by Richard L. Thornton, Architect and City Planner
On August 26, 2022 the world of Native American anthropology was turned upside down. LSU Professor Emeritus Brooks Ellwood presented to a packed room full of students, professors and reporters a summary of the archaeological study of two long-time landmarks on the Louisiana State University Campus in Baton Rouge. They were “Indian Mounds” that apparently in the past had been ignored by the LSU Anthropology Department, but had been assumed to be about 1-2,000 years old.
The LSU campus was the site of a ceremonial mound, ceremonial grounds and probably a village at least 11,000 years ago! The oldest mounds in Europe date from around 3,500-4,000 BC. The oldest stonehenges are found in Canada and date from around 3,500 BC. Initial construction of THE Stonehenge in England is c. 3,000 BC.
- Savannah’s Bilbo Mound & Port were dated to c. 3545 BC
- Watson Brake Earthworks in Louisiana was dated to c. 3450 BC
- The oldest burial mound in Ireland dates to c. 3200 BC
- The oldest burial mounds in Scandinavia date to c. 1,500 BC
The study had previously been published in the American Journal of Science by Yale University. As might be expected of Gringo archaeologists, it was immediately attacked viciously as being “impossible.” Re-testing had confirmed the team’s methodology and accuracy. Thus, Elwood felt confident in going before the general public. However, there has been no rush to change the orthodox portrayal of indigenous Americans by North American anthropologists as being primitive, wandering hunters 11,000 years ago.
When I first read the articles in the media about this discovery, I was astonished . . . but then thought back to a lunchtime chat that I had with archaeologist Bill Gardner at a restaurant in Downtown Woodstock, Virginia . . . about 35 years ago. Earlier that autumn, we had moved our goat cheese creamery and farm to Toms Brook, VA and I had set up an office in historic Woodstock.
I soon discovered that an archaeological firm, Thunderbird Associates, had set up shop in a 19th century house, around the corner from my office. That was handy. Mankind had lived in the Shenandoah Valley for a long, long time. I would be needing the help of archaeologists frequently, when restoring buildings or designing new buildings in the flood plain of the Shenandoah River.
As our friendship and professional collaboration developed, Bill told me more and more about his work on the Shenandoah River near Front Royal, VA. He taught at American Catholic University, but the focus of much of his archaeological work, before setting up shop in Woodstock, had been a 2,500 archaeological zone that dated back to 9,500 BC! The sites were called the Thunderbird Archaeological District and Flint Run Complex.
The attraction for humans to settle there were large deposits of high-quality jasper, flint and chert for making tools and weapons. By 8,000 BC a cluster of permanent villages had developed . . . the largest of which had at least 1,000 residents!
On that particularly memorable lunch, Bill confided something surprising to me. These orthodoxy-shattering discoveries did NOT make him go down in history. He was thoroughly supported by the faculty at American Catholic University, but the archaeological profession as a whole in the United States had relegated him to being a pariah, shunned by most of his colleagues. It really was not until the early 1990s, when the National Park Service re-tested the site with radiocarbon dating, that his occupation dates were generally considered factual.
This is funny and absolutely true. Simultaneously, archaeologists with the National Park Service were studying my farm in anticipation of it becoming a key property in the Shenandoah Battlefields National Park. One day, an excited archaeologist came to our front door to tell me that what they thought were Confederate artillery earthen forts were actually Indian mounds. “Mr. Thornton, you have both Adena and Hopewell village sites on your farm.”
I didn’t have a clue what Adena and Hopewell meant so the next day I walked over to Thunderbird Associates “to ask the experts.” Bill loaned me books on the Adena and Hopewell cultures. It was the beginning of my education into North American anthropology. Up to that point, I had only studied Mesoamerican cultures.
Twenty years after his death from a heart attack in 2002, Bill Gardner is still being shunned. Read the Wikipedia article on the Thunderbird Archaeological District. Even though he devoted almost three decades of his career to being the Supervising Archaeologist for Thunderbird and Flint Run, his name is not mentioned in the article . . . only in one reference for the article! North American history and anthropology textbooks often do not even mention the Thunderbird archaeological zone. If they include them on list of Paleo-American sites, the text does not tell you that there were large permanent villages on the site 9,000 years ago.
