By CARIN TUNNEY
Capital News Service
LANSING — Down a narrow rural road in southwestern Michigan, an empty corner has neatly mowed grass and two tiny rolling hills.
The mounds would likely go unnoticed if not for a small historical marker that most drivers pass without slowing.
But hidden beneath the unremarkable ground lie answers to Michigan’s ancient past.
This and similar earthworks sites tell us how ancient hunters and gatherers interacted with their environment in a time before written language documented how they lived. Unlike the majority of mounds across Michigan, these survived development, agriculture and human curiosity.
The Sumnerville Mounds in Cass County’s Pokagon Township, a short distance north
of the Indiana border, date to sometime between the first and fourth century, according to archaeologists.
Some of the mounds were excavated and stripped of artifacts like tools, arrowheads and fired pottery. But six are preserved.
Barbara Cook, a local historian, donated the land to the township for use as a park and worked with the state of Michigan to receive the historic designation.
“It is sort of a passion — of about 70 years,” said Cook. “I have tried to record their history, as well as I discovered, so that the people that follow me will be able to benefit from our work.”
According to archaeologists, Michigan is often overlooked as a location for Midwest archaeology. It lacks the jaw-dropping pizazz of mounds built by later cultures like the Great Serpent Mound, a grassy effigy that snakes across more than 1,300 feet in southern Ohio, or the large animal-shaped mounds preserved in state parks across southern Wisconsin.
Scientists from the University of New Hampshire recently completed a case study that highlights the significance of mound building in Michigan, focusing on those built between the years 1,000 to 1,600, an era known as the Precontact period, which refers to the period before explorer Christopher Columbus landed in the Americas.
Their research combined modern modeling analysis with the study of archival information. Both are methods of studying past civilizations without digging into the earth.
Through letters, books and articles found in libraries throughout Michigan, they found evidence of 300 earthen structures from the era, although 80 to 90 percent have been destroyed. They then used that information to identify similarities and compare environmental factors like climate and location to map areas where similar habitats existed.
The research identified sites throughout the Great Lakes watershed under schools, around homes and beneath churches. Like the mounds in Sumnerville, many were ruined by development and farming.
“The places of population today tend to be places of population in the past,” said Meghan Howey, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of New Hampshire. “It’s kind of unfortunate — development happens on these sites.”
Howey says the Precontact-era mounds consist of earthen burial sites and large arenas, some more than 130 yards in diameter, that were likely places where people held ceremonies and came together for trade. She says the cleanliness inside the structures and high-quality artifacts found near the sites mean that the arenas were likely used for rituals.
The research also focused on a how these people interacted with Michigan’s microclimate – which they say hasn’t been studied.
They found early people inhabited areas of unique weather patterns near the lakes.
Although it’s not certain why they gathered in these areas, the microclimate would have likely provided a longer summer growing season and more moderate winter temperatures.
While Michigan’s mounds may not be as eye-catching as those in other states, Paul Gardner, the Midwest regional director of the Archaeological Conservancy in Columbus, Ohio, says research on these sites is important.
“If you want to know how much the forest has changed, you have to know what it was like before we started changing it, so archaeology can answer those questions,” Gardner says.
He says archaeological research can also answer questions about an area’s indigenous animals and plants.
Gardner says with the cooperation of landowners, even more can be learned about the ancient past: “There are still many archaeology sites that remain undiscovered, so we are always looking for more information about where archaeological sites are.”