Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Effigy Mounds Culture

A People and Their Structures

Effigy Mounds Culture | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeElevated view of a double-tailed turtle effigy mound on Observatory Hill on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus.

Turtle Mound on Observatory Hill, ca. 1910

Elevated view of a double-tailed turtle effigy mound on Observatory Hill on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. The mound is outlined by powdered lime. View the original source document: WHI 34547

Between 650 and 1200 C.E., groups of Native Americans throughout the Midwest built earthen mounds of various shapes and sizes made to resemble animals and spirits. The mounds served ceremonial, spiritual and practical purposes, marking territories and designating special gathering places. The mounds were also sometimes places of burial. Today they are known as effigy mounds.

Mobile Life

For many thousands of years, Wisconsin's first inhabitants survived by hunting, fishing and gathering wild plants. Each community moved frequently, traveling to places where food could be found in abundance. Spring and summer were spent in river valleys and near lakes. During cold weather, families separated from one another and moved into sheltered upland valleys. Complex social and religious systems appeared, evolved and vanished, but left the basic lifestyle unchanged.

Woodland Tradition

Between 700 B.C.E. and 1 C.E. pottery, domesticated plants and the practice of building earthen burial mounds were introduced to Wisconsin. These changes created the beginning of the Woodland Tradition. However, life remained relatively stable until the beginning of the Late Woodland stage, between 600 and 900 C.E. During this period two important innovations  the bow and arrow and corn horticulture  swept across the region.

Rise of the Effigy Mounds

Within a span of only a couple centuries, a new and distinct culture arose in Wisconsin. Archaeologists call it "Effigy Mound" culture. The name is inspired by the unique burial mounds constructed by the native communities of southern Wisconsin. Some effigies are in the form of birds, bear, deer, spirit animals or people. Other mounds are abstract, such as combinations of embankments with dome-shaped mounds.

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

Changing Community Life

During this period, community members also began to harvest corn, prepare fields and process wild nuts, fish and mussels for winter storage. These surpluses, combined with the ease of bow hunting fueled a rise in population, which reduced the need to move from place to place. To accommodate larger populations, the Mound Cultures started building pole-frame wigwams for housing.

Permanent Communities

EnlargeW.P. and Vivian Morgan and Grace Rollins excavate a burial mound.

Excavation of Outlet Mound

W.P. and Vivian Morgan and Grace Rollins excavate a burial mound in the Outlet group at the foot of Lake Monona on May 30, 1931. View the original source document: WHI 38944

By 900 C.E., some communities in eastern Wisconsin had begun to settle in semipermanent villages, though not everyone adopted the new lifestyle at first. But 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 to fight, continue to move or to settle down. Conflict increased in this period. Human bones dating to the era have been found with marks left by stone knives and projectile points embedded in them. Excavations at a few villages have uncovered the remains of palisades used for defense.

Creating permanent housing required substantial cooperative effort. More labor had to be devoted to corn horticulture to feed growing populations. Between the years 900 and 1,000, some communities began to sculpt the earth into ridged fields or garden beds. Increased effort devoted to food production and community development discouraged mobility. People were reluctant to leave established villages and start over again in a new location.

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.

New Indian Nations Arrive

The arrival of strangers from the south around 1000 C.E. introduced new ideas and technologies to Wisconsin. New rituals  possibly related to later Green Corn ceremonies  supplanted the old. Effigy mounds were replaced by village cemeteries. As communities adapted to the challenges of their new social and economic environment the Effigy Mound culture gradually transformed beyond recognition.

Most early white settlers were puzzled by the mounds, and wouldn't accept that Indians created the structures. In the late 1840s, Wisconsin scientist Increase Lapham spent several years mapping and investigating effigy mounds for a monograph issued by the Smithsonian Institution. In 1894, an exhaustive survey proved that Native Americans had created the mounds.

Learn More

[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)]