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Etowah Indian Mounds
Viewed from a European perspective the "Age of Exploration" brought a technologically superior geopolitical group westward to the vast expanse that today we call America. Viewed from the inhabitants of Georgia at the time of the arrival of the first Europeans it might be called the "Age of Devastation" or the "Age of Destruction." This group, known collectively as the Moundbuilders, was wiped from the face of America possibly forced to form into smaller groups in a final effort to survive. Many believe that the Creek Indians may be the descendants of this culture.

Today the most visible evidence of four distinct North American cultures, Archaic, Adena, Hopewell, and Mississippian are mysterious mounds throughout the eastern United States. The earliest mounds, a complex known as Poverty Point, are more than 4,000 years old. They were built near the confluence of the Mississippi (Macon Bayou) and Arkansas Rivers. The site is now a National Park managed by the Louisiana State Park system.

Kolomoki Mounds
Kolomoki Mounds
Although the Poverty Point mounds today form a semi-circle, some archaeologists (scientists who study prehistoric people and cultures) believe that at one time these mounds were circular. Frequently compared to the works of the ancient Olmec civilization that inhabited the Mexican peninsula, it is probable that these are independent cultural developments. No evidence exists that the Moundbuilders were influenced by any other culture. The presence of fired clay artifacts means that these Late Archaic Indians could be considered the start of the Early Woodland cultures.

Most pre-1350 BC Moundbuilder artifacts come from a 25-mile radius of the Poverty Point site. About that time trade began with other areas, including Georgia. Artifacts from that era contain rock and minerals identified as coming from Georgia's Blue Ridge Mountains, however, no corresponding evidence has been found in Georgia that a trading relationship existed with these early Moundbuilders. Other areas that can be specifically identified geologically from artifacts include Lake Superior, western Arkansas, southern Ohio and Tennessee.

From the mounds and artifacts at Poverty Point scientists have concluded that:
  • Food was cultivated
  • A rudimentary form of government existed
  • There was increased free time
Although other Archaic period structures predate the earliest evidence found at Poverty Point, most notably the ring mounds in southeast Georgia, no other Archaic period exhibits the cultural development of the Moundbuilders at Poverty Point. About the time of the rise of the Adena Culture the mounds at Poverty Point were abandoned (500 BC).

Adena Culture

Ocmulgee Mounds National Park
Earth Lodge at Ocmulgee
Thanks to renewed scientific interest at the start of the 20th century a set of artifacts were uncovered in eastern-central Ohio near the town of Adena. This Woodland Era culture flourished from 500 BC(?) to the birth of Jesus Christ and is the second distinct culture of Moundbuilders in America. Many developmental similarities exist between the Adena Culture and Archaic Moundbuilders:
  • Near a major river
  • Agricultural development
  • form of Government
  • Religion
  • Art
  • Free time
  • Interaction with non-Moundbuilder Indians

The Adena culture was centered in the Ohio River Valley and their mounds are similar to ones found further east. Currently archaeologists believe that the Adena culture remained located in a small area of the Ohio River valley and the mounds were copied by other cultures that had interaction with the Adena. It is probable that some form of transitional culture yet unknown spanned the time and distance between the Archaic Moundbuilders of Louisiana and those of the Adena culture.

Hopewell Culture

The advent of the Hopewell Culture (200 BC - 500 AD) came during the Adena period, but the Hopewell Culture began to flourish as the Adena culture waned. Artifacts of the Hopewell Culture vary greatly from that of the Adena not only in quantity but also in variety. Originally discovered on the farm of Mordecai Hopewell in 1891, and hence the culture's name, the Hopewell Moundbuilders were a widespread culture featuring an integrated network of villages, distant trading partners and elements of an advanced civilization. They exhibited advanced agricultural techniques such as crop rotation.

One of the trading partners of the Hopewell Culture were the earliest inhabitants of Georgia's Kolomoki Mounds. Hopewell influence also extended into north Georgia. The predominate Cartersville culture (This was before the Etowah Indian Mounds) changed as the Hopewell culture rose, reflecting some of the designs, ceremonies and beliefs of the Ohio River Valley natives. Additionally, copper and other minerals from north Georgia and Alabama have been discovered in Hopewell mounds. More than the earlier and concurrent Indian societies, Hopewell sites exhibit a structured life for their inhabitants. Skilled artisans, religious, and government leaders are differentiated from the workers. These improvements could not sustain their society and sometime around 400 AD it too began to fade from earth.

