Archaeologists still don’t know with complete certainty the purpose of these mounds, though the absence of burial remains and evidence of crop growth has led many to suspect they were used as a ceremonial centre and residential area, and that they were key to local trade. Since being abandoned in 1100 BC, the millions of artefacts that have been found there, including figurines, rudimentary tools and cooking utensils, helped support this theory, and many are available to study at the visitor centre.
Further up the river, in the oblong-shaped state of Tennessee, lies Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Here, in contrast to the site in Louisiana, there are few man-made wonders to explore; instead, you will find a sprawling example of mother nature’s finest work. Memorably depicted by travel writer Bill Bryson in his book A Walk in the Woods, the park is cleaved through by the Appalachian Trail long-distance footpath and supports a healthy population of black bears. It was awarded heritage status due to its ecologically rich and diverse landscape, and it is home to around 3,500 plant species and over 130 types of tree, plus the world’s largest species of salamander. It doesn’t take much of a walk to experience what the region looked like before humans existed.
Further north, in Kentucky, another wholly natural construct awaits – though this time it lies underground. Mammoth Cave National Park, in the centre of the state, holds the title of the most extensive natural cave system in the world. Stalactites drip from a roof made up of layer upon layer of limestone strata, capped by sandstone. The names of the caverns found within the labyrinthine tunnels mesmerise – from Neptune’s Cups to Cascade Hall – and regular ranger walks allow access to some of them. Outside is just as captivating, with deep river valleys, diverse plant life and a sinkhole that nods to the hidden depths below. There is also evidence of early humans having lived in both the subterranean caverns and the surrounding woodland.