Sunday, July 4, 2010

Iowa's Effigy Mounds


       My mental picture of Indians has been warriors on horseback as shown in movies during my youth. The fact that horses came in with the Spanish and helped create a whole new type of culture markedly different from the original way Indians had lived, was something I was not aware of. In general we were also not aware that once millions of Indians covered the continent and they had trade contact with each other exchanging the copper of Michigan, seashells from the Gulf of Mexico and Mica from North Carolina for the fresh water pearls of the Mississippi.
       The picture most of us had was that Indians were thinly settled across the continent where in fact there were large numbers that were decimated by the diseases like small pox and measles brought in by the Europeans. The Indians did not have the same level of immunity and whole tribes were wiped out. As the settlers came into this newly opened territory they assumed God had prepared it to be this way for them, and the fact it had been settled did not occur to them.
       The National Park Service preserves some of this history at Effigy Mounds National Monument that overlooks the Mississippi River not far from Harpers Ferry, Iowa.

       The visitor’s center is small with displays showing how the Indians who created the mounds responded to the changing of the seasons. Much is made of how the natives followed the seasons to take advantage of when and where food and other resources were available.
       The Indians used this area for over 2200 years from 1000 BC to 1200 AD and were known as the Woodland people. They appeared to be mostly hunter-gatherers and the display cases in the center show arrow points and other equipment used by Indians in the area. These Indians used spear throwers rather than the bow and arrow that had not been invented yet. A brief movie gives as much of the history of the mounds and local tribes as is presently known, which is not much. There are after all no written records and the tribal story tellers are all dead.

        Carla and I took the recommended self guided tour using their Fire Point Trail Guide. While only two miles in length it goes up a winding, demanding steep incline. Along the way you stop at points to view the mounds, which are mostly round, with two larger ones in the form of bears. The ritual purpose of the mounts remains unknown, but some were memorial mounds given that bodies are buried in them. When people were buried in an effigy mound they were buried in the heart or brain area and it is assumed they were leaders or special people in the community. The mounds were built over thousands of years and may have served different purposes for different groups. The view of the river with islands from fire point is striking and the view may have contributed to the mounds being built here.
         These mounds are small enough that a relatively small number of people could have thrown them up over a few days. One suggestion is that these were ceremonial mounts built when groups got together to arrange marriages, cement relationships and bury some of their dead. Although mounds are common across America it is only in the upper Midwest that they are built in the shape of animals. Effigies are related to what animals were found in the area, here they were birds and bears in other places turtles, panthers, and lizards.

The mounds are small compared those at places like Cahokia.

       In the early 1800,s 10,000 mounds were recorded, but now fewer than 1000 survive and 200 of them are in this area. Most were simply plowed over so the land could produce productive crops. Little attention was paid by early settlers to the fact that these may have had religious significance to a large group of people. Many people couldn’t believe Indians had been organized enough to have created the larger mounds such as those at Cahokia and believed they must have been constructed by some other group.

There are great views of the Mississippi and its islands from the top of the Five Point Trail.

       As mentioned above the mounds here are small, mostly round ones that were build between 1000 BC to 400 AD when the Late Woodland Indians began making effigy mounds mostly of bears and birds. The larger mounds such as those at Cahokia begun to be made after groups became more settled and had adopted an agricultural way of life growing corn and squash.

More information at