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An effigy mound is a raised pile of earth built in the shape of a stylized animal, symbol, religious figure, human, or other figure. Effigy mounds were primarily built during the Late Woodland Period (AD 350-1300).
Effigy mounds were constructed in many Native American cultures. Scholars believe they were primarily for religious purposes, although some also fulfilled a burial mound function. The builders of the effigy mounds are usually referred to as the Mound Builders. Native American societies in Wisconsin built more effigy mounds than did those in any other region of North America—between 15,000 and 20,000 mounds, at least 4,000 of which remain today.
Effigy mounds may have been observed by the Spanish during Hernando de Soto's exploration of the North American continent between 1539 and 1543. This expedition discovered Indian mounds of varying shapes and sizes all over what is now the Southern and Central United States, stretching from Florida to Ohio to Texas, but most likely did not travel far north enough to discover animal-shaped mounds. Effigy mounds are limited to the Northern and Eastern United States, and most likely the French were the first Europeans to see them in their expeditions southward from Canada after 1673.
Effigy mounds were not noticed as unusual by non-natives until settlers began moving west from the British colonies on the eastern coast. From most vantage points, the mounds would appear to be normal geological formations; it was only when settlers began flattening the mounds to make room for crops that they were found to be of historical significance.
After the discovery of effigy mounds, and other mounds all over the country, wild theories began to be developed as to how and by whom they were built. The first theories were the most accurate; people in the late 17th century assumed that the mounds had been built by the Native American people who still lived in the vicinity. These logical assumptions lost popularity as more fantastic theories were developed. The most popular of these theories in the 18th century was that an extinct race of Mound Builder people had built the mounds and then vanished. This theory was laid to rest by archaeologists at the Smithsonian Institution in the 1870s.
The president Thomas Jefferson is possibly the most famous contributor to what we know about effigy mounds. There were mounds present on his Monticello property, and he excavated one of these mounds to see how they were constructed and what their purpose may have been. He was the first to conclude that effigy mounds (as well as non-animal mounds) were built by local Native American groups.
The Winnebago suggest that effigy mounds were used as places of refuge, not of burial. Some archaeologists today believe that the mounds were built by particular clans or groups to honor their representative animal. Others believe that the mounds were burial sites for important figures, while still others believe that the mounds held some other religious significance. The mounds may also indicate hunting and gathering territories of different groups. Other evidence suggests that effigy mounds were used for all manner of rites and ceremonies, from birth ceremonies to funeral rites and everything in between. Research on the purpose of effigy mounds is still inconclusive.
Common shapes for effigy mounds include birds, bear, deer, bison, lynx, panther, turtles, and water spirits. These animals were most likely chosen for their particular religious or spiritual significance to the people who built each mound. Certain areas of effigy mound activity have types that are most likely to be found there.
According to the National Park Service, the area in which effigy mounds are found “extends from Dubuque, Iowa, north into southeast Minnesota, across southern Wisconsin from the Mississippi to Lake Michigan, and along the Wisconsin-Illinois boundary.”
Effigy mounds have been found to contain grave goods and funerary items along with human remains. It is important to note, however, the absence of trade goods from other Indian groups. Some items found in effigy mounds include pottery, weapons, tools, and other valuable items, in addition to skeletal remains. These items would have been placed with the dead to make their journey and new life in the afterlife more familiar and comfortable.
Many thousands of effigy mounds have been lost due to plowing, farming, and other human development. Most of the remaining effigy mound sites are parts of national or state parks. All effigy mounds are currently protected under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
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