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Mound Builders

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Within a few miles of Rock Island lie several prehistoric mounds of the kind that dot much of the Mississippi River basin between Ohio and the Mississippi River.

Some are burial mounds, others are effigies of birds or animals, ranging from a few feet to the towering mounds at Cahokia, across from St. Louis, reminiscent of Mayan ruins in Central America.

They created a stir among early 19th century anthropologists. We once thought these magnificent and mysterious objects could not be the work of the savage red man. Enemies have always been barbarians, and not quite human.

And so, in a moment of high science fiction, 19th century historians and scientists invented a great race called the Mound Builders who were here before the Indians. A culture as civilized as Athens, as magnificent as Lost Atlantis.

William Cullen Bryant, whose poem "Thanatopsis" you may have memorized in fifth grade, visited the Illinois mounds in 1832, and wrote the poem "The Prairies," in which he imagines this great race who built the mounds and tamed the buffalo: "All day this desert murmured with their toils, ‘till twilight blushed, and lovers walked, and wooed In a forgotten language."

Then, Bryant continues, the barbarous red man came and destroyed these civilized people. The implication was clear: our taking Indian lands away was justified by their sins against the mound builders.

We now know there was no such race. The mounds were built between 500 B.C. and 1000 A.D. by woodland Indians, ancestors of the historic Indians such as the Sioux, and we have had to revise our ideas of "savage." Excavations from the mounds have uncovered grizzly bear teeth from Canada, copper from the Great Lakes, shells from the Atlantic and Pacific, and obsidian from Mexico.

These were world travelers and traders who made an interstate highway of America's rivers while most Europeans walked.

The moral? Popular history is sometimes more convenient than factual.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.