Evidence suggests that conflict increased. Some human bones dating to this period have been found with projectile points embedded in them and marks left by stone knives. Excavations at a few villages have uncovered the remains of protective palisades.

Creating palisades and more permanent housing required substantial cooperative effort. More and more labor was also devoted to corn horticulture to feed growing populations. Between AD 900 and AD 1000 some communities began to sculpt the earth into ridged fields or garden beds. Each increase in the effort devoted to food production and community improvement discouraged mobility. People would have been reluctant to leave an established village and start all over again in a new location unless forced to do so.

Settled communities also required new social, economic, and religious systems, to make sure labor and surplus were evenly distributed. Each village probably assigned particular responsibilities to one or more clans, forcing everyone to work together to survive. The arrival of strangers from the south around AD 1000 introduced more new ideas and technologies to Wisconsin's residents. New rituals, possibly related to later Green Corn ceremonies, took the place of the old ones. Formal village cemeteries replaced effigy mounds. The Effigy Mound culture gradually transformed beyond recognition, as communities adapted to the challenges of their new social and economic environment.

The mounds puzzled early white settlers, who were reluctant to accept that American Indians were their creators. For most of the nineteenth century the question of who built the mounds was debated in the press with more energy than judgement. In the late 1840's Wisconsin scientist Increase Lapham spent several years mapping and investigating effigy mounds for a monograph issued by the Smithsonian Institution. Finally, in 1894, an exhaustive survey proved beyond reasonable doubt that earlier Native Americans were indeed the people who had created the mounds.

[Sources: Birmingham, Robert A. and Leslie E. Eisenberg. Indian Mounds of Wisconsin (Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, c2000). Theler, James L. and and Robert F. Boszhardt. Twelve Millennia: Archaeology of the Upper Mississippi River Valley (Iowa City : University of Iowa Press, c2003). The History of Wisconsin: volume 1, From Exploration to Statehood by Alice E. Smith. (Madison, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1973)]


Original Documents and Other Primary Sources

Link to article: The first careful investigation of Wisconsin mounds is published in 1838.  The first careful investigation of Wisconsin mounds is published in 1838.
Link to article: The "Vanished Race of Mound Builders" theory advanced in 1906.  The "Vanished Race of Mound Builders" theory advanced in 1906.
Link to article: A Mormon writer theorizes about the origins of Aztalan in 1845  A Mormon writer theorizes about the origins of Aztalan in 1845
Link to article: The second scholarly attempt to map and explain the mounds (1842)  The second scholarly attempt to map and explain the mounds (1842)
Link to book: Cyrus Thomas proves in 1894 that Indians built the effigy mounds.  Cyrus Thomas proves in 1894 that Indians built the effigy mounds.
Link to images: Increase Lapham examining a meteorite, ca. 1868  Increase Lapham examining a meteorite, ca. 1868
Link to images: Pictures of Native American Burial Mounds  Pictures of Native American Burial Mounds
Link to manuscript: Increase Lapham lectures on Indian mounds, 1851  Increase Lapham lectures on Indian mounds, 1851
Link to manuscript: Archaeologist Increase Lapham writes home from the field.  Archaeologist Increase Lapham writes home from the field.

Primary Sources Available Elsewhere

Link to article: Wisconsin scientist P.R. Hoy on effigy mounds (1885)  Wisconsin scientist P.R. Hoy on effigy mounds (1885)
Link to book: A young scientist leaves the first account of Wisconsin mounds in 1823.  A young scientist leaves the first account of Wisconsin mounds in 1823.
Link to book: William Pidgeon proposes a vanished race in 1852.  William Pidgeon proposes a vanished race in 1852.
Link to book: Increase Lapham's scholarly book on Wisconsin's effigy mounds, 1855  Increase Lapham's scholarly book on Wisconsin's effigy mounds, 1855

Related Links

Visit our archaeology Web pages
Read about our "People of the Woodlands" museum exhibition
Visit the Web site of the Menominee Indian Tribe
Visit the Web site of the Ho-chunk Nation
Answers to questions about mounds from our Burial Sites Preservation Program
The best book on Wisconsin's Indian mounds, by WHS archaeologists
Visit Aztalan State Park and Museum (directions, hours and photographs)
Discover the standard book about Wisconsin Indians, by Patty Loew
Learn about the monographs in our Museum's Archaeology Research Series
Discover classroom resources available from our Office of School Services
Search our catalogs for materials on this topic that aren't yet available online.
Borrow books about this topic through our interlibrary loan service
Borrow manuscripts about this topic through our Area Research Center network.
Learn about other topics from our new book, Wisconsin History Highlights
Arrange a tour on this topic at our Museum

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