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Native American History At Winterville Mounds

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Rituals & Prestige: Winterville Mounds

A Significant Social And Religious Gathering Place That Was Home To The Elite Classes Of This Native American Society

Kids Visit The Winterville Mounds In Mississippi [Courtesy/Winterville Mounds]

At night, the tribes of the lower Mississippi Delta would often perform human sacrifice on top of mounds they had built, as part of a theatrical, community-wide ceremony, much like the Aztecs in Mexico. In the morning, they would make their way back to the bustling plaza where virgins had been killed, on the same mound to cook and socialize.

These puzzling tribes are gone, but the mounds remain.

Visitors searching for the famous Blues Highway 61 in Mississippi might glance off into the distance and notice multiple grassy mounds, which look like a golf course, but in fact, they are driving past an ancient Native American settlement where people built pyramids, designed solar observatories and practiced human sacrifice.

These weren't the Maya or Aztecs of Mexico, but an ancient American Indian civilization, and their massive remains stand as one of the best-kept archaeological secrets in the country.

North America was dotted in those days with villages, strung together by a loose web of commerce. An Indian trader paddling down the Mississippi River during the city's heyday between 1000 and 1150 couldn't have missed it.

“People don’t exactly know what to make of the grassy mounds, but if you read about the history of the area it’s pretty exciting,” said Mark Howell, Director of the Winterville Mounds in Mississippi. “The people here lived in caves, but these mounds are where all the action took place. This area was considered the New York or Los Angeles of its day.”

 According to the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Winterville was used by a complex civilization that thrived from around 1000 to 1450 AD but was started in 4000 BC, making its inhabitants older than the Aztecs.

Searching The Grounds At Winterville Mounds [Courtesy/Winterville Mounds]
Winterville Mounds Office [Photo Credit: Jimmy Smith]

 Winterville is located in the Yazoo Basin, which is strategically located between the Mississippi River and Deer Creek. According to evidence from excavations done at the site, a thriving village grew to become a mound center at the beginning of the thirteenth century.

The National Park Service describes the complex at about forty-three acres, with the tallest mound is fifty-five feet high. There were originally at least twenty-three mounds, although a significant portion of the site was destroyed by modern-day farming in the area before it became a state park

There is also evidence that the common people lived outside of the mound area on farms throughout the Delta, with a small number of elite officials living on the mounds themselves.

“This would have been an exciting place to have seen back then. The building would have been made of wood and painted bright colors,” Howell continues. “The ancient structures would have had beautiful floors with symbols painted on them, along with benches, windows and lighting accoutrements.”

Evidence has been found through excavations that the mounds were inhabited by the elites who may have played a role in ritual activity such as sacrifices. Excavations have turned up intricately decorated ceramics and even human burials.

Winterville originally consisted of twenty-three or more mounds and was a significant social and religious gathering place and was home to the elite classes of the society. Mound C specifically was home to an elite group while Mound B likely served as a temple or religiously significant mound. The findings indicate that elites and elite mounds played a special religious role in Winterville society and were more accessible to the masses than Mound B may have been.

Ceremic Pots Found Near Mounds [Photo Credit: Jimmy Smith]
River In Winterville [Photo Credit: Jimmy Smith]

Mississippian groups such as those in Winterville were known for their earthen pyramids reflecting the development of hierarchical social-political systems. These mounds of earth, created by carrying basketfuls of dirt, emptying them, and then stomping them down, could serve as platforms for “temples or mortuaries, chiefs’ houses, and other important buildings”. The mounds grew because periodically the structures on top of them would be destroyed and a new layer of earth would be placed on top before constructing a new structure usually arranged around a large plaza.

“The mounds were probably were erected gradually at ceremonial gatherings over centuries,” Howell said. “They contain various types of soil, [many] traceable to locations nearby. It's like a layer cake with 30 or 40 layers. Even though some years only a few centimeters were added, the final product was impressive.”

Some of the mounds required more than 14 million baskets of soil, all hauled by human workers.

Excavations show that the people were flourishing and continuing to perform ritual activities even after 1400 AD. Nonetheless, Winterville was mostly abandoned by about 1500.

For Native Americans such as the local Chickasaw, Cherokee and Choctaw, none of whom can claim the ancient people as their own tribe, many consider this area a sacred site.

“We do our best to balance their concerns in regards to this sacred area,” Howell said. “While people might walk and even picnic on some of the areas, we make sure to be as respectful as we can.”

The mounds at Winterville might be unassuming to the eye, but the secrets buried underneath are anything but.


Candice Reed

A graduate of Kelsey-Jenny College in Communications as well as a certified grant writer, Candice has written for The Los Angeles Times & The New York Times. She loves entertaining and all things French.

Cane Creek State Park

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