6. Mound Builders

The stabilizing climate led to the Woodland Periods where we find substantial settlements, a degree of subsistence farming, and the introduction of pottery. The continued use of rock shelters and small encampments suggest that ancient migratory routes were still being used for hunting and reaching quarries. Stevens Rock Shelter found at New Market, Maryland yielded evidence of use during the Archaic-Woodland transition as well as the Late Woodland Period. Why there was nothing found from the Middle Woodland Period is anyone’s guess. The Barton Complex in Cumberland, Maryland has revealed an Archaic Period basecamp and Early Woodland occupation. Artifacts included 28 pottery shards and two stone points from the Adena Culture, thought to largely characterize the Early Woodland Period of 1000-200 BCE.

The Adena Culture left its mark on Ohio, Indiana, West Virginia, and Kentucky, reaching into parts of New York and Pennsylvania. It was the precursor to the Hopewell Culture. The Adena people established agriculture and pottery. They developed an extensive trade route, working artistic pieces from copper found in the Great Lakes region, and from shells that came from the Gulf Coast. The Adena Culture also left substantial earthwork burial mounds. Inside the mounds were found burned mortuary buildings containing grave goods. The buildings were cover with soil. Another building was erected on top and buried beneath another layer of soil. The mounds became quite large after repeated layers were added. Later, circular ridges were added around the mounds but their function remains unknown. Mound burial areas were something of a distance from the actual settlements which seem to have been dispersed and small. Dwellings consisted of circular lodges 15-45 feet in diameter with wickerwork or bark covered walls, and cone shaped roofs likely covered with bark as well.

The Adena people hunted deer, elk, black bear, woodchuck, beaver, porcupine, turkey, trumpeter swan, and ruffed grouse. They used ground stone tools and axes, small tools made from bone and antler, and chipped stone slabs possibly used as hoes. A few copper axes have been found. Evidence suggests that the Adena cultivated pumpkin, squash, sunflower, and goosefoot; I imagine that they cultivated much more including corn but apparently evidence has yet to be found.

Adena artwork is impressive. Some of it depicts humans transcending into birds, wolves, bear, and deer.  Smoking pipes, and deer antlers fashioned from copper have been found. The jawbones of wolf, deer, and mountain lion were carved into jewelry. Other pieces include bone and antler beads and combs, spoons and beads from marine conch, copper bracelets, rings, and beads, as well as reel shaped pendants. Also discovered were small stone tablets covered with zoomorphs and curvilinear geometric designs. Paint was found embedded in some of the tablets and it is speculated that the tablets were used to stamp clothing or bodies; possibly even tattoo patterns.

The Middle Woodland and its full blown agriculture brought us the Hopewell Culture and the Hopewell Exchange System, 200 BCE to 500 CE, where populations, not necessarily culturally related, were connected by both common and extensive trade routes. The System can be found along the northwestern and mid-western rivers from the south eastern US into the SE Canadian shores of Lake Ontario. Major trading and manufacturing took place along this extensive network moving exotic local goods throughout the entire region and beyond. The origin of the Hopewell tradition is not well understood. Some believe it originated in western New York and spread into Ohio where it advanced the Adena mortuary system. Others believe it began in western Illinois and spread by diffusion into Ohio. There are other theories as well.

It is thought that the Hopewell developed into chiefdoms. Evidence suggests that there existed some families of privilege, attained possibly through persuasion as there isn’t any evidence that suggests warfare, strife, or coercion.

Like the Adena, the Hopewell had a well cultivated artistic nature. Graves contained necklaces, ear plugs, and pendants, carvings from wood and bone, and ceremonial pottery. Many of the graves were lined with woven mats, stone, or huge sheets of mica. Among the finds were found art objects rendered from grizzly bear and shark teeth, fresh water pearls and seashells, as well as copper and silver. The Hopewell people are known worldwide for their exceptional pipestone pipes featuring detailed birds and animals. They were also skilled at carving human bones; one mask was found rendered from a human skull. Abstract and realistic human forms are so detailed we can see the details of ornaments, hair styles, and how the Hopewell dressed.

In my opinion, the most spectacular of all the Hopewell accomplishments are the archaeo-astronomically designed mounds. It is theorized that the octagonal earthwork found in Newark, Ohio was a lunar observatory oriented to the 18.6 year cycle of the minimum and maximum lunar rise and set on the local horizon. A similar site was found in Chillicothe, Ohio; it is called the High Banks Works. Another site in Newark, Ohio, called Fairground Circle, aligns to sunrise on May 4th, a cross-quarter date. Hopeton Earthworks aligns to various sunrise and moonrise patterns including both solstices and both equinoxes, the cross-quarter dates, as well as the minimum and maximum lunar events.

Numerous other sites have been found that indicate an involvement with the Hopewell Exchange System. The Armstrong Culture of the Big Sandy River Valley (NE Kentucky and West Virginia) lived from 1-500 CE. They mingled with both the Adena and the Hopewell and were probably absorbed into the Kanawha River Valley Adena. Together they may have become the Buck Garden People.

The little known Copena people were found in Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Kentucky. They were named for the copper and galena artifacts found as grave goods. The Crab Orchard Culture was concentrated along the flood plain of the Ohio River channel in southern Indiana, Illinois, and parts of Kentucky. Godall Focus was a group that lived in Michigan and northern Indiana from 200 BCE to 500 CE.

