Oldest Native American Structures in North America

I was horrified recently when a friend told me she visited Ireland because she wanted to see something old. Her comment made me realize that we’ve lost so much real history with the long suppression of our Native American history.

Here’s a hint. The Americas were inhabited long before Christopher Columbus reached in New World in 1492. The oldest structures – the mounds at Poverty Point in Louisiana – has been determined to be more than 3,000 years old. All of the sites I list below are relevant to the mystical Choctaw beginnings so long ago.

The terminology in dating has gradually shifted to the use of BCE/CE. CE is the abbreviation for “Common Era,” which begins with the year 1 in our standard calendar. BCE is the abbreviation for “Before Common Era.” CD and BCE are used in exactly the same way as the traditional abbreviations AD and BC, but without the religious connotations.

Some common historical events to use as a guideline:

  • 4400 BCE – First evidence found of domesticated horses.
  • 3500 BCE – Bronze was first made by adding copper to tin.
  • 3250 BCE – First known paper was made in Egypt, with pulp from the papyrus reed.
  • 1400 BCE – Beginning of the Iron Age in the Middle East.
  • 1184 BCE – The great walled city of Troy was captured by the Greeks.
  • 995 BCE – King David captured the city of Jerusalem.
  • 753 BCE – According to legend, Rome was founded.
  • 660 BCE – According to legend, the empire of Japan is established.
  • 509 BCE – The Roman Republic was founded.
  • 300 BCE – Euclid, the founder of Geometry, published his theories.
  • 221 BCE – Great Wall of China is built.
  • 55 BCE – The army of Roman leader Julius Caesar invade the British Isles.
  • 37 BCE – Herod the Great recognized by the Roman senate as King of Judea.

ANCIENT STRUCTURES IN NORTH AMERICA

Prehistoric sites in the Southeast – 4500 BCE

In 2007 the Mississippi Historical Society reported that archaeological studies done in Louisiana have led experts to conclude that the earliest mounds and mound groups in the world were built in Louisiana and Mississippi around 4500 BCE. This period of time, from 5000-3000 BCE, is called the Middle Archaic period by archaeologists. These mounds predate the Great Wall of China, Stonehenge, and the Egyptian pyramids by over a thousand years. And the people that inhabited the area were more than just hunter-gatherers; they were members of a complex society that managed workloads to allow for elaborate mound-building and skilled creation of effigy beads and pendants. See story in Mississippi History Now.

Effigy beads-MS Dept f Archives

Poverty Point National Monument, Louisiana – 1650 BCE

More than 3,000 years old, Poverty Point is a mysterious site found near Monroe, northeastern Louisiana. Built by a highly sophisticated people, it is filled with mounds and concentric rings made of earth covering some 900 acres, and millions of artifacts have been found onsite. The structures were created over the course of 600 years (from about 1650 to 700 BCE), taking more than five million hours of labor to build.

Poverty Point LA

Flourishing around 2,000 BCE to 600 BCE, the Poverty Point Culture settled across Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas. While they were often spread out in small groups, there were regional centers where many lived—like Poverty Point, the largest known center. Despite knowing all this, no one knows exactly what the site was used for, or why it was eventually abandoned, except that it was part of an enormous trading network stretching for hundreds of miles.

Admission to the National Monument is FREE for seniors, 62 and over.

Serpent Mound Park, Ohio – 300 BCE

Serpent Mound is the largest surviving example of a prehistoric effigy mound in the world, coming in at 1,348 feet long. Its origins remain a mystery since early excavations of the Serpent Mound revealed no artifacts or burials to help identify which ancient indigenous culture constructed this immense earthwork. However, two conical burial mounds nearby that are attributed to the Adena culture (800 BCE – 100 CE), and one other conical mound to the Fort Ancient Culture (1000-1650 AD).

