Hopewell Culture
Administrative History
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A Brief History of the Hopewell Culture

The Hopewell Experience

While humans have been in southern Ohio's Scioto River Valley for more than eleven thousand years, the area's natural history evolved over countless eons. The Teays or Deep Stage River helped shape this valley when ice jams assisted in the deposition of glacial debris from a succession of moving ice sheets. The contemporary Scioto River flows south from the relatively flat central Ohio region into Ross County where it meets the western foothills of the Appalachian Highlands. Framed by 600-foot high rocky hills, the valley stretches into a three-mile-wide fertile plain.

The natural attributes of the area easily attracted early humans who first arrived in North America from Siberia via Alaska's Bering Land Bridge. In search of large game animals, these Paleo-Indian hunters roamed ever southward, arriving in Ohio more than eleven thousand years ago. Along with the fossilized bones of their prey, virtually the only remaining archeological evidence of Paleo-Indians are their fluted points. More evident are habitation sites related to the Archaic hunters and gatherers who depended in part upon mussels, hunting, and gathering. By 1000 B.C., these groups developed a variety of Woodland cultures known for their agricultural economy.

One of these Early Woodland period cultures, the Adena culture, emerged about 300 years before Christ and subsisted through about A.D. 200 in some areas. These prehistoric people cultivated squash, sunflowers, marsh elder, and knotweed, but supplemented their agrarian existence with hunting and other gathering activities. They typically used pottery, copper, mica, and shells. Most of what is known about the Adena derives from their mortuary practices, which took two forms. While most were cremated, specific individuals were selected to be encased in log tombs that were subsequently covered by mounds of dirt. Adjacent burials, and even burials on top of previous mounds, resulted in even larger mounds. While some Adena mounds have been identified at almost ninety feet high, most are small containing single burials, can be clustered in one area, and could even include some of the various circular earthworks seen in southern Ohio. [1]

mica hand
Figure 2: An example of Hopewellian skill, a prehistoric craftsman fashioned this human hand out of mica. (NPS/no date)

The Hopewell, developed at least in part out of Adena predecessors, because many Hopewellian cultural practices show continuity with the Adena. [2] The Hopewell perfected the use of copper to make intricate handicrafts, and are credited with achieving the highest level of Indian artisan culture in the prehistoric Eastern North America. Southern Ohio served as the cradle of Hopewell culture, and although sites have been identified throughout the "Old Northwest" and as far west as Nebraska and Kansas, they do not exhibit the high level of achievement found in Ohio. Ross County alone features an amazing collection of Hopewellian monuments, the most impressive of which include: the Seip, Baum, Frankfort, Chillicothe, and Harness groups (two circles and a square); the Dunlap and Hopeton groups (a square and circle, with linear parallel walls); the High Bank Group (a circle and octagon, with divergent parallel walls); the Hopewell Group (two squares and circles); the Cedar Bank Group (a square with a riverbank on one side); and the Junction and Blackwater Groups (numerous squares and circles). The Mound City Group, although smaller and less complex, has the greatest concentration of mounds, and is believed to have served at least in part as a mortuary facility.

The earthworks themselves indicate an advanced, well-organized society. Objects found with burials in the mounds indicate the Hopewell did not limit themselves to Ohio or the surrounding region. Hopewellian trade networks stretched to the Gulf of Mexico for sea shells, North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains for mica, the Chesapeake Bay for fossil shark teeth, Michigan's Isle Royale and Keweenaw Peninsula for copper, and Yellowstone for obsidian. Agrarian practices are thought to have included maize as a minor garden plant, perhaps the first introduction of this foodstuff in prehistoric North America, but this point remains in dispute.

As with the Adena, few habitation sites have been found and examined, and much of what is known about the Hopewell comes from archeological evidence related to their burial practices. Some were buried in the flesh, others were cremated. Burials saw the body placed on bark, netting, or animal skins along with ornaments and implements. A covering of logs or stones encompassed the corpse, which in turn received a covering of bark or poles with a mound of earth topping the arrangement. While some burials were alone, others appeared in groups, usually in limited numbers. Cremations occurred in an area designated for the purpose. Posts were usually placed in a circle around the special site. Within these "charnel houses," [3] preparers molded damp clay into a basin within which the remains of their dead were cremated. The basins measured six by four feet, and nine inches deep. Following cremation, ashes were deposited nearby within the shrine where burial offerings were sometimes also ceremoniously placed either intact, broken, or mutilated. After the primary purposes of the charnel house were fulfilled, the Hopewell burned it and subsequently began covering it with dirt, erecting earthen monuments over the site, either in one continuous stage or a series of stages, perhaps separated by sand and/or gravel. Only at Mound City and Tremper groups were cremations reserved exclusively for those sites.

Because of Hopeton's peculiar positioning across the Scioto River from the Mound City Group, archeologists have tried to explain a linkage between the two sites. However, the nature of the relationship between them is entirely speculative. The entire complex featured mounds of varying appearance. The smallest mounds had but one burial and measured about three feet high and twenty-five feet across. One mound with one burial, measured seven feet high and fifty-five feet across, and had three crematories. Another mound at eight feet high and sixty feet across, featured twenty-two burials and one crematory. Anthropologists believe that most of the community took part in constructing the earthen monuments to the dead. People excavated dirt adjacent to the walls of Mound City Group. Traces of eight pits have been documented, the largest depression measured 200- by 125- by 18-feet. The larger mounds featured ten to twenty-inch-thick caps of gravel excavated from the nearby river.

Around A.D. 400, Hopewell lifeways changed. Because the Hopewell left no written records and aboriginal peoples present at the time of European contact were as mystified as anyone about the "Moundbuilders," anthropologists can only speculate as to their demise. Disease, dwindling food supplies, changing climate, and pressure from outside enemies have all been suggested as reasons why the Hopewell culture changed to a pattern known as "Late Woodland" or "Mississippian." [4]

The Scioto River Valley did not become vacant. Descendants of Hopewellian populations remained. Other aboriginal groups migrated into the area from the north and used the curious landscape features to bury their own dead, hence the name given to them, the "Intrusive Mound" people. By 1000, a people known as "Fort Ancient" occupied the valley. They were principally sedentary maize agriculturalists. When village food storage pits were emptied, sometimes the pits were used to hold debris and even human burials. Some ground-level burials were covered by small mounds, but most were in stone-lined depressions below grade. The Fort Ancient ended their occupation by 1650, perhaps in part driven away as a result of warfare with the Iroquois who had access to Dutch guns.

Shawnees were the occupiers of western Kentucky, through Ohio, to Pennsylvania at the time of contact in the eighteenth century. Two of the five Shawnee clans settled in the Scioto valley. Immediately prior to the American Revolutionary War, the Tshilikautha [5] clan settled at the present-day site of Frankfort. The clan's Anglicized name, Chillicothe, emerged near the end of the century. The Pikewaa clan's settlement lent its name to both Pickaway County and Piqua, Ohio. Shawnee chieftain Blue Jacket participated in the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794. Shawnee leader Tecumseh fiercely resisted American migration into their territory. Following the U.S. victory at Fallen Timbers, the Treaty of Greenville in 1795 extinguished American Indian claims in the Scioto valley and most of Ohio. A new nation conceived and ruled by Anglo-European men, the United States of America began expanding beyond the Appalachians, seeking to impose its culture and military dominance over native peoples. With vast continental resources to exploit and lands to explore, the prehistoric mounds stood as powerful curiosities to spawn myths and legends among white Americans. Nowhere was this intense interest more manifest than along Ohio's Scioto River. [6]


Last Updated: 04-Dec-2000