- Historic Sites
“…and The Mound-builders Vanished From The Earth”
What became of the prehistoric race that built the elaborate ceremonial mounds found in the Ohio and Mississippi valleys? Nineteenth-century America had a romantic but self-serving answer
June 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 4
The pioneers of the earthworks were the Adena people, named from, the estate near Chillicothe, Ohio, where their characteristic artifacts were first identified. The Adena culture, it appears, took form about 1000 B.C. , and was typified by the burial of the dead in log-walled tombs beneath conical earthen mounds. One archaeological faction holds that the Adenas were migrants from Mexico, carrying with them cultural traits superior to those of the Ohio valley where they settled; a more recent thesis makes them indigenous to the Northeast and the lower Great Lakes area. The Grave Creek mound in West Virginia, the largest conical mound in the United States, is Adena work, as is Ohio’s Great Serpent mound.
About 400 B.C., apparently, a new group of Indians entered Adena territory: the Hopewells, named for a site in Ross County, Ohio, considered typical of their culture. These people were long-headed, unlike the round-headed Adenas, and they brought with them to Ohio an elaborate way of life that flowered wonderfully after the collision, peaceful or otherwise, with the Adenas. The Hopewell folk were, in effect, the Mound Builders of whom the nineteenth-century mythmakers dreamed. Although neither Phoenician nor Hindu nor Viking but merely American Indians out of the eastern woodlands, they did fill many of the qualifications of that phantom race of superior beings to whom the Ohio mounds had so often been attributed. They extended their influence out of southern Ohio into Indiana and Illinois and southeastern Iowa, northward to Wisconsin and Michigan, southward down the Mississippi past St. Louis. They evolved a complex funereal ritual including the erection of groups of conical mounds to house their dead notables; and they buried in the mounds a wealth of fine goods manufactured from exotic raw materials obtained through trade from such distant points as the Gulf coast and the Southwest.
Most of the mounds and earthworks that can be seen in Ohio today were made by the Hopewells. The most awesome, perhaps, is the great enclosure at Newark, which once covered four square miles. Only fragments remain: a joined circle and octagon, another circular enclosure, and some parallel walls. Though these structures are in part incorporated in a municipal golf course, they retain their majesty and splendor. From Hopewell mounds have come jewelry of bone, shell, and stone, breastplates and headdresses of copper, and ornaments cut from sheets of glittering mica. The abundance and high artistic quality of these burial goods mark the vitality and imagination of this remarkable culture. A strong Mexican influence is present in much Hopewell art, leading even the most conservative archaeologists to trace a flow of ideas out of Mexico and up the Mississippi to Ohio.
The end of the Hopewells came about A.D. 550, perhaps even earlier. They ceased to build their great ceremonial centers, and in another two centuries their distinctive way of life had disappeared, their territory was depopulated, and the people themselves had been absorbed into humbler tribes. We do not know why. “Cultural fatigue” has been suggested; a change of climate, perhaps; civil war; even that old standby, invasion by savages. There are indeed indications that toward the end the Hopewells took to the hills and tried to hold out behind high earthen walls. It was in vain; the forest closed over their mounds, and simpler folk took possession of their domain. Within a few generations, the newcomers had forgotten whatever they knew about the Hopewells. So mythical Mound Builders of non-Indian blood had to be invented by the white man, and fabulous tales woven about them, while outraged Hopewell spectres glowered in silent fury.
Long after the Hopewell collapse, the mound idea burst forth again in the Southeast, in a quite different form. Once again great ceremonial centers were erected; once more an elaborate social system came into being; there were developments in art and technology that rivalled and often exceeded Hopewell at its finest. The new mounds, however, were flat-topped platforms on which wooden temples, not burial structures, rose. These earthen pyramids, eighty to one hundred feet high and covering acres of ground, appeared first in Alabama, Georgia, and the rest of the Gulf coast states, and spread as far west as Texas and as far north as Illinois. By A.D. 900 most Indian tribes living along the Mississippi and its major tributaries knew something about the gospel of the platformmound religion, and within another three centuries a chain of major ceremonial centers stretched across the continent from Oklahoma to Alabama. The Temple Mound people were agriculturalists, apparently far more skillful farmers than the Hopewells; we have found their hoes, made of stone, shell, or the shoulder blades of animals, and even the traces of their fields. They made excellent jewelry and pottery which shows obvious influence from the arts and crafts of Mexico, and their giant mounds, too, seem earthen imitations of Mexico’s truncated pyramids.