Serpent Mound Ohio

According to a 1991 study, radiocarbon dating sets the age of the mound as prior to the Adena culture, at about 900 years old—leading people to postulate the Fort Ancient culture (1000-1650 CE) built it. But a new radiocarbon test in 2014 put it back in the range of the Adena culture, at around 300 BCE.

The Adena culture is a broad term relating to a pre-Columbian Native American group spread across Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Indiana, where they were the first people to transition from hunting and gathering to creating settlements and farming. They are noted for honoring their dead in cone-shaped burial mounds, and some groups later developed into the Hopewell culture.

The site is managed by the non-profit group, Arc of Appalachia. The nearby museum is open from daily April through October and on the weekends during the off season.

Hopewell Culture National Historic Park, Ohio – 200 BCE

Between 200 BCE and 500 CE the Hopewell culture flourished near what is now Chillicothe, Ohio. The Hopewell people built structures for feasts, funerals, and rite of passage with a distinctive shape – earthen mounds and embankments forming huge geometric enclosures. At Hopewell Culture National Historic Park, you can see six sites of Hopewell building, including some with walls up to 12 feet high that outline figures more than 1,000 feet across, or cones that reach 30 feet high.

Hopewell site-Mound City-NPS

“Hopewell” refers to a broad network of political, economic, and spiritual beliefs and practices among different Native American groups. Based on the variety of artifacts found onsite – including shark’s teeth, obsidian, shells, mica, and copper – the culture utilized a grand trade network with other groups, which stretched from the Atlantic coast to the Rocky Mountains.

Chaco Canyon National Historical Park, New Mexico – 750 CE

In northwest New Mexico is an intriguing complex of buildings known as Chaco Canyon, home of the ancestral Puebloans. Their complexes were built along a 9-mile stretch of canyon floor. Some of the buildings’ walls aligned with cardinal points, while other aligned with the 18.6-year lunar cycle. And many of them are enormous, both in length and underground and aboveground structures.

Chaco Canyon Nat Hist Park

Around 100 CE, the Ancient Puebloan civilization developed in the Four Corners region of the United States. Spanning some 1,500 years, their history is long and varied; around 750 CE, the construction of large buildings like those at Chaco Canyon began, and around 1150 CE, the  Ancient Puebloans began to create cliff dwellings (such as the ones at Mesa Verde National Park). Today, there are around 75,000 descendants of the Ancestral Puebloans, spread now between the modern Pueblo tribes, including the Hopi, Zuni, Acoma, and Laguna

Artifacts from the Chaco Canyon site are stored at the University of New Mexico (viewing by appointment only) and at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. A web exhibit with representative items has been built by the National Park Service, and includes samples of the captivating black and white Anasazi-style pottery. 

City of the Sun, Cahokia Mounds, Illinois – 800 CE

Starting around 800 CE, the extremely sophisticated Mississippians began building mounds near what is now St. Louis, Missouri. The site, which was later named Cahokia, was part of one of the greatest cities of the world, having a population that may have peaked at 100,000 people. There are more than 100 mounds that can be found there today (there were 120 or more originally), spread across 2,200 acres, making it the largest archaeological site in North America. There are also four circular sun calendars known as Woodhenge, as well as a dedicated museum.

Moundville Archaeological Park, Alabama – 1000 CE

Occupied around 1000-1450 CE, Moundville Archaeological Park is believed to be the regional political and ceremonial center of the Mississippian culture, second in size only to the Cahokia site.

Moundville, AL

The Mississippian culture was the last major prehistorical cultural development in North America. It was comprised of a huge network of Native Americans, spread across what are now Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Arkansas, Missouri, Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. There were smaller extensions up into Wisconsin and Minnesota, as well into the Great Plains. Settlements were governed by priest-rulers, and are famous for their enormous public works—mounds that dominate the landscape today.

