The mound builders were a native American people, made up of many tribes, but culturally related to one another (1). They were a Mississippian people (2) and there distributed over a wide geographic region including the modern day states of Mississippi, Ohio, Florida, Tennessee, Michigan, New York, and many of the Gulf States (3). Their vast civilization existed from 700 A.D. to 1700 A.D., and they there are most well known for building their mysterious massive earth mounds, hollow on the inside and sometimes, though not always, home to the dead (4).
The largest, and most archaeologically excavated, of the mound builder sites, are the ruins of what must have been a very great metropolis, Cahokia (5). Mound sites made up a huge number of the New Deal excavations and it was during that time period that the United States acquired much of its collection of American Indian human remains, the majority which still belongs to the Smithsonian.
Also, of note, for many, many years American archaeologists believed that the mounds were to sophisticated to have been built by native peoples and it was believed that a non-Indian race of people, speculated to be one of the Ten Lost Tribes, vikings, or of Asian origin, built the mounds and were then the victims of genocide at the hand’s of violent American Indian tribes (6). That’s kind of so insane a theory I don’t even know what to do with it. Furthermore, I feel like I’m seeing the most obvious analysis of that historical belief as horrendously, overtly racist, and am, perhaps, blinded by weird confused rage to any other more nuance or interesting interpretation. The most thoughtful idea I have is just that this historical attitude definitely would have fit neatly into the predominant narrative of White colonists taming and civilizing the wild native America.
(1) Silverberg, Robert. Mound Builders of Ancient America: The Archaeology of a Myth.. Greenwich, Conn.: New York Graphic Society, 1968., 227
(2) Ibid., 226.
(3) Shetrone, H. C.. The Mound Builders.. New York: American Museum of Natural History, 1930., 27.
(4) Silverberg, Mound Builders, 227.
(5) Young, Biloine W., and Melvin L. Fowler. Cahokia, the Great Native American Metropolis. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000., ix.
(6) Patterson, Social History, 28.