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Adena and Hopewell: Advanced Indigenous Cultures of North America

Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks – World Heritage Ohio

Honoring Native American Heritage Day — Indigenous Mound-Pyramid Builders the Adena and Hopewell Cultures

Today, November 27, 2020 is Native American Heritage Day in the United States. It’s the day after Thanksgiving and offers a different perspective on the indigenous peoples living across the northern continent. Contrary to popular colonial myth, the continent was widely settled far in advance of the Pilgrim’s arrival in 1620, and the southeastern cultures were particularly advanced hundreds of years earlier. The Adena and Hopewell civilizations lasting from 800 BCE to 500 CE were the first to build large cities and impressive earthworks in areas spanning the current states of Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, and West Virginia. We do not know the names these indigenous peoples called themselves; Adena and Hopewell were given to them later based on local settlements in their regions.

At the same time as the height of Roman Empire (100-476 CE), there were thriving civilizations in North America. The extent of their trade network spans the eastern half of the United States, rivaling that of the Roman Empire. Massive earthwork enclosures built by these peoples are the largest collection on the planet, yet their construction still a mystery.

Map of Adena and Hopewell cultures. Wikimedia Commons, H. Rowe, 2008

Adena.  Existing for about 900-1000 years, the Adena began mound building in central and southern Ohio regions. This evolved from prior practice of burying dead in piles of shells alongside rivers, including pet dogs, then moving to burials in large mounds of earth along with funerary objects such as jewelry, art, and ceramics. The Adena were notable for an extensive trading network which supplied them with copper from the Great Lakes to shells from the Gulf Coast. They developed agricultural practices, pottery, and artistic works although still living semi-nomadic lives and relying on hunting and gathering. Some Adena mounds—actually pyramids—were very tall and conical in shape, the highest being 65 feet tall at Miamisburg, Ohio. These pyramids were smooth on top and capped with clay, beginning as mortuary buildings which were ceremonially burned, then layers of burials placed on top followed by a new mortuary structure, and the process kept repeating.

Photo Grave Creek Mound

Grave Creek Mound, Adena Culture in Moundsville, West Virginia
62 feet tall, 240 feet diameter Wikimedia Commons, T. Kiser 2006

Adena people lived in small settlements of one to two structures; houses typically built in a circle ranging from 15 to 45 feet diameter. Walls were made of paired posts tilted outward, joined to other wood pieces to form a cone shaped roof covered with bark. The Adena had stone tools and axes, bone and antler tools, spoons and other implements. A few copper axes were found, but metal was generally hammered into jewelry such as bracelets, rings, and pendants.

Hopewell.  Descendants of the Adena, Hopewell culture epicenter was Ohio starting at 100 BCE and lasting until 500 CE. Hopewell were masters of land survey and geometry, continuing the Adena custom of earthworks and mound-pyramids but vastly enlarging it. They extended the trade network from the Crystal River Indian Mounds in Florida to the northern shores of Lake Ontario, the Gulf Coast, and from the Mississippi River far to the east, but did not have much influence on the East Coast. From these regions they obtained mica, copper, shell, and soapstone. They produced beautiful artwork and made stone pipes in shapes of effigy animals, smoking tobacco and perhaps other substances.


Map of Hopewell Interaction Sphere

Hopewell Interaction Sphere
Wikimedia Commons, H. Rowe, 2010

The name Hopewell came from mounds excavated in 1891-92 by Warren Moorehead at the property of Mordecai Hopewell in Ross County, Ohio. The Hopewell built earthworks in clusters of 10-20 mounds or more in same area. Once there were tens of thousands, but Hopewell mounds now only number in the hundreds due to encroaching development, both farmlands and towns. Many remaining earthworks are now preserved in parks and historic sites.

