The religious beliefs of pre-Columbian North America are shrouded in mystery, mainly because of a lack of surviving written texts. Early 16th-century European explorers left accounts of Indian religions, but they’re often filled with misunderstandings. Archaeology and art provide important information but generally lack specific belief context. We find an artistic representation of a bird or snake, but why was it made, and what does it mean?
The eastern United States and the greater Mississippi River valley are a beautiful land with widespread forests. Unfortunately for archaeologists, this means that the region’s ancient Indians mainly built using wood, which inevitably decays, leaving, at best, marginal archaeological evidence. When the Europeans first arrived, they discovered many abandoned earthen Indian mounds; hence those ancient Indians became broadly known as “Mound Builders.”
The earliest discovered earthen mounds are in Louisiana. Watson Break dates to as early as 3500 B.C. but isn’t accessible to the public.
The larger and more famous site is Poverty Point, also in Louisiana, which was active from 1650-700 B.C. This site is contemporary with the broadly similar Olmec earthworks at San Lorenzo and La Venta in Mexico. Part of the site seems to have been residential, but it included the huge temple platform Mound A, smaller burial mounds, and a “woodhenge” — a circular alignment of upraised wooden beams used to create a ritual area and for astronomical observation. These are similar to the more famous stone alignment at Stonehenge, which, in fact, replaced an earlier woodhenge. Unfortunately, the wood has decayed, but the postholes are still identifiable archaeologically and are designated by white markers.
Thus, from the very beginning we see three characteristics that will recur in many ancient Indian ritual sites: mounds with temple construction on top, burial mounds and alignment of earthworks and woodhenges.
The Ohio region was home to an Indian civilization known as the Hopewell (named after the farmer on whose land the artifacts were first identified). This civilization flourished from around 200 B.C. to A.D. 500, leaving dozens of huge earthworks, including burial mounds, temple platforms, and walls around ritual centers. The most accessible are at Mound City, which is at the Hopewell Culture National Historical Park near Chillicothe, Ohio, and was a burial complex.
The massive circular trench and wall earthwork at Newark, Ohio, was used for great ceremonies in which people from the surrounding regions would gather during the great year rites for worship and trade. The Newark and most other Hopewell trench and wall earthworks don’t appear to have been fortifications (as once thought) because their trenches are inside rather than outside the wall and because huge gateways allow easy access for large processions of people on ritual occasions.
Pre-Columbian Indians also sometimes made effigy mounds, earthworks usually made to represent animals. Thousands of effigy mounds survive, although most are so slumped and eroded that they’re barely recognizable today. The most famous are the Great Serpent Mound in southern Ohio (fourth century B.C.), and the more than 200 earthworks at Effigy Mounds National Monument in Iowa.
The most widespread, populous and active age for pre-Columbian Indians in North America is called the Mississippian Period, which flourished around A.D. 900-1450. The two most famous archaeological sites of this age are Moundville in Alabama and Cahokia in Illinois. These sites had trench, mound and palisade walls for protection, and massive temple mounds centered around a great plaza for ritual processions, ceremonies and worship.
The largest ritual mound in North America is Monks Mound in Cahokia, the base of which is roughly as big as the great pyramids of Egypt and the Teotihuacan Pyramid of the Sun in Mexico. However, these earthen temple platform mounds were unable to reach the height of stone pyramids because of slumping, and they’ve sometimes collapsed during massive rainstorms. The temple platform mounds were originally higher than they appear today and were crowned by great wooden temples or palaces.
Details of religious belief and practice for these pre-Columbian North Americans are unknown since no documents survive from them. It’s often assumed that their beliefs were broadly similar to those of the subsequent pre-Columbian tribes encountered by Europeans.
However, tribal migrations and changes in belief systems through time make such assumptions uncertain. Artistic artifacts from mound burials may illustrate their beliefs and practices. Birds are common symbols in their artwork, probably reflecting the nearly global ancient belief that birds are intermediaries with the heavens.
Daniel Peterson founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.