17,000 Years of Continuous Human Habitation

Across the Ocmulgee River from Macon, GA, lies the ancient grass-covered mounds of Ocmulgee (pronounced oak-mull-ghee) Mounds National Historical Park.  After having lived in Europe for a few years and walking through historical sites centuries older than my home country, I have an appreciation for the history of ancient cultures.  I had heard about age-old earthen mounds being found across the United States, but I didn’t realize these weren’t just burial grounds, they were the remnants of thriving cities. 

According to the NPS brochure, the Ocmulgee Mounds are connected to a steady presence of cultures, resulting in 17,000 years of continuous human habitation in this area.  It started with the Paleo-Indians, who crossed the continent during the last ice age, to the Archaic people, to the Woodland population where people started to settle in villages.  The Woodland culture assimilated into the Mississippian one – a culture marked with extensive crops, pottery, and adornments, as well as flat-topped mounds, burials, and earth lodges, indicating intricate rituals and social relationships.  Parts of the Woodland and Mississippian cultures combined into the Mississippian-Lamar culture, which waned under the conflict and disease brought by the arrival of the Spanish around 1540.  Finally, this area became home to the Muscogee Nation around 1690, and is still considered their ancestral homeland and the site of their first permanent settlement.          

This map at the Visitors Center shows the major mound sites spread out across the U.S. Though focused primarily on the Cahokia Mounds in IL, this 45-minute History Channel episode of Ancient Mysteries does a great job of telling the story of these ancient mounds. Click HERE to watch the video.
The path from the Visitors Center leads to the Earth Lodge, a reconstructed building on what was the north side of the Mississippian village. According to the NPS brochure, the original clay floor, 42 feet in diameter, has been carbon-dated to the year 1015.
According to the film at the Visitors Center, on February and October 22nd each year, the sun shines through the Earthen Lodge entryway with its rays spotlighting the spot where the Chief was thought to preside over meetings and ceremonies. This emphasis on the seasons reminded me how much my Cajun grandparents talked about the influence of the moon phases and solstices on food availability – the affect of daylight length on migratory birds and crop growth and the affect of moon phases on shrimp movement and depth.
Unfortunately, many events and actions over the years desecrated the site of what was essentially this culture’s graveyard; a railroad cut removed about 7 feet from the Funeral Mound, Civil War trenches were dug throughout the site, and finally, the largest archeological dig in American history removed hundreds of thousands of pieces of pottery metals, arrowheads, spear points, stone tools, pipes, bells, jewelry, seeds, and even human remains, from their original resting place. -NPS website
Standing near the top of Funeral Mound, you can see the top of the Earth Lodge and the Visitors Center.
Warning signs at a trailhead near the Funeral Mound alert hikers to potential dangers of the path. I’ll take alligators and ticks over bears any day!

A little smarter about the cultures that inhabited this land before the arrival of my ancestors, I continued my homeward bound trajectory.  Next stop:  Congaree National Park in South Carolina.

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