Mammoths, Mastodons, and Mound Builders?

Last week on the Den of Lore’s weekly Crypto Corner segment, we began a series about giants. During the episode, a question came in through the live chat feature asking if there were any stories of giants and the domestication of megafauna, such as mastodons. The answer is yes; there are a number of Indian traditions that suggest a knowledge of both mammoths and mastodons and also a connection to giants.

There may be reason to believe that mastodons and mammoths lived much longer than we have been led to believe—the last of these mighty animals may have survived up until about 500 years ago. Of course, there’s really no way to prove it; it does make for an interesting conversation, though.

To begin, it should be noted that there is an earthwork in Grant County, Wisconsin, an effigy mound, shaped like an elephant. Since most effigy mounds in the area are thought to have been built during the Late Woodland Period (350-1300 CE), North American pachyderms must have lived far beyond the mass extinctions at the conclusion of the last ice age in order to provide a model for the mound.

There have also been a number of artifacts found with the likeness of mammoths and mastodons. The Lenape Stone, found in Pennsylvania and shown below, depicts Indians fighting a mammoth. Mammoths, of course, supposedly went extinct about 10,000 years ago; the stone was found with other relics that were about 2,000 years old. Before you start emailing me or messaging me on social media to inform me that the stone is said to be a forgery, rest assured I am aware of the questions surrounding its authenticity.

In Iowa, pipes were found near burial mounds, again bearing the likeness of an elephant-type creature.

The Popular Science Monthly said this regarding elephant-like artifacts in July 1885:

Constantly objects are being brought to the attention of archaeologists as having some bearing upon this question [of “the contemporaneity of man and the mastodon in North America”]. As to whether the ” elephant-pipes,” of Iowa, or the “Lenape-stone,” of Pennsylvania, be genuine or not, no opinion is here expressed; but it is unquestionable that many of the remains of the mastodon found in New Jersey and New York are far more recent than some of the relics of man, and it is simply impossible that even so late a comer as the Indian should not have seen living mastodons on the Atlantic seaboard of this continent. Elephant-pipes and carvings should not be condemned, merely because of an impression still prevalent that the mastodon was a creature of an earlier geological epoch than the recent. This is but half the truth: he also shared the forests of the present with the fauna of historic times.

Indian Traditions

There are numerous traditions among Native Americans of mammoths and mastodons living until fairly recent times. Thomas Jefferson wrote the following in Notes of the State of Virginia regarding mammoths:

…To add to this, the traditionary testimony of the Indians, that this animal still exists in the Northern and Western parts of America, would be adding the light of a taper to that of the meridian sun. Those parts still remain in their aboriginal state, unexplored and undisturbed by us, or by others for us. He may well exist there now, as he did formerly, where we find his bones.

John Francis Hamtramck Claiborne (1809–1884) a congressperson from Mississippi, wrote the following concerning Indian traditions in his work Mississippi, as a Province, Territory, and State, With Biographical Notices of Eminent Citizens:

The Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Creeks, or Muscogees, were in the occupation of a large portion of what now constitutes the States of Mississippi and Alabama, when the French first colonized the country. How long they had been here, and whence they came, is merely traditional and has never been established. The Natchez tribes, and the Caddo’s on Red river, had preceded them, and these had been preceded by the mound builders. All the Indian traditions dimly shadow a gigantic race of people, their predecessors who were contemporary with the mammoth, and the fossilized monstrous reptiles. Birds and quadrupeds that have been frequently unearthed, all which became extinct by the wrath of the Great Spirit about the same time.

Claiborne further expanded on this theme:

The Choctaws preserve a dim tradition that, after crossing the Mis sissippi, they met a race of men whom they called Na-hon-lo, tall in stature and of fair complexion, who had emigrated from the sun rise. They had once been a mighty people, but were then few in number and soon disappeared after the incoming of the Choctaws. This race of men were, according to the tradition, tillers of the soil and peaceable. There had likewise been a race of cannibals, who feasted on the bodies of their enemies. They, too, were giants, and utilized the mammoth as their burden bearers. They kept them closely herded, and as they devoured everything and broke down the forests, this was the origin of the prairies.

This cannibal race and the mammoth perished about the same time, by a great epidemic. Only one of the latter escaped, who made his. home for several years near the Tombigbee. The Great Spirit struck him several times with lightning, but he presented his head to the bolt and it glanced off. Annoyed, however, by these attempts, he fled to Soc-te-thou-fah, (the present Memphis,) and at one mighty leap cleared the river, and made his way to the Rocky Mountains.

Horatio Bardwell “H. B.” Cushman (1822–1904) was the son of missionaries to the Choctaw Nation. His parents, Calvin and Laura, left their home in Massachusetts in 1820 and moved to Mississippi to minister to the Choctaw people. Cushman, who was raised among the Choctaw, considered them to be his earliest and most faithful friends. Having grown up around the Choctaw, and having a great affinity for them, Cushman became acquainted with their history, legends, and myths. In 1899, he published History of the Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Natchez Indians; the book sheds much light on the traditions of the native inhabitants of the southeastern United States.

Cushman told of a tradition of giants among the Choctaw legends. There is also a legend of mammoths and their extinction:

An ancient Choctaw tradition attributes the origin of the prairies along the western banks of the Tombigbee River, to some huge animals (mammoths) that existed there at the advent of their ancestors from the west to Mississippi. Their tradition also states that the Nahullo, (Supernatural) a race of giant people, also inhabited the same country, with whom their forefathers oft came in hostile contact. These mighty animals broke off the low limbs of the trees in eating the leaves, and also gnawed the bark off the trees, which, in the course of time, caused them to wither and die; that they roamed in different bands, which engaged in desperate battles whenever and wherever they met, and thus caused them to rapidly decrease in numbers; and that, in the course of years all had perished but two large males, who, separate and alone, wandered about for several years—each confining himself to the solitude of the forest many miles from the other. Finally, in their wanderings they met, and at once engaged in terrible conflict in which one was killed. The survivor, now ‘monarch of the forests, strolled about for a few years wrapt in the solitude of his own reflections and independence—then died, and with him the race became extinct.

These are but a few traditions, there are far too many to recount here. It is interesting to note that from the Ohio Valley, stories come to us stating that the Mound Builders used mastodons as beasts of burden in the construction of their earthworks. Fritz Zimmerman lays much of this out in his latest book Mysteries of Ancient America: Uncovering the Forbidden.

In conclusion, I will part with the words of the great Native American scholar, author, and activist Vine Deloria Jr (1933–2005) written in his book Red Earth White Lies:

“This testimony about the contemporary existence of the mammoth should not be lightly dismissed.”

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