Rising out of the earth in Ohio, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and other states are the huge earthworks of the mysterious Mound Builders. The earthworks, also known as "effigy mounds" because of their bird and animal shapes, are scattered throughout the Midwest and were apparently raised by the same unknown people. Along with skeletal remains, the earth-works contain weapons, pottery, and numerous other artifacts, thus indicating that the Mound Builders believed that the dead buried in these earthworks were beginning a journey into the afterlife.
The burial mounds that depict animals quite likely represent the totem animal of the deceased buried within the earthwork. To the Native American tribes, the totems were sacred beings to which great importance was attributed. To have the mound shaped in such a design would ensure a positive afterlife destiny for the deceased. There are also ancient mounds shaped in a combination of animal and human forms, very likely indicating the name of a great chief, such as Standing Bear or Strong Eagle.
Excavation of certain mounds indicate that one or several bodies were buried at various levels, either on the floor, above it, or in a pit beneath it. In the effigy mounds shaped as birds or animals, the placement of the bodies was in the head or heart region. In the round mounds, the bodies were interred in the center; and in the linear earthworks, they were found along the central axis. The most common burial position was the flexed, with arms and legs over the chest.
Early settlers in the Ohio Valley in the 1700s were greatly impressed by the Great Serpent Mound on Brush Creek in Adams County, Ohio. The mound is approximately five feet high, and its length is 30 feet, diminishing in height toward the head and the tail of the "serpent." Near the open jaws of the serpent is another much smaller, oval mound. There are other such serpentine mounds near the Mississippi River at McGregor, Iowa; another structure in Licking County, Ohio, resembles an alligator.
At Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, there is a circular mound enclosing a pentagram. The outer circle measures 1200 feet, and the pentagon is 200 feet on each side. The mound is 36 feet in diameter and 12 feet high. Its summit is composed of white pipe-clay, beneath which has been found a large quantity of mica. Four miles away, on the low lands of the Kickapoo River, is a mound with eight radiating points, very likely representing the sun. This mound is 60 feet in diameter at the base and three feet high, the points extending about nine feet. Surrounding this mound are five crescent-shaped mounds, arranged in a circle.
The size and number of the earthworks suggest that the construction of the burial mounds was a community project. Hundreds of tribespeople had to dig soil from nearby areas, then over a period of weeks or months carry innumerable baskets or buckets, and dump them on the growing mound. The work may have been directed by a shaman, for it appears from the presence of fire pits in some of the mounds that religious ceremonies were conducted and funeral rites were observed.
In Pike County, Ohio, on the banks of the Scioto River, there is a mound consisting of a circle and square, constructed with great geometric accuracy. In Native American pictography, the ring or circle is generally an emblem of the sun, the stars, and the Great Spirit, the divine being. The oval also represents the Creator or the act of creation. The square designates the four cardinal directions. If it is assumed that the ancient Mound Builders had similar religious philosophies, then some insight may be gained into their beliefs about destiny and life after death.
One of the largest of the effigy mounds is a huge bird earthwork that is located on the Mendota Hospital grounds near Madison, Wisconsin. The bird is six feet high with a wingspread of 624 feet. A panther mound at Buffalo Lake in Marquette County, Wisconsin, is 575 feet in length, including its remarkably long tail. The largest of all earthworks yet discovered is Cahokia Mound (c. 1000) near St. Louis, Missouri, which is 998 feet long, 721 feet wide, and 99 feet high. Archaeologists have also discovered 45 mounds of smaller dimensions in the same area.
Who the Mound Builders were and why they stopped constructing their massive earth-works may never be known. There is nothing to point to their destruction by enemies or catastrophes. The most likely theory of their destiny is that their descendants were eventually absorbed into the Native American tribes that greeted the European explorers in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.