The park currently spreads across 185 acres, but was once a 300-hundred-acre village built on a bluff overlooking the Black Warrior River in central Alabama. The village was surrounded by a bastioned wooden palisade, which contained 26 earthen mounds surrounding a central plaza. By the 1500s most of the area was abandoned. The precise ethnic and linguistic links between Moundville’s inhabitants and what became the historic Native American tribes are still not well understood.

You can visit the mounds and the recently-renovated museum, which houses many of the site’s artifacts. Admission for Native American visitors is FREE with tribal membership card.

The Clovis Culture, Blackwater Draw, New Mexico ~ 11,300 BCE

The Clovis culture is a prehistoric Paleo-Indian culture that lived in North America some 13,000 years ago. They left behind no lasting structures. Instead their culture is characterized by their distinctly-shaped tools, especially the large lance-shaped “Clovis points,” skillfully designed to bring down the huge prehistoric mammals such as the mastodons and wooly mammoths.

Clovis Points

At Blackwater Draw, you can actually visit a place where some of the first Americans left their mark some 13,000 years ago, the end of the last ice age. Blackwater Locality Number 1 is considered the type-site for the Clovis culture— the site that is considered the model for all of the Clovis culture.

Several other Clovis sites have been discovered since the first find in 1933 near Clovis, New Mexico – California, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana, to name a few. According to Smithsonian Magazine, more than 10,000 Clovis points have been discovered, scattered in 1,500 locations throughout most of North America. Each find must undergo rigorous carbon-dating to authenticate its age. Many of these artifacts were later found to be produced during more recent times.

A team from the Center for the Study of the First Americans at Texas A&M University has re-calibrated the dating of the Clovis culture using modern radiocarbon dating. Their findings reported in Science magazine in 2007, gave the newest dating, indicating that the Clovis Complex ranges from 11,050 to 10,900 radiocarbon years before the present” or about 13,300 to 12,800 calendar years ago (as of 2007).

Until recently the Clovis people were generally considered to be the oldest ancestors of most of the indigenous cultures of North and South America – and the people who crossed the Bering land bridge during the last ice age. Now archaeologists have turned up evidence that humans were here as early as 18,000 to 20,000 years ago at sites as far-flung as Alaska, Virginia, Washington state and Chile.

Pre-Clovis Culture, Meadowcroft Rockshelter, Penn. ~ 14,000 BCE

For a long time, scientists believed that the Clovis were the first humans to people the Americas—until sites in the 1970s began to throw this theory into question. One of the biggest was Meadowcroft Rockshelter, excavated by the Mercyhurst Archaeological Institute. See discussion of their investigation in Archaeology Magazine Sep 2014.

Meadowcroft, they claim, is the longest-occupied site in all of America, and there is evidence that humans began camping there 16,000 years ago—a people now referred to as the pre-Clovis culture, who are thought to have sailed from Beringia. For some interesting perspective, at roughly the same time, someone in France was molding bison sculptures in the Le Tuc d’Audoubert cave; about 1,000 years later, wooly rhinos went extinct.

The Pre-Clovis culture is generally believed to be the First Americans—the first humans to populate the Americas. They arrived perhaps as early as 50,000 years ago, according to carbon dating at some sites, like the Topper site in South Carolina. They were hunter-gatherers with tools distinct from the Clovis.

Meadowcroft is well-developed for visiting. Besides the massive rock overhang where the humans lived, which is sheltered under a massive building, the site also is host to several interpretive villages from other eras of its occupation, including a 16th century Eastern Woodland Indian Village and a 19th century village.

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These sites and time-periods are a drop in the bucket in the larger scheme of things. For a more comprehensive list, see the Wikipedia site for the Timeline of the Upper Paleolithic Age (Late Stone Age). The timeline states that the first human migration into North America occurred 16,000-13,000 years ago. But who knows what discoveries will be made in the future that may radically change the dates we know?

 

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***YAHOKE, ikana! Thank you, friends. Much GRATITUDE for spending time on a Choctaw Journey with me.***
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