Who the Mound-Builders Were

(This is taken from John D. Baldwin's Ancient America, originally published in 1871.)

They were unquestionably American aborigines, and not immigrants from another continent. That appears to me the most reasonable suggestion which assumes that the Mound-Builders came originally from Mexico and Central America. It explains many facts connected with their remains. In the Great Valley their most populous settlements were at the south. Coming from Mexico and Central America, they would begin their settlements on the Gulf coast, and afterward advance gradually up the river to the Ohio Valley. It seems evident that they came by this route; and their remains show that their only connection with the coast was at the south. Their settlements did not reach the coast at any other point.

Their constructions were similar in design and arrangement to those found in Mexico and Central America. Like the Mexicans and Central Americans, they had many of the smaller structures known as teocallis, and also large high mounds, with level summits, reached by great flights of steps. Pyramidal platforms or foundations for important edifices appear in both regions, and are very much alike. In Central America important edifices were built of hewn stone, and can still be examined in their ruins. The Mound-Builders, like some of the ancient people of Mexico and Yucatan, used wood, sun-dried brick, or some other material that could not resist decay. There is evidence that they used timber for building purposes. In one of the mounds opened in the Ohio Valley two chambers were found with remains of the timber of which the walls were made, and with arched ceilings precisely like those in Central America, even to the overlapping stones. Chambers have been found in some of the Central American and Mexican mounds, but there hewn stones were used for the walls. In both regions the elevated and terraced foundations remain, and can be compared. I have already called attention to the close resemblance between them, but the fact is so important in any endeavor to explain the Mound-Builders that I must bring it to view here.

Consider, then, that elevated and terraced foundations for important buildings are peculiar to the ancient Mexicans and Central Americans; that this method of construction, which, with them, was the rule, is found nowhere else, save that terraced elevations, carefully constructed, and precisely like theirs in form and appearance, occupy a chief place among the remaining works of the Mound-Builders. The use made of these foundations at Palenque, Uxmal, and Chichen-Itza, shows the purpose for which they were constructed in the Mississippi Valley. The resemblance is not due to chance. The explanation appears to me very manifest. This method of construction was brought to the Mississippi Valley from Mexico and Central America, the ancient inhabitants of that region and the Mound-Builders being the same people in race, and also in civilization, when it was brought here.

A very large proportion of the old structures in Ohio and farther south called “mounds,” namely, those which are low in proportion to their horizontal extent, are terraced foundations for buildings, and if they were situated in Yucatan, Guatemala, and Southern Mexico, they would never be mistaken for any thing else. The high mounds also in the two regions are remarkably alike. In both cases they are pyramidal in shape, and have level summits of considerable extent, which were reached by means of stairways on the outside. The great mound at Chichen-Itza is 75 feet high, and has on its summit a ruined stone edifice; that at Uxmal is 60 feet high, and has a similar ruin on its summit; that at Mayapan is 60 feet high; the edifice placed on its summit has disappeared. The great mound at Miamisburg, Ohio, is 68 feet high; and that at Grave Creek, West Virginia, is 75 feet high. Both had level summits, and stairways on the outside, but no trace of any structure remains on them. All these mounds were constructed for religious uses, and they are, in their way, as much alike as any five Gothic churches.

Could these works of the Mound-Builders be restored to the condition in which they were when the country was filled with their busy communities, we should doubtless see great edifices, similar in style to those in Yucatan, standing on the upper terraces of all the low and extended “mounds,” and smaller structures on the high mounds, such as those above named. There would seem to be an extension of ancient Mexico and Central America through Texas into the Mississippi and Ohio valleys; and so, if there were no massive stone-work in the old ruins of those countries, it might seem that the Mound-Builders’ works were anciently extended into them by way of Texas.

The fact that the settlements and works of the Mound-Builders extended through Texas and across the Rio Grande indicates very plainly their connection with the people of Mexico, and goes far to explain their origin. We have other evidence of intercourse between the two peoples; for the obsidian dug from the mounds, and perhaps the porphyry also, can be explained only by supposing commercial relations between them.

We can not suppose the Mound-Builders to have come from any other part of North America, for nowhere else north of the Isthmus was there any other people capable of producing such works as they left in the places where they dwelt. Beyond the relics of the Mound-Builders themselves, no traces of the former existence of such a people have been discovered in any part of North America save Mexico, and Central America, and districts immediately connected with them. At the same time, it is not unreasonable to suppose the civilized people of these regions extended their settlements through Texas, and also migrated across the Gulf into the Mississippi Valley. In fact, the connection of settlements by way of Texas appears to have been unbroken from Ohio to Mexico.

This colonizing extension of the old Mexican race must have taken place at a remote period in the past; for what has been said of the antiquity of the Mound-Builders shows that a very long period, far more than two thousand years, it may be, must have elapsed since they left the Valley of the Ohio. Perhaps they found the country mostly unoccupied, and saw there but little of any other people until an irruption of warlike barbarians came upon them from the Northwest.

In speculating on the causes of their withdrawal after centuries of occupation, absolute certainty is impossible, and we have no means of going much beyond mere conjecture. We may suppose as most probable that an influx of barbarians destroyed their border settlements, interrupted their mining operations, and caused them to retire gradually toward the Gulf. Fragments of their communities may have become incorporated with the barbarous tribes. This conjecture has been used to explain certain exceptional peculiarities noticed in some of the wild Indian tribes. For instance, it has been suggested that the Mandan Indians were a separated and lost fragment of the mound-building people, they being noticeably unlike other Indians in many respects, lighter in color, and peculiar in manners and customs. What is conjectured may be true, but we have no means of proving its truth. That the Mandans were like what a lost community of Mound-Builders might have become by degeneration through mixture and association with barbarians may be supposed, but the actual history of that remarkable tribe might give its peculiarities a very different explanation. The Mandans were supposed to be a branch of the Dacotahs. They may have been, like the Navajos, a changed community of Pueblos, but any attempt to explain them by means of conjecture is useless.

The supposition that the Toltecs and the Mound-Builders were the same people seems to me not improbable. The reasons for it will be stated when we come to a discussion of the antiquities, books, and traditions of Central America. I will only say here that, according to dates given in the Central American books, the Toltecs came from “Huehue-Tlapalan,” a distant country in the northeast, long previous to the Christian era. They played a great part and had a long career in Mexico previous to the rise of their successors in power, the Aztecs, who were overthrown by the Spaniards.





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