The great Hopewell geometric earthworks are among the most impressive indigenous monuments in the U.S. They take various geometric shapes and rise to amazing heights, often shaped like animals, birds, or serpents. There are gigantic enclosures bounded by berms of earth that are 20 feet wide by 20 feet tall. These often covered 20 acres (15 football fields); and could hold 17 pyramids of Giza inside. Some reached 50 acres and the largest is 111 acres at the Hopewell site. Maps and drawings made in the 1840s document earthworks, many that are now destroyed, but some have been preserved at the Hopewell Cultural Historic Park.

Model of Hopewell ceremonial earthworks

Model of Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks, Newark
World Heritage Ohio

Mystery of Massive Earthworks.  An impressive level of coordination was needed to build all these earthworks, spread over a large region and using the same geometric principles and formulas. One repeated measurement is 1053 feet, appearing in different parts of structures—some square, rectangular, octagon. Many areas have enclosures of 20 acres, and squaring the circle or circling the square was used repeatedly. Hopewell structures were built so measurements of a square fit inside a circle and vice versa. Such repetition shows that there was clear intentionality in building. But who organized the labor forces to build massive geometric earthworks?

Hopewell villages were small and the people did not live near the earthworks. Villages were a few miles away, rarely had more than 100 people, houses were simple rectangular (occasionally circular) shapes made of wattle-and-daub with grass roofs, holding 1-2 families. Diet was simple, with small scale agriculture augmented by hunting and fishing. They did not have corn, cultivating native plants like pigweed, sunflowers, maygrass, and goosefoot. These were egalitarian settlements without large differences between houses denoting different social status. There is no evidence of a chief or ruling class. There was some class differentiation seen in burial placements inside mounds and amount/types of burial artifacts. The largest burial mound is at the Hopewell site, three interconnected structures 500×180 feet, and 30 feet tall at the base. Following Adena practices, these mounds started as mortuary structures, then were burned and burials put on top, taking place over years and decades. The most elaborate burials were in the center, the earliest phases. Multiple burials were interred at once; bodies must have been stored for a while before being interred. Group burials were not due to war and there is no evidence of violence or warfare in Hopewell archeology. Burial pyramids grew in size over time, then were capped with hard surface and temples built on top.

Hundreds of workers were needed, along with persuasive leaders to accomplish these works, but archeological evidence shows only small egalitarian villages. According to archeologist Edwin Barnhart‘s theory, these small, peaceful villages banded together to create the earthworks, probably as gathering places for celestial timed ceremonies. Building the earthworks in itself was the ceremonial event. They gathered together every decade or two, timed to lunar events, as a single people to create something great and enduring. Such shared effort in raising monuments is powerful builder of community. (ArchaeoEd Podcast Episode 3 – The Hopewell)

Model of Hopewell Earthworks

Model of Hopewell Earthworks at Fort Ancient, Ohio
World Heritage Ohio


Astronomical Aspects of Hopewell Earthworks.  Hopewell earthworks encode knowledge of astronomy focusing on solar system objects; known as “horizon based astronomy.” This takes note of the rise and set of the sun, moon, and planets, all visible to the naked eye. The Hopewell made solar and lunar observations, and several earthworks align to winter or summer solstice: Hopeton, Dunlap, Anderson, Mound City, and Hopewell site all have solar alignments through diagonals, not sides of the squares. At times they had to make adjustments for mountains; the Marietta site has mountain ridges so they used astronomical knowledge and land survey techniques to compensate in aligning with solstice.

Octagon sites at Newark and High Bank did not have solstice alignments, but instead followed movements of the moon. The many angles of the Newark octagon captured all lunar alignments. Lunar maximums (maximum excursion along the horizon) occur every 18.6 years at full moon. This moon cycle of lunar maximums and minimums was captured by Hopewell. It takes years to determine this; there are 4 such alignments in a full cycle, 2 maximum and 2 minimum. Different lunar alignments were used at the High Bank site octagon.

