Controversy about who built the earthen mounds of eastern North America has been around for a long time. One popular idea, long since discarded by reasonable people, was that the "Mound Builders" were a giant people not related to present-day Native Americans. In 1832, William Cullen Bryant published a poem called “The Prairies.” The poem describes “a race, that long has passed away” and says that “the red man came-the roaming hunter tribes, warlike and fierce, and the moundbuilders vanished from the earth.”
Although the Mound Builder myth enjoyed a lot of support in the mid 1800's, the idea of a non-Native American origin of the mounds was not universally accepted. In 1855, Increase Lapham argued that the mounds of Wisconsin were built not by giant foreigners, but by late 17th century Native Americans.
Increase Allen Lapham (1811-1875) is considered “Wisconsin’s first great scientist and the “Father of the U.S. Weather Service.” Not only did Lapham work on the mounds located in Wisconsin he also worked on the Miami Canal and he discovered the Panther Intaglio Effigy Mound located in Wisconsin. He published works such as A Geographical and Topographical Description of Wisconsin, Geological Map of Wisconsin, and Opening an Ancient Mound Near Madison, Wisconsin. He was, apparently, kind of a big deal. Especially in Wisconsin.
Lapham’s Antiquities of Wisconsin (1855) was focused on artifacts and other evidence found in Wisconsin and Illinois, noting several times the evidence that the mounds were built by . . . guess who? Native Americans. Lapham also states that Indians were buried in the mounds.
The bones that were found and examined were fragments of skulls and teeth. He noted (page 7) that "The teeth of the adult skeletons were much worn, but sound and firm. . . . the muscles of the jaws must have been unusually large and strong." It is not unknown that individuals who led a hunter-gatherer life style had worn teeth and robust jaw muscles. Native Americans had a tough diet which included eating foods like buffalo, deer, elk, wild rice, corn, etc. Tough diets were likely responsible for the heavily worn teeth and muscular jaws of the skeletons from the Wisconsin mounds.
Lapham describes the cheek bones as more obtuse than is typical for Native Americans but he does not describe how obtuse the zygomatic arch is (page 10):
“the zygomatic arch has not the same projection, the angle of the cheekbone is more obtuse, and the orbits are rather less angular than in the modern Indian. The heavy, projecting jaw, and flattened occiput, are quite characteristics of these ancient mound skulls.”
Measurements of a skull are provided on page 81.
What stood out the most to me is Lapham's description of the flattened occiput. I think that it is important to keep in mind the Native American culture when thinking about flattened occipital bones. Could this flattened occipital bones have been product of intentional cranial deformation during infancy? Occipital flattening can cause facial deformities especially frontal asymmetry which could correlate to different facial shapes than those typical of Native Americans. Examples of skulls with occipital flattening can be seen here.
Lapham's sober appraisal of the Wisconsin mounds stands in contrast to other ideas about the "Mound Builders" that were popular at the time.
Many though that Native Americans were simply not intelligent enough to construct such impressive works: the evidence found, such as stone, metal, and clay artifacts were too “evolved” for any American Indian to have created. here seemed to be other evidence that a different "race" built the mounds, as well: Caleb Atwater's stratigraphic work led him to believe that the skeletal remains of Indians were found close to the surface and that the artifacts, which had symbols inscribed on them, were found even deeper in the earth which would have lead to the explanation that something or someone older than the Indians was there first. Meanwhile, popular publications fed the belief in giants during the mid- to late-1800's. A great example of someone who fueled the fascination with giants is William Pidgeon. Pidgeon made up fake surveys of mounds and stated that the mounds were created by an “ancient race that predated Native Americans.” Thanks Pidgeon for the surveys of mounds. Not.
Lapham argued convincingly that Native Americans did occupy the Wisconsin Mounds and most likely built the mounds as well. Here is a list by Lapham of all the known Native American peoples in Wisconsin. If anything should be taken from this posting it is that Native Americans were most certainly intelligent individuals who should be given credit where credit is due. Although I am not sure which tribes or how many tribes occupied Wisconsin throughout time, it is obvious their creation of these mounds should be preserved. Lastly, I would like to leave off with a video of the Indian mounds in Mound Cemetery in Racine, Wisconsin.
These blog posts were written by students in Forbidden Archaeology (Fall 2016)