Ocmulgee Mounds (1000 AD)

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As impressive as the previously discussed Kolomoki Mounds complex is, the NativeAmerican Mound Builders of Georgia would outdo themselves at the next site in our story: Ocmulgee Mounds. Located in Macon, this ancient civilization consists of seven Indian mounds and associated plazas.

The Great Temple Mound at Ocmulgee was built atop the Macon Plateau and rises 56 feet high from the surface of the plateau. Yet because the mound was ingeniously constructed on the edge of the plateau and the plateau itself was terraced and clay fill added to match the angle of the Temple Mound, the mound rises an impressive 90 feet from the river bank below. It was this imposing view that most visitors to Ocmulgee Indian Mounds saw in prehistoric times since most trade and travel was conducted by dugout canoes along the Ocmulgee river.


View larger map
Map of Ocmulgee Mounds. Zoom in to see individual mounds and other features. Click on the blue tabs  to learn more about each feature. Explore the site in 3D with the Google Earth plugin.

Due to its ingenious construction, the top of the Great Temple Mound is significantly higher than the surrounding tree line thus enabling anyone standing here to have a commanding view of the countryside for miles and miles around as well as an unobstructed view of the entire sky dome for astronomical observations.(View QTVR) From here one could easily see signal fires or smoke signals from outlying villages warning of invaders or other trouble. Likewise traders could light signal fires atop the Great Temple Mound to announce the arrival of new trade goods. As its name suggests the Great Temple Mound was also home to a large temple which likely doubled as the Chief Priest’s home. Here he kept a perpetual fire burning which was an important element of their religion and myths.

This giant ground sloth on display at the University of Georgia was unearthed in Brunswick, GA during construction of I-95.
Giant ground sloth found in southeast Georgia on view at UGA.

The Ocmulgee Mounds site has been occupied for 12,000 years as evidenced by the Clovis spear point found during excavations. (View Image Gallery) The Clovis people lived during the last Ice Age and used these spear points to hunt mastadons, wooly mammoths, giant ground sloths and other giant animals that once roamed Georgia. Around 2000 B.C., the same time period as the Sapelo Shell Rings, the first small shell mounds were constructed at the site but it wasn’t until 900 A.D. that the monumental constructions began.

Who Built Ocmulgee Mounds?

At this time newcomers arrived in the region and brought with them corn agriculture, a new style of pottery, new types of arrowheads and a more complex economic, religious and political system. It is thought that these were Muskogean speakers who later were called Creek Indians by Europeans. According to Creek Indian tradition, Ocmulgee Mounds was the site where they “first sat down” after their long migration from the west. Other traditions hold that they originated near “the backbone of the earth” which was their name for the Rocky Mountains. In fact, as we’ll see below, they could have originated as far away as west Mexico and later migrated into the desert southwest before finally arriving at Ocmulgee.

Popocateptl Volcano erupting at nightOne tribe of Creek Indians, the Cussitaw (Cusseta/Kasihta), have a migration legend which might relate to the settlement of Ocmulgee Mounds. It tells how they originated in a place much farther west, a place where the earth would occasionally open up and swallow their children (a possible reference to earthquakes). Part of their tribe decided to leave this place and began an eastward migration in order to find where the sun rose. On their journey they came to a mountain that thundered and had red smoke coming from its summit which they later discovered was actually fire (a possible reference to a volcano.) Here they decided to settle down after meeting people from three nations (Chickasaws, Atilamas, & Obikaws) who taught them about herbs and “many other things.”

From these references one can speculate that these people migrated from Mexico which is west of Georgia and has both earthquakes and active volcanoes. (For a more in-depth analysis of the Creek migration legend, read “Were Georgia’s Muskogee Creek Indians from West Mexico?“) Mexico is also the birthplace of corn agriculture, a defining characteristic of these newcomers. It is also in Mexico where we find cities consisting of flat-topped pyramid mounds arranged around open plazas which is the most noticeable feature of town planning at Ocmulgee.

Archaeologists use the term “Mississippian” to refer to these cultural traits. Mississippian does not refer to a single tribe or people and, in fact, many different tribes across the Southeast and Midwest eventually adopted various aspects of Mississippian culture. “Mississippian” culture is similar to the term “Western” culture in that it describes traits which were shared by many different peoples and cultures speaking many different languages. Just as cultures from Asia to South America have become “westernized,” so did cultures all over the eastern U.S. become “Mississippianized.”

Other evidence also suggests a Mexican origin for the Creek Indians. For instance, the type of tobacco grown in the southeast by the Creek Indians has been shown to have its origins in Central America.

Creek Indian Steeh-tcha-ko-me-co by George Catlin
“Steeh-tcha-ko-me-co” by George Catlin, 1834.
Chontal sculpture from Guerrero, Mexico
Chontal sculpture from Guerrero, Mexico.

Also, an artifact from the Chontal culture discovered in the state of Guerrero in west Mexico reveals a similar dress styles as a Creek Indian chief painted by artist George Catlin in 1834 named Steeh-tcha-ko-me-co. The Chontal are also noted for portable stone human effigy statues that were part of a complex funerary practice. Similar stone human effigy statues were used by Mississippian era Creek Indians such as at the next site in our story: Etowah Mounds. Also, a stela from Guerrero featured a bird-man design similar to a design on a copper breastplate found at Etowah.

