Hopewell Indian Culture


Hopewell Indian Culture Essay, Research Paper

The Hopewell

Studied since the discovery of the conspicuous mounds in Ross County Ohio, the

Hopewell have been an archaeological enigma to many. The tradition is so named for

the owner of the farm, Captain Hopewell, where over thirty mounds were discovered.

Earlier studies focused more on the exotic grave goods such as precious metals,

freshwater pearls, many of these objects had come from all corners of the continent from

the Rocky Mountains to the Gulf of Mexico, and north to the mid-Atlantic coastline

(some say Hopewellian influence reached Nova Scotia). Earlier scholars of the

Hopewell (1950?s through 1960?s) were well aware of the influence of the ?Interaction

Sphere?, yet concluded that the Hopewell, in terms of lifestyle were a cult and had no

influence on daily life. Later studies suggest otherwise, as more and more information

surfaces along with new insightful interpretations.

It is widely accepted that the Hopewell are the ?next generation? of the Adena.

That is to say that the Adena gave rise to the Hopewell, who had, as speculated migrated

into the Ohio River Valley from Illinois. The Hopewell have been described as a more

elaborate and flamboyant version of the Adena. Whether the Hopewell overpowered the

Adena or simply mingled with and mixed into the culture, is not certain, yet there has

been no evidence of warfare to support the former. The result was a cultural explosion

encompassing a vast majority of North America east of the Rocky Mountains to the

Atlantic coast.

The Hopewell flourished in the Middle Woodland from 200 B.C. to AD 500.

The environment was nearly what it is today. Temperate with lakes, streams, wetlands

and flood-plains, the people took advantage of the seasonal weather in the Ohio River

Valley via foraging as well as hunting and gathering. The cultivation of domestic strains

of beans and maize was well on its way as it was implemented in small amounts,

catching on later in the time period. The vegetation was a prairie/forest mix of deciduous

trees, walnut, oak, various grasses and shrub. The fauna of the region included many

species of waterfowl, turkey and other species in great abundance that are found today

(perhaps in more abundance than found today). Larger fauna included buffalo, bison,

deer, and elk and smaller animals such as rodents, raccoons, beaver and the like. Aquatic

life included freshwater mussels and clams, many fishes (bass, catfish, etc.) and turtles.

As we will see, the people made abundant use of these flora and fauna as food, clothing,

container, ceremonial and ornamental objects. As for changes through time in the

environment, it is theorized (by some) that it did in fact shift to a wetter one, perhaps

driving the people to higher ground or otherwise drier climates.

Core settlement, as noted was along the Ohio River and its estuaries on

flood-plains, as well as on or near wetlands. Major areas of population density include

Newark and Chillicothe as well as Marietta. These areas provided a lush environment of

flora and fauna species that were widely exploited over the centuries by the inhabitants.

Living quarters, although scarcely studied, consist of scattering?s of small villages with

larger settlements located near and around major mound complexes. Some of these

smaller villages seem to have been occupied seasonally while settlement was more than

likely permanent in the larger loci surrounding the mounds. Some dwellings have been

found to consist of saplings stuck into the ground in a circle, brought together in the

center and covered with elm bark or mats of woven grasses. Post molds from various

areas in Ohio and Illinois indicate oval patterns as well as rectangular long-houses with

rounded corners. Larger houses ranged from 18 to 25 feet long and one was as large as

44×48 feet, suggesting a large gathering place, perhaps for trading, council meetings or

ceremonial practices.

The dress of the people reflected their beliefs, trading practices and even wealth.

Ornaments were worn head to foot. Women?s hair were pinned back with dowels of

wood or bone in a bun or knot and a long sort of ponytail. When nursing, women wore

their hair braided and tied up in a shorter ponytail that was held together by a mesh or

net-like bag. Typical male hairstyle was a sort of mohawk on top with their hair pulled

back into a bun in the back. As for male dress, a warrior wore a loincloth of dyed

material with patterns on it (resembling a diaper; for lack of better description). He

carried a long spear, an atl-atl, wearing various necklaces of bone, shell and stone beads

including bear claws, shark tooth and other exotic items. The closest that these ancient

north Americans came to an iron age is revealed in their use of copper as breast plates

and helmets in warfare. Members of both sexes wore earspools (yo-yo shaped earrings)

of copper as well as bracelets and necklaces. Mica was cut and shaped into various

ornaments for headdresses in the form of animals, birds of prey talons, geometric figures,

human hand, and bear claw. Mica would be integrated into clothing and on garments

that would sparkle and reflect light, somewhat like sequins. Not much more is known

about dress, due to the fact that textiles deteriorate rapidly in the archaeological record.

