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Who built the stone cairns in the Southern Highlands?

Who built the stone cairns in the Southern Highlands?


A civic leader in Douglas County, Georgia (SW Metro Atlanta) wrote the famous canine archaeologist, Rob Roy McGregor, with a common question . . . “Who built the stone cairns in the Southeast?”   Douglas County politicians have done almost nothing to protect the many Native American heritage sites in her county and she is trying to save a cairn complex near her neighborhood.  The neighborhood group retained an archaeologist to study the site, but the academician essentially told them nothing. The archaeologist stated that no one knew much about stone cairns and archaeologists were not even certain that they were built by Native Americans.

Not true!

Personally,  I don’t much about Native American architecture, but this is what Rob Roy told me.  He emphasized that the cairn complexes in Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia were very different in appearance and function than those in the remainder of the Americas . . . even the world. 

16th century Spanish traders and Charles de Rochefort in 1658 stated that the ancestors of the Creeks burned copal incense 24/7 from stone altars

*Yes . . . Creek leaders wore beards and most Creek warriors wore mustaches in the 1500’s.  You will never see that at museums.

cairn is a human-made pile (or stack) of stones. The word cairn comes from the Scottish Gaelic words, càrn and càirn (plural). Cairns have been and are used for a broad variety of purposes, from prehistoric times to the present, all over the world.  Their greatest concentrations are found in the Southern Highlands and Piedmont of the United States, British Isles, southern Scandinavia, the Atlantic coasts of France and Portugal and around the rim of the Mediterranean Basin.  North Georgia probably contains at least 75% of the cairns in the United States.  Cairn complexes are endemic there, especially around Metro Atlanta and in West Central Georgia.  There is also a concentration of cairn complexes in the northern tip of the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia and West Virginia. 

The Shenandoah cairns have received much more study by professional archaeologists than those in the Deep South.  Archaeologists in that region have given their builders a distinct name,  The Piled Stone Grave Culture, and assigned them to the Middle Woodland Period (0 AD – 600 AD).  Only a few of the Shenandoah sites have been analyzed by radiocarbon dating, so some may be older than this time period.

That certainly is the case for a top secret cairn complex and stone enclosure within Kennesaw National Battlefield Park in Cobb County, GA (NW Metro Atlanta).  National Park Service archaeologists obtained radiocarbon dates ranging from the Late Archaic Period (c. 1500 AD) through the Early Mississippian Period (c. 1000 AD).  As mentioned in a recent POOF article, Kennesaw Mountain was a very sacred place for the Proto-Creek province of Canos.  Not only is there a stone circle near the cairn complex, but there was also a cluster of stone structures on top of the mountain, which Confederate Army engineers converted into cannon fortifications.

Although ignored by 16th century Spanish military explorers in Southeastern North America,  stone cairns were specifically mentioned by Spanish traders in what was to become North Georgia and by 17th century French ethnologist, Charles de Rochefort.  They were probably plastered with clay and used to burn copal incense 24 hours a day.  There is no mention among European explorers and traders of cairns being used in funeral rights.   By then most provinces buried their dead under their houses or in earthen mounds.

A pre-Mexica cairn at Teneyuca, Mexico

Fieldstone cairns, plastered with clay are commonplace in central Mexico.  They were used for human sacrifices during the Post Classic Period (1000 AD-1520 AD) but may have had other functions in earlier cultural periods.  In the sections of Mexico, where rainfall is more prevalent, the clay plaster has washed away, leaving stone cairns in varying states of repair, identical to those in the Southeastern United States.

Some of these cairns were sculpted into the shape of snakes and turtles.  I strongly suspect that many of the cairns, I have examined in Georgia were originally effigies of animals, rather than being simple cylinders.  At several sites, such as Track Rock Gap, one can see a spiral trail of stones surrounding the cylindrical cores.


Andean condor

In the Andes Mountains,  Chiapas Mountains of Mexico and Guatemala and in Guerrero State (Southern Mexico) cairns were built for mortuary rites.  Most of these cairns were constructed identically to those in the Southeastern United States,  Some were plastered with clay.  Both Guerrero and Georgia contain cairns in the shape of vultures.  However, Georgia’s are mistakenly called “Rock Eagles.” 

On these cairns were placed the bodies of loved ones.  Semi-domesticated condors in the Andes and King Vultures in Mesoamerica would feast on the flesh of the dead.  Once the bones were picked clean, they would either be cremated, buried in bundles or used to form the fram for clay effigies of the deceased.

Archaeologists found bits of charcoal and bone in the Rock Eagle, but did not understand their significance. It is oriented to the Winter Solstice Sunset.

Elsewhere in the world

Starting in the Bronze Age burial cysts were sometimes interred into cairns, which would be situated in conspicuous positions, often on the skyline above the village of the deceased. The stones may have been thought to deter grave robbers and scavengers. A more sinister explanation is that they were to stop the dead from rising. There remains a Jewish tradition of placing small stones on a person’s grave as a token of respect, though this is generally to relate the longevity of stone to the eternal nature of the soul and is not usually done in a cairn fashion. Stupas in India and Tibet probably started out in a similar fashion, although they now generally contain the ashes of a Buddhist saint or lama.

In Scandinavia, cairns have been used for centuries as trail and sea marks, among other purposes. In Iceland, cairns were often used as markers along the numerous single-file roads or paths that crisscrossed the island; many of these ancient cairns are still standing, although the paths have disappeared. In Norse Greenland, cairns were used as a hunting implement, a game-driving “lane”, used to direct reindeer towards a game jump.