Additionally, the Muskogean language spoken by the Creek Indians is believed by some linguists to be distantly related to the Hokan family. This language family has its origin in western Mexico and the western U.S. where the Yuman group is still spoken in western Arizona, southern California, and northwestern Mexico.

Interestingly, the Yumans also constructed earth lodges which is another feature of the Ocmulgee site (discussed below). More specifically, the Yumans were known for constructing square earth lodges. Not far from Ocmulgee at a site known as Brown’s Mount, archaeologists unearthed the remains of a square earth lodge that dates to the same time period as the round earth lodges at Ocmulgee. Thus an idea present in the West was also present in the East and believed to have been built by the same people as those who constructed Ocmulgee Mounds.

It is also appears that Brown’s Mount played a part in the Creek migration legend. The legend states:

They always have, on their journeys, two scouts who go before the main body. These scouts ascended a high mountain and saw a town…Then the Cussitaws became angry, and determined to attack the town, and each one have a house when it was captured. They threw stones into the river until they could cross it, and took the town (the people had flattened heads), and killed all but two persons.

Thus it seems from the legend that the scouts climbed Brown’s Mount (which is down river from Ocmulgee Mounds) and planned the assault on the town. This also reveals that the Ocmulgee Mounds site was already inhabited when the Cussitaws showed up and these inhabitants practiced cranial deformation which resulted in “flattened heads.”

Ocmulgee Mounds Bibb Plain Mississippian pottery
The newcomers arrived at Ocmulgee Mounds with a different style of pottery featuring shouldered bowls with smooth, undecorated surfaces similar to that found among the tribes of the desert Southwest.

The archaeological evidence actually supports this part of the migration legend. The original pottery unearthed by archaeologists at the site is known as Swift Creek pottery and is noticeably different than the style (called Bibb plain) brought by the newcomers. Also, early explorer C. C. Jones, Jr. from Savannah visited the Ocmulgee site in the late 1800s when the Central of Georgia Railroad was cutting a trail through the site. They cut through the burial mound and Mr. Jones noted in his book Antiquities of the Southern Indians Especially the Georgia Tribes that a skull from the lowest part of the mound, thus the oldest part, exhibited cranial deformation giving it a flattened appearance while the later burials in the upper part of the mound did not. All of this evidence suggests two completely different people inhabited the Ocmulgee Mounds site, one replaced (or massacred) by the other.

As noted in the previous article on Kolomoki Mounds, Swift Creek pottery appears to be associated with the Hitchiti-speaking tribes. At least one Hitchiti migration legend suggests they migrated north into Georgia after having first arrived by boat in the Lake Okeechobee area of Florida. It is in this area where archaeologists have found the earliest evidence of corn agriculture, a native crop of Mexico, although this was a much smaller variety of corn than that brought later by the newcomers at Ocmulgee Mounds.

Mayan Cranial Deformation
A Maya skull and statue both showing cranial deformation.

Curiously the Hitchiti language has several Mayan words in it and Mesoamerican symbols have been found on Swift Creek pottery. The Maya were also known for head flattening. Thus all of this evidence suggests the Hitchiti (or at least some portion of them) were possibly descended from the Maya.

It is likely that the Hitchiti/Swift Creek built the first stage of the funeral mound since the skeletons with cranial deformation were found there. Did they also build the first stages of the Greater and Lesser temple mounds? According to another version of the Creek Migration Legend, the first structure the newcomers built upon arrival was “a mound [with a] great chamber in the center” where the warriors could gather– a clear reference to an earth lodge. Yet the legend mentions nothing about constructing the temple mounds and, in fact, their descendants would later tell European settlers they did not know who constructed the mounds.

Ocmulgee Mounds

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The main features of the Ocmulgee Mounds’ site plan are two truncated pyramidal earthen mounds, one larger than the other, flanking and defining an open plaza area. This site plan does not match previous known Swift Creek site plans such as at Kolomoki Mounds. The site plan does match other Mississippian site plans west of Ocmulgee Mounds such as that at Cahokia near St. Louis. Thus this evidence favors the newcomers as the builders of the Greater and Lesser Temple Mounds and central plaza as well as the Earth Lodge, as previously mentioned.

Also as previously mentioned, the migration legend tells how the Cussitaws would always have scouts ahead of the main group.  Ocmulgee is located on the Ocmulgee River which flows into the Altamaha River which flows into the Atlantic Ocean just south of Sapelo Island for a distance of 300 miles. It is about a three week journey from Ocmulgee to the coast by dugout canoe. Thus as the main group rested at Ocmulgee the scouts would have reached the Atlantic Ocean and realized that their journey had ended. They could go no further east and had discovered that the sun rose from a great ocean each morning. They would return and tell the others about their discovery. Ocmulgee thus became the logical place for a permanent settlement. It truly is where they finally “sat down.” Continues….

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  1. [...] Ocmulgee Indian Mounds: An Ancient NativeAmerican Civilization in …Feb 15, 2011 … As impressive as the previously discussed Kolomoki Mounds complex is, the NativeAmerican Mound Builders of Georgia would outdo … [...]