A History of Anthropological Work at the Smithsonian

Early research by the Smithsonian revealed the origin of thousands of mysterious earthen mounds across the country

Department of Anthropology Staff, 1931
Department of Anthropology Staff, 1931 Smithsonian Archives

“One of the most interesting chapters in the early history of archaeology in the United States was the formation by the Smithsonian Institution of the Division of Mound Exploration,” says Bruce Smith, curator of archaeology at the Natural History Museum. “The daunting task that was set out for this division was to investigate and understand the thousands of mysterious earthen mounds that were scattered Eastern North America.”

As white settlers explored the continent, they had discovered the existence of thousands of unusual mounds that came in a variety of types: long, snaking hills in the forms of animals; large geometrical arrays; cone-shaped mounds; and enormous flat-topped mounds, like the famous Cahokia Mounds in Illinois. An equally diverse set of theories was generated in trying to determine who had built the mounds: some suspected that ancient Mexican civilizations were responsible, while others argued that a vanished race, perhaps from the Near East or even Atlantis, had actually constructed them thousands of years earlier.

In the 1880s and 1890s, the Smithsonian’s Division of Mound Exploration organized a massive survey to figure out the answer for good. Teams of researchers visited and mapped more than 2,000 mounds across the Eastern half of the country, and shipped more than 8,000 artifacts found in excavation back to the Smithsonian.

“These reports and artifact collections formed the basis of the landmark report of the Bureau of Ethnology, which established conclusively that the mounds served a variety of important functions, including the burial of people, the elevation of temples and meeting houses, and to designate sacred locations on the landscape,” says Smith. “The Division of Mound Exploration also concluded that it was the distant ancestors of Eastern North American Indian societies who had constructed the mounds.”

Watch the video along with the series of five others recently released by Natural History Museum’s Department of Anthropology to learn about the research in anthropology that went on in the early days of the Smithsonian. Staff anthropologists studied everything from Inuit societies in the Arctic to Native American groups in the southwest. The work of these researchers—and the collections of valuable artifacts they amassed—eventually laid the groundwork for the opening of the Natural History Museum in 1910.

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