American Mounds Predate Pyramids Archaeologists Ponder Purpose of Structure Dating 5,400 Years

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Long before the Egyptians began building pyramids, North Americans were erecting massive earthworks, archaeological discoveries show.

A team of researchers reported in Friday's edition of the journal Science the discovery of the oldest reliably dated human-made structure in North America, a 5,400-year-old earthen mound at Watson Brake, La., which is almost 2,000 years older than nearby sites.

The circular mound, about two stories tall, forms an enclosure nearly 300 yards in diameter, but its purpose is not clear. The discovery of this and other mounds in Louisiana and Florida suggest that the earliest Americans - long thought to be simple hunter-gatherers - were actually capable of organizing and executing large civil engineering projects, the team reports. Mike Russo, a National Park Service archaeologist, said: "We once thought society was very slow to develop in North America. In fact, there were numerous societies here capable of monumental architecture much earlier than we had ever expected." And what is becoming clear, he added, is that some of these early groups had a relatively comfortable existence, with ample supplies of food and enough time on their hands to undertake massive public works projects. Such societies had to have a rich biological niche to support relatively large populations without the benefit of agriculture, he said, but they also had to have "social conventions that would allow them to do something innovative, like build mounds." Although archaeologists have often tended to ignore them, and the general public is often unaware of their existence, thousands of human-made mounds dot the East and Midwest. Shaped like massive serpents, giant cones and square platforms, these 2,000- to 3,000-year-old mounds in some cases have been shown to have served as ceremonial centers, slaughterhouses and residential sites. Older Than Cahokia Cahokia Mounds near Collinsville are modern, by contrast, having been built between 600 and 1,000 years ago, according to Bill Iseminger, a spokesman for the state historic site. He explained that the St. Louis area was inhabited by hunters and gatherers 5,400 years ago but that they had not advanced to mound-building. Cahokia Mounds, he said, developed to be a major city that once held 10,000 to 20,000 residents. That is a downward revision from earlier guesses of as many as 40,000. Archaeologists call the inhabitants Mississippians, for lack of knowing what they called themselves. More mounds are being found in Louisiana and Florida, where the rich mixture of wildlife and marine life from bays and rivers was capable of sup porting larger indigenous populations. …