Very little is known of social and political customs; ideas being drawn from

ethnographic analogy (of Iroquois, the possible descendants) as well as being pieced

together from archaeological contexts. More than likely the people operated under

matrilineal kinship. They lived in long-houses dominated by the oldest female member

of the family and when a couple was married, the husband would move into the wives?

house and become a part of their social unit. These new husbands had very little if any

say in household matters. The children ?belonged? to or were affiliated with their

mothers family, the males owing allegiance to that unit. There were, however male

chiefs who represented households and villages in tribal affairs. Evidence for hereditary

monarchy is briefly described from a report in the 1950?s. It documents that a number of

skeletons found in some mound structures had a rare physical trait. This trait was a bony

growth in the ear that was genetically transmitted. Peoples found to harbor this growth

were found in association with vast riches of pearls, beads, precious metals, large

amounts of mica and the like, quite possibly the ?inbred? mark of royalty within a tribe

or tribes.

The subsistence base of the Hopewell consisted of hunting, gathering and to a

lesser extent cultivation of local plant species, depending upon where they lived.

Hunting was done primarily with spears and projectile points, with the Indians making

use of an instrument called and atl-atl. One would attach a spear to the atl-atl and hurl it

at the target, the implement providing not only a more powerful throw, but giving the

spear a more finely tuned trajectory. Also used at this time were the bow and arrow, a

big step in technological innovation at the time. This is evident in the archaeological

record with the finding of smaller projectile points such as the Squibnocket Triangle. As

for throwing spears, larger projectile points were used, resembling the Jack?s Reef

Corner Notched, broad knife blades and corner notched projectile points being preferred

as well as being typical of the Hopewell. Associated stone tools were found that

manufactured and maintained these weapons such as shaft straighteners. These were

rocks that were about palm-sized and had a carved groove running down the center with

which one would work a stick or small sapling through over and over to smooth away

notches and small stems. One would hunt by stalking, say a deer. The hunter would

move very slowly through the undergrowth wearing a decoy, perhaps antlers and/or head

or skin of the animal. Once in range he would hurl the spear attached to an atl-atl to kill

the animal. Other hunting methods were implemented such as the dead fall. The Indians

would set a log up in a tree and when an animal pulled on a piece of bait it would trigger

the log to fall and kill the animal. Snaring was also practiced using saplings, the animal

being caught and possibly starving to death. Among the animals hunted were bison, deer,

turkey, beaver, muskrat, duck, raccoon and elk. Freshwater fishes such as bass and

catfish were caught using hooks made from seashells, and freshwater clams and mussels

were harvested. As for plants, many, such as gourds (for their seeds and used as

containers), sumpweed, goosefoot, sunflower, knotweed, little barley and maygrass were

cultivated. Pigweed, lambsquarter and grapes were also collected. Tobacco was widely

grown, evidenced by pollen core samples and the presence of pipes in the archaeological

record. Elk scapula and flint hoes were used to cultivate gardens. A recent study has

revealed that Middle Woodland environments had a vast quantity of exploitable food

sources. For example, in one year an area of ten square miles could produce 182k-426k

bushels of acorns, 100-840 deer, 10k-20k squirrels, 200 turkeys and many species of

duck. At a site in Scoville, 92% of meat was from deer, 4% from turkey, 72% of nuts

were hickory and 27% were walnuts. This site was not occupied from spring to

mid-spring and middle to late fall, at the exact time of waterfowl migration, indicating

that they left the area to hunt them. Surplus venison, bison, elk and other meats were

smoked, dried and stored in pits lined with leather or bark. Fruits and vegetables were

dried and stored as well as maize which was kept in bark barrels. Cornbread, succotash

and hominy (a boiled cornmeal porridge) were baked/cooked. Maple trees were tapped

to make syrup and sugar. Publications of the 1950?s and 1960?s claim that there was a

strict division of labor. Men would hunt, fish, make weapons, canoes, bark barrels,

snowshoes, paddles (oars), cleared land and participated in the harvest. It states that

women would do the gardening, cooking, caring for children, gathered wild plants, made

pottery, wove cloth, tailored clothing and trapped smaller animals. These seem to be

sexist assumptions, as women could practice many of the ?men?s work? as well as the

fact that men would also be involved in many activities slated towards women such as

caring for the children, pottery-making and weaving. Objective approaches to

interpretation of past activities should always be taken, for we do not have all of the facts

about these and other ancient peoples and never may.

Now we come to trade, which along with burial practices has put the Hopewell on

the archaeological ?map? so to speak. Trade, on a continental scale had made their

presence known, spreading and absorbing ideas from the Rocky Mountains to the East

Coast, this has been named the ?Hopewell Interaction Sphere.? There were artisans

(possibly a separate class) who had individual specialties in different raw materials.

