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|The builders of The Great Mound at Jonesville|
(Sixth in a Series)
In the distance during a quiet night on the river 1,300 years ago, a traveler in a small canoe would have seen fires burning above the treetops for miles. As he grew closer, the ceremonial sounds of humans worshipping would have echoed along the banks of the four rivers that met at this sacred site.
Here, the traveler would see worshippers atop and below a pyramid-shaped, man-made earthen structure, three-tiered and layered with cane matting, anchored with wooden stakes. Fires illuminated a summit that seemed to touch the heavens. These summit flames and smoke could be seen up to 30 miles away, even from atop the bluffs at Natchez.
The people who lived at this place are known today as the Troyville Indians and their massive temple mound -- remembered in Jonesville as The Great Mound -- was likely raised around 700 A.D. The different stages may have been constructed in only a matter of months. The number of workers needed to build a mound of this size was once believed to have been enormous, but may not have been so great. Yet archeologists have no idea just how many Troyville Indians there were.
Evidence indicates that the Native Americans who built The Great Mound and others in its shadow may have lived outside an embankment which surrounded The Great Mound and others. Carbon dating on Mound 4, believed to be the oldest in Jonesville, indicates that it was probably constructed about a century before the birth of Christ. Mound 4 was located on the corner of Third and Pond Streets in the shadow of The Great Mound.
The mounds were ceremonial centers which supported temples and civic buildings. The Troyville culture of Indians dominated the lower Ouachita and Tensas river valleys for centuries and the site included nine to 13 mounds bordered by the earthen embankment and the Black and Little rivers.
Liz Davoli, Environmental Impact Specialist with the Louisiana Department of Transportation & Development, says no one "knows what the embankment was for though there is speculation that it was to keep people out." There is evidence of a village outside the embankment, indicating that the Indians did not live on or at the base of the mounds.
There is evidence of structures associated with daily living outside the embankment, while inside there is evidence of ceremonial feasting. This seems so because outside the embankment, archaeologists have found small wares and possible evidence of structures for habitation. The pottery found there is made up of small bowls and ornate pottery with bird motifs.
Inside, near or on the mounds, there is evidence that large platters and shallow bowls were used to serve food, suggesting that large numbers of people were fed. In a small pit in Mound 4, archaeologists found 1,300 pieces of pottery. This could have been a refuge pit used to clean up following a ceremony.
Just what happened during these ceremonies isn't known. It is generally accepted, however, that unlike the great Aztec nation in Mexico, that the mound builders of the Southeast did not practice human sacrifice.
HUNTERS WHO LEARNED TO FARM
Prior to 1,000 A.D., the natives relied mostly on hunting and fishing. For centuries before this date, the Troyville Indians also dined on native plants, such as Goosefoot, berries, and nuts. Archeologists know, too, that by the age of 30 in the pre-agriculture period, their teeth were ground down and abscessing, destroyed in part by the sand and grit consumed in their diet.
But a thousand years ago, the descendants of the Troyville Indians apparently began to farm. There is evidence at this time that corn became an important part of the diet of these many aborigines, who made clothing from animal skins. But with this new diet, huge cavities began to develop and their teeth seemingly exploded. And, overall, their health began to decline.
At one mound site the bones of bear, deer, squirrel, turtle, snapping turtle, soft-shell turtle, ducks, wild turkey, catfish and alligator gar were found. Also found, without explanation, was a shark tooth.
Joe Saunders is the regional archaeologist at the University of Louisiana Monroe in the Department of Geosciences. He is one of several archaeologists who is studying the mounds at Jonesville and he is presently mapping and coring the McGuffee mound site and has mapped the Crawford mound site. Both are located along the Ouachita near Harrisonburg. The McGuffee mound site is older than the Troyville site at Jonesville.
Saunders says that evidence indicates the Troyville Indians were a people who stood taller than 5 feet when fully grown, but archeologists aren't sure how much taller they may have been. One burial site contained the skeletons of adult males who stood 5 feet, 6 inches tall. Many mysteries about the lifestyles, health and structure of this Indian nation remain.
THE DIETS OF NATIVE AMERICANS
Diana Greenlee, Station Archaeologist at Poverty Point State Historic Site, provides a glimpse of the diets of Native Americans more than 1,000 years ago.
"With respect to diet," she told us, "there is no archaeological evidence that Native Americans living in the Lower Mississippi Valley during the Troyville Period (A.D. 400 -700) were involved in maize agriculture. Furthermore, although populations in many other areas of eastern North America were cultivating native starchy (e.g., chenopodium, maygrass, little barley and knotweed) and oily (e.g., sunflower and sumpweed) seeds and gourd/squash at that time, this does not appear to have been the case in the Lower Mississippi Valley.
"Animal remains indicate a reliance on fish and deer, with a lesser use of small mammals, birds and reptiles; plant remains are consistent with the collection of wild seeds, fruits, and nuts.
"There is risk in making general statements, but hunter/gatherer populations were probably 'healthier' than those consuming maize-based diets. This is based on the observation that their skeletons exhibit lower frequencies of pathologies that reflect nutritional -- and/or disease-related stress. Some archaeologists have countered that hunter-gatherer skeletons show fewer pathologies because they were so 'unhealthy' that they died before their skeletons could be involved, whereas maize consumers were 'healthy' enough to hang on long enough for the illness to be recorded in their bones before finally dying. Even if maize consumers were less 'healthy,' they were more fit (i.e., their fertility was greater). Local population sizes grew substantially after maize was incorporated into the diet."
EXPLORING THE GREAT MOUND
By 1804, when the Ouachita River Expedition arrived at present day Jonesville, the lone occupant of the site was a Frenchman named Caddy Hebrard De Baillion. The people who built the mounds had vanished centuries earlier. Thories that Jonesville was the site of Ancient Anilco visited by Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto in 1542 are no longer purported by the archeological community.
No one knows why the Troyville Indians vanished. Archeologist Winslow Walker speculated that it could have been due to "sudden plague, pestilence or other disease that quickly decimated the population."
William Dunbar and Dr. George Hunter led the expedition to explore the Ouachita River up to the hot springs as part of President Thomas Jefferson's effort to explore the Louisiana Territory after it was purchased from France. At this time, The Great Mound and the smaller ones were now covered with cane and the forest had retaken the site. But The Great Mound still held a commanding view of the four rivers. Both Hunter and Dunbar recognized that this was a significant site.
Hunter climbed to the top of The Great Mound. He measured his ascent, writing: "This Tower of earth on measurement proved to be about 80 feet perpendicular."
This was the second highest Indian mound in North America.
"If one may judge from the emmense labor to erect those Indian monuments to be seen here, this place must have once been very populus," Hunter wrote. An embankment running from Little River to the Black enclosed 200 acres of rich land and all of the mounds, said Hunter. The great mound's base covered "about an acre of ground, rising by two flats or stories, tapering as you ascend, the whole surmounted by a great cone with the top cut off."
The Great Mound was located on the block in Jonesville today surrounded by 2nd and 3rd Streets, and Pond and Willow.
Dunbar said it was "difficult to examine" all of the mounds "with due attention." When he climbed the steep top of The Great Mound, he had to support himself by grabbing onto the canes.
Dunbar intended to return to the site at a later time and study the mounds, the embankment and the whole place. Caddy provided Dunbar with a sketch "of this remarkable place." The sketch has never been located and Dunbar never returned. Declining health kept him confined primarily at his Forest Plantation south of Natchez for the remaining five years of his life.
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