The Havana Hopewell Culture was found along the Illinois and Mississippi River valleys in Iowa, Illinois, and Missouri. It is speculated that were ancestral to the groups which became the Mississippian Culture of Cahokia and elsewhere. The Toolesboro Site is the largest Hopewell mound in Iowa, located where the Iowa and Mississippi Rivers converge. It was inhabited from 100 BCE to about 200 CE.
The Kansas City Hopewell people were found at the junction of Line Creek and the Missouri River. The site yielded Hopewell and Middle Mississippian remains, and Hopewell style pottery. It represents the known western reach of the Hopewell Exchange System. The Markswell Culture was found to inhabit the lower Mississippi Valley in Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Arkansas.

The Laurel Complex spans south Quebec, south and NW Ontario, east-central Manitoba, northern Michigan, NW Wisconsin, and northern Minnesota. They are believed to have been the first pottery makers in Ontario. The Point Peninsula Complex of the Middle Woodland Period is found in Ontario and New York. The Saugeen Complex is one found on the shores of Lake Huron and Bruce Peninsula. It is speculated that they were later known as the Odawa (Ottawa) people.

The Miller Culture was located in SW Tennessee, NE Mississippi, and west-central Alabama. They created large platform mounds apparently used for feasting, differing from the platform mortuary mounds of the Mississippian. The Miller Culture is thought to have been absorbed by the Mississippian.

The Montane Hopewell lived in northern West Virginia on the upper branch of Monongahela River. Their pottery and cultural traits are similar to those of the late Ohio Hopewell. The Ohio Hopewell Culture brought us the large ceremonial complexes of Chillicothe and the Portsmouth Earthworks that extend into Kentucky.

The Wilhelm Culture, located on the northern panhandle of West Virginia, lived there until about 500 CE. They left stone lined graves fused together into large mounds. Pottery found at the site suggests that the Wilhelm people were related to the Big Sandy Valley people 200 miles downstream on the Ohio River.

The Monongahela Culture lived from 1050 CE to about 1635 CE, in western Pennsylvania, western Maryland, eastern Ohio, and West Virginia. The majority of sites are found along the Monongahela River. They lived in palisaded villages that had maze-like entryways, and elevated observation platforms, with 50 to 100 round or oval structures contained within the walls. By 1450 the Monongahela people added attachments to their lodges that might have been used for storage or even as smoke houses. They fashioned well-crafted pottery, smoking pipes, and tools. Evidence suggests that the Monongahela people cultivated Mesoamerican crops such as maize, beans, squash, and sunflowers, seed no doubt acquired from the extensive trade routes in place at the time. Their diet was supplemented with gathered nuts and berries as well as deer, turtle, fish, and shellfish. The Monongahela people constructed charnel houses, buildings that housed human skeletal remains. In some of the larger villages some perhaps influential adults were buried with black bear masks within the palisades. Children were often buried under houses and otherwise within the walls as well. It is unknown where the majority of the adult population was finally interred.

The Monongahela people disappeared about 1635 or slightly earlier before any significant contact with Europeans had taken place even though glass trade beads have been found at some of the sites. Some believe that European diseases were spread to them by contact with other tribes who had become infected. The palisades suggest that they could have been killed or assimilated into the more aggressive Iroquois who had invaded the Allegheny Plateau spawned by the European demand for furs. Two droughts, 1587 to 1589 and 1607 to 1612 might have driven them elsewhere. And then there is the pressure imposed by the Little Ice Age that lasted 300 years.  A group of Monongahela people resettled in Halifax County, Virginia. They could have been absorbed into any number of tribes in that region.

About 500 CE the Hopewell Exchange System ceased. Mound building stopped and the many art forms were no longer produced. Settlements were reduced to small villages that later joined together into larger, fortified communities with walls and ditches. Some believe the cultural demise resulted from the Little Ice Age. Others suggest that the large population requiring extensive agriculture that depleted the soil as well as the depletion of game escalated by the bow and arrow triggered the collapse. The cause or the causes of the dispersal remain unknown.

The Mississippian Mound Builder culture lasted 5000 years from 3400BCE to the 16th century CE, covering the Archaic, Woodland and Mississippian eras. During the period huge earthen mounds constructed in fabulous shapes of mythical creatures served as ritual and burial sites, as well as residences for the elite. This effort began a 1000 years before Egypt built its pyramids. Mound Builder culture developed in the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys, expanding north from Louisiana, Texas, and Mississippi through Oklahoma, Arkansas, Ohio, Illinois, and into the Great Lakes region.

It is believed that the Mound Builder culture collapsed along with the Anasazi of the southwest with the advent of the Little Ice Age that began in 1550 and continued to 1850. But collapse doesn’t mean extinction. The Anasazi dispersed and resettled in smaller groups along the Rio Grande River in New Mexico. Similarly, it is thought that numerous tribes in the southeast are descendants of the Mississippian Mound Builders. Unfortunately, countless bands in both regions were driven into extinction by the English and Spanish which makes it difficult if not impossible to confidently know any of these cultures. Descendants of the Mississippian Mound Builders are thought to include the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, Natchez, Chitimacha, Atapaka, Caddo, and Yuchi.

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Responses to “6. Mound Builders”

  1. All of this – begins to expose a part of history I ha never heard before. It is very interesting to me that the People had such highly evolved societies. Now that I’m thinking about it – I guess it makes sense. Until this moment, I had n ever contemplated that American Education system is so Euro-centric – that this continent’s inhabitants were not even discussed.
    I always appreciate having my eyes opened.

    • Tribal societies are vastly more evolved than ours. Most were democratic, most found women absolutely equal in power and value, children were regarded by every member as irreplaceable jewels, all resources were shared equally. The educational system, when it deals with indigenous people at all, gives the impression that they are just gone without explaining why they are gone or that a handful of tribes still exist and continue to practice the old way to whatever degree they can.