These raw materials included copper (seemingly the choice metal of the people over gold

and silver), stone, bone, and flint-knappers, specialists in mica and highly skilled

ceramists. Ceramics underwent a change through time and were traded extensively.

Normally they were tempered with gritty sand or pulverized limestone and paddled with

a cord paddle or a wrapped stick. There were squat jars used in burials that were smaller

and thicker rimmed and diagonally hatched or crosshatched (1-2% of most finds), and

conical or spherically expanding flat-based pots with a flared mouth, used for cooking

and storage, generally a utilitarian ware. Rocker stamping done with seashells was a

popular design along with geometric patterns. Designs below the neck were, as

mentioned, geometric patterns, broad shallow grooves that were made with a dull pointed

tool (antler or stone tool). Flamingo, spoonbill and duck were common motifs (possibly

noting their importance as a subsistence base) and the design was emphasized by

texturing the figure or the background using a rocker-stamp technique with shells in a

zigzag fashion. Other than bird motifs, concentric circles, wavelike patterns and

geometric designs are incised on the pottery. Vase-like shapes, rounded off square

vessels and trapezoidal forms have been found. The pottery was traded throughout the

interaction sphere, with particular designs being favored in various regions. Uses include

storage of foods, cooking vessels, and mortuary objects (broken ritually, perhaps to

release the ?spirit? of the vessel).

Other clay objects found are highly stylized and detailed figurines in human form.

They give us an idea of typical dress, custom and hairstyle (mentioned above). Women

wore short sleeved robes tied at the waist with a wide sash, animal skin boots as well as

wrist and arm bands with patterns on them. Men wore leather bib-like shirts and a type

of loincloth (also mentioned above). Figurines discovered depict a woman standing with

an object broken in half in her two hands, a woman carrying an infant on her back, a

woman sitting with her hand on her lap and one of a woman nursing an infant. A male

figurine depicts him sitting and holding a staff with two hands as if meditating. All of

the peoples eyes are closed, evoking reflection and/or deep thought. They are highly

lifelike and great attention to detail is paid as one can discern jewelry, headdress or

hairstyle, clothing and ornament. The purpose of the figurines could be decoration or

trade good evoking cultural values and norms.

Pipestone, imported from Missouri was used for a variety of objects such as

mortar and pestle, beads and small bowls. However, its main use was for animal

(sometimes human yet that was primarily an Adena feature) effigy platform pipes

(sometimes made of clay). They consisted of a flat rectangular base with a hole through

the middle and a very lifelike depiction of various animals on top. Effigies included that

of birds of prey, beaver, frog (or toad), a cougar or wildcat, bear and heron. Some are

just plain old bowls. A large hole was borne into the top and tobacco or other herbs were

smoked. Although I have not come across any speculation of why particular animals

were chosen, I feel as though they are representative of particular clans or lineage?s,

perhaps even moieties.

Copper was the metal of choice for the Hopewell. It was imported from the Lake

Superior region (along with silver). Copper was fashioned into rings, necklaces and

bracelets, earspools, beads, panpipes, ax-heads, breast plates, masks and projectile points.

Helmets were also made and decorated with antler and other objects. It was fashioned by

cold-working and heating, pounding it into sheets to be cut and shaped into various

forms. These objects have been found in Tennessee, New York, Iowa and Missouri.

Mica, as described above was used for various ornaments quite possibly even mirrors,

was mined in the southern Appalachians. Obsidian, a glassy volcanic mineral obtained

from Yellowstone, was professionally worked was made into large ceremonial bifaces as

well as knives and other blades. Animal-related objects include turtle shells used for

containers and such, sharks teeth, barracuda jaw, conch shells (used as containers and

gorgets), and Busycon (giant sea snail, shell used for cups) were from the Gulf of

Mexico along with alligator teeth and skulls. Local freshwater pearls from mussels were

used as beads for necklaces, anklets and armlets or were sewn onto clothing. Bear and

wolf teeth from the Rocky Mountains were used as pendants or beads, as well as

mandibles from these animals. In one burial, the mandible of a wolf was found inserted

into a gap in a skeletons teeth. Many of these objects were found in the main Hopewell

concentration areas of Illinois and Ohio. Galena, a type of lead ore was used to make

face-paint. Recorded findings at a site name 22 different types of exotic materials, 16

of them being minerals, yet only two native to Ohio. Value in terms of manufacture and

symbolic meaning went hand in hand, as these objects displayed high prestige among the

people. Several trading centers include Illinois, Scioto (Ohio), Missouri/Kansas, as well

as other areas about the region. One researcher states that it was a big festival when the

