I am carefully traversing the access road from the Ocmulgee National Monument Visitor Center to the park’s main attraction – the mysterious ancient mounds that rise majestically from the earth upon which they are constructed. Though my trusty little Nissan Versa is neither loud nor imposing, I am driving slowly and with some care, lest a doe and her young, a wee woodland critter or a fellow human, hiking along the 5 miles of marked trails, should dart out in front of me unexpectedly.

Tunnel at Ocmulgee National Monument

It’s a very nearly perfect Sunday afternoon on the Macon Plateau, sunny and temperate. Outside the confines of my car, I spy with my little eye an endless expanse of azure sky. The pristine blue is dotted only with a cottony cloud or two floating amiably above, while on either side of me, fall leaves carried on the breezy winds dance a charming little pas de deux in colorful bursts as they drift from branch to ground in the heavily wooded park.

As I reach the end of the access road and torque around to take a picture of the Great Temple Mound, I see a cluster of people of varying heights milling about on the flattened peak of the 5-story structure. It’s an unexpectedly eerie sight. With those nearly cloudless blue skies and the sun positioned behind them, from my vantage point, the tiny faceless silhouettes could easily be the very Native Americans who dwelled here eons ago.  But then I spot what is undeniably a Frisbee being tossed through the air, from one end of the mound to the other, and the spell is broken.

Great Temple Mound

No ghosts here today – well no visible ones, anyway. Just folks soaking up the sun and enjoying the day in the shadows of history. But this place is haunted alright – by lingering mysteries even the most dedicated scientists have yet to solve and some unearthed secrets of the past.

What Did the Ocmulgee Natives Eat?

The Ocmulgee natives made ample use of blackberries, scuppernongs, sweet potatoes, squash, pumpkins and beans. Deer, turkey and fish from the nearby river, wild grains, seeds and nuts were frequent mealtime favorites as well. Hickory oils, ground chestnuts and persimmon pastes were just a few of the cookery innovations that added flavor, healthy fats and sweetness.

This balanced diet (sans dairy and refined sugar) would have been needed too because building those mounds wasn’t a job for the weak or infirm…right?

How Were the Mounds Constructed?

The initial mound-builders broke ground in the Mississippian period, building the first mounds between 900 and 950 AD. But exactly how they did it and how long it took them remains murky. We know the earthen mounds were constructed in layers a 60-pound or so basket of dirt at a time. This includes the imposing Great Temple Mound, which stands 56 feet tall and is wider at its base than a football field.

And thanks to the initial archaeologists who bisected the Funeral Mound in the 1930s, we also know Georgia’s many different colored clays were added in 2 to 7-foot layers. but whether that was for aesthetics or a means of mummification is unclear. The ancient South American Chinchorro people pioneered a fairly advanced means of mummifying their dead, which entailed packing the bodies in clay. Could there be a connection between Macon and South America?

Which leads us to the next Mound Mystery…tune in Friday for Part II!