In the mythology of ancient Greece, cairns were associated with Hermes, the god of overland travel. According to one legend, Hermes was put on trial by Hera for slaying her favorite servant, the monster Argus. All of the other gods acted as a jury, and as a way of declaring their verdict they were given pebbles, and told to throw them at whichever person they deemed to be in the right, Hermes or Hera. Hermes argued so skillfully that he ended up buried under a heap of pebbles, and this was the first cairn. In Croatia, in areas of ancient Dalmatia, such as Herzegovina and the Krajina, they are known as gromila.

In Portugal a cairn is called a moledro. In a Portuguese legend, the moledros are enchanted soldiers, and if one stone is taken from the pile and put under a pillow, in the morning a soldier will appear for a brief moment, then will change back to a stone and magically return to the pile.

The cairns in the British Isles that mark the place where someone died or cover the graves alongside the roads where in the past people were buried are called Fiéis de Deus. The same name given to the stones was given to the dead whose identity was unknown.  The Fieis de Deus or Fes de Deus are, in the Gaelic legends, spirits of the night.  This tradition probably explains why the Scottish and Irish frontier settlers in the Southern Highlands, labeled all piles of stones, “graves of great Cherokee chiefs.”   Contemporary Cherokees have absorbed this tradition from their white neighbors so thoroughly that they now say that the belief “is an ancient tradition passed down by their elders.”

The word “Fes” or “Fieis” is thought to mean fairy, the same root as “fate” (fado), that can take the same meaning as the proto-Celtic *bato-, meaning “death.”

At the North Oconee Town Site, terrace complexes were located to the west and east of a massive cairn complex. Later conventional mounds were built.

Okay . . . Who then built the cairns in the Southeastern United States?

Most cairns in the Lower Southeast occur in complexes that may contain 100-300 cairns. Those in the Shenandoah Valley are smaller. This is very different than in the rest of the world.  So equating Dixie cairns to those in Europe is questionable.  Almost all cairn complexes in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina are on the southwest slopes of hills or mountains. They are oriented to the Winter Solstice Sunset. Stone enclosures and terrace complexes, dating from later cultural periods are often associated with these cairn complexes.  In fact, several of Georgia’s terrace complexes were built on and around cairn complexes.   However, in the top secret North Oconee River town site in Jackson County, GA  the massive cairn complex represented a separate precinct within the three mile long town.

There are literally thousands of stone cairns still existing today in the Southeastern United States.  The majority in the United States are in a band that stretches from the Talladega Mountains in East Central Alabama . . . across North Georgia  . . . to the northeastern corner of South Carolina.  Radiocarbon dates for these stone structures range from c. 1500 BC to c. 1500 AD.  Clearly,  more than one ethnic group was involved in their construction.  Clearly,  these cairn complexes were not built for the same function as those in western Europe and the Mediterranean Basin.   Those in the Old World typically exist as single cairns or at most 2-5 in proximity.  

Painted Vulture

The location of Southeastern cairn complexes on the southwest slopes of mountains and hills negates the possibility of them being markers placed by hunters to guide herds of animals.  They are definitely ceremonial in nature.  Most, but not all were probably associated with funeral rights.  We have eyewitness accounts by European visitors to Northeast Georgia that both the Itsate (Maya descendants) and Apalache (Peruvian descendants) burned copal resin 24/7 on mountaintop and hilltop stone cairns.  The fragrant copal smoke was considered to be “prayers to the Master of Life.”    It is unlikely that human bodies were not fed to vultures at these same cairns.  


King Vulture

It is highly likely that the earliest humans in the Americas stacked stones to mark trails and sacred sites.  At some point in the Archaic Period, a religion evolved, which utilized either the Condor of South America, the King Vulture of Mesoamerica or the Painted Vulture of the Southeastern United States to ceremonially de-flesh human bodies.  This religion did not necessarily begin elsewhere.  Remember Florida, Alabama and Georgia functioned as the crossroads of the Americas for many, many centuries.  The religion may or may not have been introduced by immigrants.  The burning of copal incense definitely was an imported custom, however.   In other words,  the cairns in the Southeastern United States were constructed by heterogeneous populations, whose ancestors’ cultural traditions came from many places.


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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history. Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.



    Hi Richard!
    I’ve been reading a book by Amir Aczel, “Finding Zero”. He is a mathematician, searching out the roots, and specifically the source for the concept/numeral “0” . The very first time this numeral appears is in the Maya number system, and it appears way before it shows up in any system so far on any of the other continents. He does not have an idea of the possible connection between the southeastern US as a crossroads for trade travel and ideas, but I wonder….

    • You know the Creeks had the number zero also. However, our numbering system was about the only decimal (10 based) numbering system in the Americas. The Mayas used a 20 based system.

      Interesting, isn’t it.


        Do you think the Creek system may have been based on the Panoan, Apalache elites or other south american rooted system?

        • I don’t know. There is still so much we don’t know and might never know. Remember about 90-95% of our Creek ancestors died in the European Holocaust – or were sent to the Caribbean as slaves, only to die a year or two later.


    Hey Richard
    I was reading Indian captive stories on the web a while back and remember a story which I have not been able to find since that described men that went from village to village preparing the dead. They would strip the body to the bone before the burial ceremony. The men were described as wearing feathers and bird bones.
    If this was a practice of certain tribes could this be related to the loss of the painted vulture in the SE? Sky burials are common in the Nepal region and India why not the SE? They are very efficient..
    Thanks for the info

    • Yes, these men were known as Vulture Men. It was are religious tradition that pretty much ended with the arrival of the Itza Mayas.


    here in SW MO, yrs ago the old timers called the rare rock piles, indian graves. the piled rocks were rare and usually on a high point or ridge. I have only seen maybe a couple. the rocks if a grave, were here when the pioneers (lots from TN) came in and likely vandalized if there was anything to be had in them.


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