—Richard de Wilde
Part 3: Social Structure & the Importance of Burial Mounds
by Jim ThelerIn our last article we learned that the Effigy Mound people lived for most of their time hunting and gathering wild resources. They moved seasonally to take advantage of different animals, plants and resources. They were organized by family groups, or “bands” as described by anthropologists.
For most of the year, small groups or “micro-bands” composed of a few related families lived and worked together. They might have a total of 15 to 30 people, with the adult males related by blood and women marrying into the micro-band from other groups. These groups were “egalitarian,” meaning all people were born having equal status, but followed cultural roles based on age and sex. Inherited ranks with positions such as “chiefs” were not present in Effigy Mound times.
|Prehistoric Cave Art Depicting a Pregnant Deer.|
Photo sourced from Mississippi Valley Archaeology Society
For most of the ancient past, and until nearly the end of the Effigy Mound period, the small winter micro-bands of Western Wisconsin moved to the Mississippi or Wisconsin River valleys for the summer and sometimes formed larger groups called “macro-bands.” A small band of related families who spent a winter together in a rock shelter certainly looked forward to the arrival of warm weather and an opportunity to migrate. The stress of surviving the winter was over, and living was much easier. Fish, mussels and small game were readily available in the river valleys and there was not much need for large quantities of firewood. Everyone knew that groups of related families would meet at a particular location at a certain time in the late spring. These newly formed macro-bands would be composed of 200 to 500 people. All these groups were held together by kinship through blood or marriage.
There are several reasons they formed these larger gatherings or macro-bands. First, stresses build up in any group of related families who are working closely together by necessity, and these stresses need to be relieved. In historic times, we know these small micro-bands would often reorganize themselves when they arrived at a macro-band gathering. Thus, members of one micro-band who were unhappy could simply say good-bye to that group and move in with another relative’s group.
Second, any individual of marital age would be hard pressed to find a suitable mate in the small winter group. All human groups have incest taboos and prohibitions on whom one can and cannot marry. Anthropologists who have studied this situation refer to “mating-networks” that need 200 or more people to have enough potential mates available. A macro-band of 500 people or two macro-bands that might come together would be the best scenario. In historic times, these large gatherings were a time of celebration. Young people were excited to see friends again and perhaps someone who was of interest for marriage. Old friendships were renewed, accounts of births, who had survived the winter, successful hunts and tragedies recounted.
Third, people who died during the winter were typically not buried at the winter rock shelter location. Rock shelters having hundreds or thousands of years of repeated cool season occupations seldom have human burials. Archaeologists believe the remains of the dead were kept until they could be brought to the summer gathering for final burial. When effigy mounds were excavated in the earlier 20th century, they often contained both bundles of human bones as well as extended burials where bones were found articulated, indicating in-flesh burials. If relatives died at a winter camp, their remains were cared for and brought to summer macro-band gathering. This way all could pay their respects and provide a proper burial for the deceased. These burial ceremonies were a unifying activity for the greater group.
As late fall approached, the macro-band dispersed and the reorganized micro-bands made their way back into the rugged interior of western Wisconsin. Rather than returning to the location where they had spent the previous winter, they would probably select another valley for their winter camp. Selection was important, and people needed to be spaced out on the landscape so as not to over use the deer and firewood resources.
By A.D. 900 the world of the Effigy Mound people was changing. Best estimates indicate there were probably five macro-bands in eastern Wisconsin and four in the western part of the state with perhaps a total population of 3,000 people for the southern half of Wisconsin. The population had grown and the annual cycle of winter dispersal and summer congregation into macro-bands no longer worked. Effigy Mound people begin to occupy interior valleys year round. Archaeologists believe the landscape had become “packed” to capacity with humans, resulting in overhunting of deer likely precipitated by the effectiveness of the bow and arrow.
|Prehistoric Cave Art Depicting a Spring Hunt.|
Photo sourced from www.turtletrack.org
The flexibility and mobility of a hunting and gathering people moving from one valley to another in different years was lost. Deer populations were reduced and firewood became increasingly scarce. Effigy Mounds, previously confined to the major river valleys suitable for macro-band gatherings, began to be built in the interior valleys.
Effigy mounds served a number of functions. First, they are burial places of the dead. They were built in the form of an animal, which carried additional information. In many Native American societies people are born into a clan, a group of related families or lineages. Clans often have a totem animal, eg Bear Clan, Eagle Clan or Deer Clan. Each clan has certain assigned tasks and ritual responsibilities. Your clan affiliation also provides clear guidelines, as a Bear Clan person could not marry another Bear Clan member. Archaeologists believe the effigy mounds are sacred burial places and that they were meant to be seen. Burial mounds in the shape of a particular animal convey the information that this land is held by a particular clan group. It was the equivalent of a “No Trespassing sign.” In the North and South forks of the Bad Axe River(the location of Harmony Valley Farm), effigy mounds were built on the sidewalls of valleys, ridge tops, and terraces to be seen by the living and to declare to those who might pass by, “Beware: this land is held and defended.” Archaeologists speculate that this Effigy Mound building after about A.D. 900 was brought on by increasing resource stress and the need to protect their area.
Between about A.D. 1000 and 1050 the Effigy Mound people appear to have abandoned western Wisconsin. The best explanation is that the deer herd had been greatly reduced, perhaps at the end of a final severe winter with deep snow—the sort that was described for western Wisconsin in the 1850s. Decisions at such time would be difficult. Imagine your people are hungry, a few deer are yarded in the creek bottom and you can kill them with ease. Out of necessity, you kill the deer. One deep cave in Crawford County has ancient paintings, drawn by torch light in a style we believe to have been used in Effigy Mound times. The paintings show bowmen surrounding a group of deer. None of the deer have antlers and their tails are up in the alert posture. Several of these are shown with fetal deer drawn in them. This painting seems to portray an early spring hunt and such a killing of pregnant does would seem to be an act of desperation for people so knowledgeable about their natural world.
After A.D. 1050, Effigy Mound sites no longer appear in western Wisconsin. The state’s remaining effigy mounds, sacred site holding the remains of the dead, are visible reminders of this long-ago time.
Richard’s Closing Thoughts:
We are grateful for the dedicated and meticulous work of the many archeologists who have devoted lifetimes to uncover and piece together the lives of those peoples that lived here on our land for over 12,000 years before us. We are in awe of the intelligent, resourceful and spiritual human beings who lived here so many years ago and their ability to tread lightly in this place. Our goal is to not only preserve the burial mounds on our land that we’ve become stewards of, but to also consider it our challenge to live in such a way so as to maintain our land in a similar fashion. In doing so, we hope it will continue to sustain us and our descendants for generations beyond us.