Below is a verbatim reprint of the press release distributed about the LSU Mounds by the university.
BATON ROUGE – New research reveals more information about the LSU Campus Mounds, including the discovery of thousands of years old charred mammal bone fragments and a coordinated alignment of both mounds toward one of the brightest stars in the night sky. This new information offers more insight into the oldest known man-made structures in the Americas.
The two large, grassy mounds that are about 20 feet tall, on LSU’s campus, are among the more than 800 man-made, hill-like mounds in Louisiana, built by ancient indigenous people. While many mounds in the region have been destroyed, the LSU Campus Mounds have been preserved and are listed on the National Register for Historic Places.
“There’s nothing known that is man-made and this old still in existence today in the Americas, except the mounds.”
Brooks Ellwood, LSU Department of Geology & Geophysics Professor Emeritus
Ellwood and colleagues collected sediment cores from the two mounds that are located on LSU’s campus along Dalrymple Drive to learn more about them. The cores revealed layers of ash from burned reed and cane plants, as well as the burned mammal bones. Radiocarbon dating of the layers of material indicates the mounds were built over thousands of years. These findings show that people began to build the first mound about 11,000 years ago. The scientists think that sediment for the southern mound, which they’ve named “Mound B,” was taken from a location immediately behind LSU’s Hill Memorial Library, because there is a large depression in the ground there. The mound was built up over a few thousand years, layer by layer, to about half of its current height.
The layers of ash and charred microscopic bone fragments may indicate the mound was used for ceremonial purposes, which included burning reed and cane plants to make large, hot fires that would have been too hot for cooking. The scientists do not know what type of mammals were cremated or why. However, they found many microscopic, charred bone fragments, known as osteons, the building blocks of large mammal bones, in the ash beds in both LSU Campus Mounds.
Then, around 8,200 years ago, the southern Mound B was abandoned. Tree roots found in the 8,200-year-old sediment layer indicate that the mound was not used for about 1,000 years. Also around 8,200 years ago, the northern hemisphere experienced a major climate event with temperatures suddenly dropping on average by about 35 degrees Fahrenheit, which lasted about 160 years.
“We don’t know why they abandoned the mounds around 8,200 years ago, but we do know their environment changed suddenly and dramatically, which may have affected many aspects of their daily life,” Ellwood said.
Then, around 7,500 years ago, the indigenous people began to build a new mound just to the north of the first mound. However, this time, they took mud from the floodplain where the entrance to LSU’s Tiger Stadium is currently located, which at that time was an estuary. With this mud, they built the second mound, “Mound A,” layer by layer, to about half of its current height. Mound A contains mud that is saturated with water, which liquefies when agitated. As a result, Mound A is unstable and degrading, which is why it is critical to stay off the mounds to preserve them.
According to the new analyses of the sediment layers and their ages, it looks like indigenous people cleared the abandoned first-built Mound B and began to build it up to its current height before completing Mound A. Both mounds were completed around 6,000 years ago and are similar in height.
The crests of both mounds are aligned along an azimuth that is about 8.5 degrees east of true north. According to LSU astronomer and study coauthor Geoffrey Clayton, about 6,000 years ago, the red giant star Arcturus would rise about 8.5 degrees east of north in the night sky, which means it would have aligned along the crests of both LSU Campus Mounds. Arcturus is one of the brightest stars that can be seen from Earth.
“The people who constructed the mounds, at about 6,000 years ago, coordinated the structures’ orientation to align with Arcturus, seen in the night sky at that time,” Ellwood said.
Still, there is more to learn and discover about these archaeological treasures on LSU’s campus. Visit the LSU Campus Mounds website for more information.
Now we need to determine who was the first Indigenous American to discover Europe and introduce that continent to advanced cultural ideas.