traders arrived home, there were games, dancing, food and music for two or three days,

also stating that the Hopewell were less likely to be war-like, being more interested in

trade. Reciprocity plays a role in exchange with the theory of the ?Big Man.? These

individuals were pillars of the community, possessing great wealth and prestige. They

would acquire large amounts of goods and then lend them to others in times of need. The

lend-ees would then be obligated to the ?Big Man,? perhaps having to work harder to pay

back the favor. This, along with burial customs is the overall effect of the Hopewell

interaction sphere facilitating the so-called ?Big Idea.? It was a philosophy, a way of life

be it not all encompassing in the lives of distant trade partners, yet affecting them

through ritual ceremonialism (in some areas as evidenced by presence?s of mounds) and

trade-good manufacture. This dispersal reached Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa,

Missouri, New York, the Northeast and eastern Rocky Mountain states and into the deep


The best-known aspects of the Hopewell are their ceremonial and burial practices

centering on earthworks and burial mounds. Earthworks included animal effigy mounds

(coinciding with animal platform pipes. Correlation?), geometric shapes, and a particular

recent find, the Great Hopewell Road. Found in Ohio, it runs from Newark to

Chillicothe, in a straight line through swamps and streams, thought to be a spiritual or

pilgrimage route, rather than one of trading. Burial mounds were usually enclosed by a

raised embankment, symbolizing a sacred place. Earthworks were found in conjunction

with burial mounds, near burial mounds or even distances away, some taking up

hundreds of acres. The great ?Serpent Mound? is a good example, yet is thought of as


As for mortuary customs, three quarters of the bodies had been cremated, full

fleshed burial was probably a privilege of higher ranked individuals, they were buried in

full flexed position. Structures called Charnel Houses were erected where the dead were

de-fleshed and then taken for cremation. First, brush was cleared from the burial area,

including trees and topsoil. Clay was then lain down and then an inch of sand that was

compacted. A large wooden structure (some with no roofs, possibly to expose flesh to

the elements for removal) was built, sometimes with smaller rooms inside to

accommodate others or extra grave goods and furniture. Cremations were done in clay

lined pits dug into the floor after the bodies had been stripped of flesh and left there or

placed inside the log cabin structure. They were then surrounded by high-quality grave

goods mentioned above, artisans or craftsmen being interred with large amounts of their

medium of specialty or trade including pearls, mica and obsidian. One mound was found

with 12,000 pearls, 35,000 pearl beads, 20,000 shell beads, nuggets of copper, meteoric

iron, silver, sheets of hammered gold and copper, and iron beads. These houses were left

standing or were burnt down and then covered with a mound taking up to and including

one million basket-fulls of earth. This was done periodically, layering burial on top of

burial, perhaps indicating lineage, that it was that clan?s mound. Some of the skeletons

had copper noses affixed to their skulls (nasal cavities). The mounds were probably

reserved for those in high status positions, sizes ranging from ten to fifty feet high and

larger. The number of these earthworks in Ohio alone reaches 10,000, however, many

have been lost in this and other areas due to plowing and erosion.

The Hopewell decline is as much a mystery as its origins and practices. The

Hopewell exchange systems seem to have deteriorated around AD 500; Moundbuilding

ceased, art forms were no longer produced. War and mass murder is unlikely, for there is

no evidence for fighting (none even during the era). Perhaps it was the decimation of

big-game herds of buffalo, deer and elk due to the technology of the bow and arrow.

Support for this theory lies in the disappearance of atl-atl weights around the same time

as the collapse. This, in conjunction with colder climatic conditions could have driven

the animals north or west, as weather would have a detrimental effect on plant-life,

drastically cutting the subsistence base for these foods. Along with this, food production

of maize and other hardier plants would have been more important than trading exotic

goods. Another theory suggests that they eventually dispersed for unknown reasons,

moving perhaps south, integrating with the Mississippian culture or to the northeast,

lending to the ancestral Iroquois theory. Whatever the case may be, the Hopewell have

left their indelible mark on Ancient Native North American Culture in a way

Archaeologists and Historians have never encountered.


Fagan, Brian M. Ancient North America 1995 (revised) Thames and Hudson Ltd.,


Jennings, Jesse D. Prehistory of North America 1968 McGraw-Hill Inc., New York.

Spencer, Robert F. / Jesse D. Jennings The Native Americans (second edition) 1977

Harper and Row, Publishers, New York.

Ceram, C.W. The First American 1971 Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., New York

?Recent Fieldwork at Hopewell Culture National Historic Park?


Home Page for Jackson, Jennifer M.


Archaeology: Woodland 3: Hopewell


Research finds Hopewell Indians were in park


Woodland Period


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