Population of the Mound Builders


There are no reasons for supposing, from the number of their villages, that the Mound-Builders were a numerous people. My friend, Prof. Charles Whittlesey, in a discussion of the rate of increase of the human race, estimates them at 500,000. [Footnote: Trans. Am. Ass. for the Adv. of Science, 1873, p. 320.]
With thanks for the moderateness of the estimate, one-third of that number would have been more satisfactory. Dense populations, an expression sometimes applied to the Mound-Builders, have never existed without either flocks and herds, or field agriculture with the use of the plow. In some favored areas, where the facilities for irrigation were unusual, a considerable population has been developed upon horticulture; but no traces of irrigating canals have been found in connection with the works of the Mound-Builders. Furthermore, it was unnecessary in their areas. Transplanted from a comparatively mild to a cold climate, they must have found the struggle for existence intensified. Like the Cibolans in 1540, it was doubtless at all times equally true of them, that "they had barely provisions enough for themselves." And yet there is no cereal equal to maize in the rich reward it returns even for poor cultivation. It grows in the hill, can be eaten green as well as ripe, and is hardy and prolific. At the same time, while it can be made the basis of human subsistence, it is not sufficient of itself for the maintenance of vigorous, healthful life. Vegetables and game were requisite to complete the supply of food. The difficulties in the way of production set a limit to their numbers. These also explain the small number of their settlements in the large areas over which they spread. Although they found native copper on the south shore of Lake Superior, and beat it into chisels and a species of pointed spade, the number of copper tools found is small, much too small to lead to the supposition that it sensibly influenced their cultivation. A pick pointed with a stone chisel, a spade of wood, and a triangular piece of flint set in a wooden handle and used as a knife, were as perfect implements as they were able to command. Horticulture practiced thus rudely was necessarily of limited productiveness.
The idea has been advanced that "the condition of society among the Mound-Builders was not that of freemen, or, in other words, that the state possessed absolute power over the lives and fortunes of its subjects." [Footnote: Foster's Pre-historic Races, etc., p. 386.]
It is a sufficient answer to this remarkable passage that a people unable to dig a well or build a dry stone wall must have been unable to establish political society, which was necessary to the existence of a state.
From the absence of all traditionary knowledge of the Mound-Builders among the tribes found east of the Mississippi, an inference arises that the period of their occupation was ancient. Their withdrawal was probably gradual, and completed before the advent of the ancestors of the present tribes, or simultaneous with their arrival. It seems more likely that their retirement from the country was voluntary than that they were expelled by an influx of wild tribes. If their expulsion had been the result of a protracted warfare, all remembrance of so remarkable an event would scarcely have been lost among the tribes by whom they were displaced. A warm climate was necessary for the successful maintenance of the highest form of Village Indian life. In the struggle for existence in this cold climate Indian arts and ingenuity must have been taxed quite as heavily to provide clothing as food. It is therefore not improbable that the attempt to transplant the New Mexican type of village life into the valley of the Ohio proved a failure, and that after great efforts, continued through centuries of time, it was finally abandoned by their withdrawal, first into the gulf region through which they entered, and, lastly, from the country altogether.
The Tlascalans practiced cremation, but it was generally limited to the chiefs. [Footnote: Herrera's Hist. America, ii, 302.] It was the same among the Aztecs. "Others were burnt and the ashes buried in the temples, but they were all interred with whatever things of value they possessed." [Footnote: ib., iii, 220.] The Mayas of Yucatan came nearer the Romans in the practice, for they preserved the ashes in earthen vessels. "The dead were much lamented," remarks Herrera, "in silence by day and with dismal shrieks by night…. filling their mouths with ground wheat [maize] that they might not want food in the other world…. The bodies of their lords were burnt and their ashes put into large vessels, over which temples were built. Some made wooden statues of their parents, and leaving an hollow in the necks of them, put in their ashes and kept them among their idols with great veneration." [Footnote: ib., iv, 175.] In New Mexico cremation is occasionally practiced at the present time.
That the Mound-Builders should have had this custom, in view of its prevalence among the Village Indians, would afford no cause of surprise. I think we may, not without reason, recognize in this artificial basin of clay a cremation bed, upon which the body was placed in a sitting posture, covered with fuel, and then burned—in some cases partially, and in others until every vestige of the body had been burned to ashes—after which, or even before the burning, a mound was raised over them as a mark of honor and respect. These mounds have yielded a large number of copper and stone implements, pipes, fragments of water jars, and other articles usually entombed with the remains of the dead. It seems to have been their method of cremation; and it must be admitted to be quite as respectable as any known form of this strange practice of a large portion of the human race.
[Relocated Footnote: "The snow and cold are wont to be great," Coronado remarks in his relation, "for so say the inhabitants of the country; and it is very likely so to be, both in respect of the manner of the country and of the fashion of their houses, and their furs and other things, which the people have to defend them from cold…. They have no cotton-wool growing, because the country is cold, yet they wear mantles thereof, as your honor may see by the show thereof; and true it is that there was found in their houses certain yarn made of cotton-wool…. In this country there are certain skins, well dressed, and they dress them and paint them when they kill their oxen [buffaloes], for so they say themselves."—Hakluyt's Coll. of Voyages, Lond. ed., 1600, iii, 377.]