Mississippian Culture

Etowah Indian Mounds statues
Statues from Etowah Mounds
Kolomoki Mounds (Blakely, Georgia) is considered to be one of the few transitional sites between the Hopewell Culture and the Mississippian Culture that prevailed from 800AD to 1600 AD. The earliest artifacts in the mounds date to the end of the Hopewell Culture further north, and there is evidence that the Moundbuilders at Kolomoki developed a significant trading relationship with Hopewell villages, but the style and contents of the mounds indicate a Mississippian influence. Mounds, at the heart of each of the societies, made a dramatic change between the two groups. Smaller mounds, like those in the Ohio River Valley, were replaced by large mounds that became more ceremonial and administrative, like those in Cahokia, Illinois. This is the largest known mound complex.

Etowah Indian Mounds in Cartersville, and the Ocmulgee Mounds in Macon, Georgia, contain the largest Mississippian mounds in the Southeast. Currently, it is believed that the Ocmulgee Mounds were inhabited beginning in 900 AD, shortly after the end of the Hopewell Culture. Begun around 950 AD, the Etowah Indian Mounds are at the confluence of the Etowah River and Pumpkinvine Creek. Evidence of inhabitation of the Etowah Mounds area dates to the Woodland Indian era and possibly as far back as 9000 BC. Further south, the Ocmulgee Indian Mounds are located near Ocmulgee River and Walnut Creek. Evidence exists that this area was inhabited even earlier.

There are many similarities between the Hopewell and Mississippian cultures. Both featured vast trading networks, a parent-child relationship between villages in a geopolitical area, location of individual villages and form of government. Even the artisans used similar techniques. But the Mississippian culture grew as a civilization far beyond that of the Hopewell culture, developing intricate local techniques and patterns in the making of pottery, for example. Over a period of several hundred years the Moundbuilders slowly left their sites for some unknown reason. Ocmulgee ended around 1200 AD, but a second culture, the Lamar, existed near the site from 1300 until 1650. The last burial at Etowah Mounds occurred in 1450AD. Currently, archaeologists believe that these Indians moved to a site near the dam of Carters Lake. It is this site that Hernando DeSoto visited in 1540. In 1560, when the Spaniard Moyano returned to village on the Coosawattee it too had been abandoned and no evidence remained of the tribe that once ruled the great inland empire. The Moundbuilders were gone.

The Creek - Remnants of the Moundbuilders?

So what happened to the civilization that once called Georgia home? There are many theories, but chances are we will never know for certain. One commonly proposed solution is that the Mississippian Moundbuilders were absorbed into the surrounding American Indian cultures. When the British first observed the Indians they called the Creek, they were living next to the Ocmulgee River not far from the Ocmulgee Mounds complex. The Creek believed that they had come from the West, an unusual migration pattern for prehistoric Indians in North America. There were significant cultural differences between the Creek and their neighbors, the Catawba and Cherokee.

Finally, and most telling, the Creek held the Ocmulgee mounds to be sacred. When James Oglethorpe visited the Ocmulgee Mounds in 1735 one of his guards reported the Creek would stand silently around the mounds. When Georgia wanted land cessions from the Creek, they held on to the Ocmulgee Mounds with great fervor, not ceding them until 1805.

Today, many of Georgia's mounds have been destroyed by development. Among those remaining that have been developed for visitation in Georgia are Ocmulgee in Macon, Etowah in Cartersville, and Kolomoki in Blakely. South of Helen, Georgia, a mound exists with a gazebo on top, but access is not allowed.

For more information:
Etowah Indian Mounds
Etowah Mounds State Park
Ocmulgee National Historic Site

Georgia History
Articles about North Georgia history and the state in general. This section is currently being developed. For more information on Georgia History, please see The Civil War in Georgia
Georgia Moundbuilders
An advanced pre-Colombian people who inhabited most of the present-day United State

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