Books : reviews

George R. Milner.
The Moundbuilders: ancient peoples of eastern North America.
Thames & Hudson. 2004

Nineteenth-century explorers of the American continent were amazed to find great earthen monuments in the Eastern Woodlands. Thousands of these mounds were discovered in the plains and forests – one 100 feet high, some overgrown hillocks, some conical, others flat-topped. Speculation was rife as to the identity of these moundbuilders.

As George Milner shows, research over the last century or more demonstrates conclusively that the mounds were in fact erected by the Native Americans themselves. In a period ranging from 3000 BC to the sixteenth century AD, Native Americans quarried tons of earth to form these monuments, which vary widely in location, size and purpose. Some contained thousands of burials, others served as platforms for chiefs’ residences, and many were low-lying ‘effigy’ mounds in the form of serpents, panthers and other sacred beasts. Moundbuilding seems to have been a key element in their society: how they worshipped gods, buried their dead, remembered their ancestors and respected their leaders. Many beautiful objects were found inside the mounds, including artifacts of shell, copper and mica.

The Moundbuilders covers the entire sweep of Eastern Woodlands prehistory, with an emphasis on how these societies developed from hunter-gatherers to village farmers and town-dwellers. Great strides have been made in recent research and many of the most impressive mounds, such as Poverty Point, Cahokia and Moundville, are described and discussed in detail. Professor Milner is the first to bring all the evidence together for the general reader and student. This wide-ranging and copiously illustrated book, complete with a gazetteer of sites to visit, will also be the perfect guide to the region for the tourist and traveller.