Moon rising above Hopewell site

Lunar rise above octagon-circle earthworks, Hopewell site, Ohio
World Heritage Ohio

Lunar Aligned Earthworks at Newark Ohio. This spectacular lunar alignment at the Hopewell site in Newark, Ohio (built between 100 BCE – 300 CE) includes the 1200-foot-diameter Great Circle with its steep inner ditch and monumental framed gateway, plus the Octagon Earthworks, forming a perfect circle and adjoining octagon over a half-mile across. The perfectly formed, eye-level embankments align with all eight of the key rise- and set-points of the moon during its 18.6-year cycle, within a smaller margin of error than that at Stonehenge.  World Heritage Ohio.

Cultural decline: Around 500 CE, the Hopewell stopped building mounds and earthworks, their trade exchange ended, and their art was no longer produced. Rising hostility is a possible cause, since villages at the end of the Hopewell period became larger communities that built defensive walls and ditches. Climate change with colder conditions probably drove game animals north or west, and had detrimental effects on plants, drastically reducing these food sources. The bow and arrow were introduced during this time, improving hunts but further depleting game. This effective weapon made warfare more deadly, driving people into larger fortified communities. With fewer people using trade routes, the network linking people to the Hopewell traditions diminished. Full-scale agriculture after introduction of corn might also have contributed to breakdown of social organization. Conclusive reasons for the dispersal of these prodigiously creative people have not yet been determined. (Wikipedia, Hopewell Tradition)




Pyramid Builders of North America

Hopewell Culture Earthen Pyramids – H. Rowe 2008, Wikimedia Commons

In the eastern parts of the United States, where the states of Illinois, Kentucky, Ohio, Mississippi, and Louisiana are now located, a large and advanced indigenous culture left their lasting legacy through impressive earthworks, commonly called “mounds.” Usually referred to as the Mound Builders, these structures actually are earthen pyramids. Many pyramids had several levels with platforms and buildings on top. Since these were not created out of stone, as were the Mayan and Aztec pyramids of Mexico and Central America, over centuries the earthen structures eroded and blended into softly curved hills covered by grass. Thousands upon thousands of these pyramids blanketed the region, built by successive civilizations, connected through networks of rivers and roads. These Native American cultures interacted and traded extensively, as shown by widespread presence of artifacts from coastal, Great Lakes, mountainous, and Gulf regions.  

Pyramid Builder cultures Hopewell Period – H. Rowe 2010 Wikimedia Commons

Why were they called Mound Builders and not Pyramid Builders? Archeologist Edwin Barnhart thinks there is residue of European superiority in selecting this term. To call the structures pyramids gives them an elevated status, implying a well-organized and advanced culture. The common European mythos about indigenous Americans held them to be an inferior race, little more than savages, whose widely dispersed villages and simpler lifestyles implied a primitive culture. This view made it easier to usurp their lands and disrupt their societies, opening the “frontier” to settlement by a more “developed” society. After all, it was the Manifest Destiny of European invaders to take over this New World that was barely settled with few primitive inhabitants.

Admitting that the Native Americans had advanced, complex cultures with ability to build immense structures, govern large populations, and maintain a widespread network would remove European excuses for ruthless confiscation and domination. Growing awareness of these advanced cultures is challenging long-held beliefs. Dr. Barnhart brings this into sharp relief in his excellent series for The Great Courses Plus, “Ancient Civilizations of North America.”

Since having to stay mostly at home due to coronavirus precautions, I’ve been participating in more webinars, zoom meetings and conferences, podcasts, and virtual on-line programs. Dr. Barnhart, head of the Maya Exploration Center, has recently created a series of podcasts through a platform called Patreon. As a member, I’ve listened to all 4 podcasts to date and find them totally fascinating. One podcast was about the Adena culture, one of the earlier pyramid builders of North America. I became so interested that I subscribed to his Great Courses program. Both my husband and I have spent many enjoyable and educational hours learning from Dr. Barnhart about the long, impressive history of advanced civilizations in what is now the U.S.

Great Courses Plus – Ancient Civilizations of North America

Why isn’t this perspective on pre-contact North American history taught in school?  Even though a lifelong fan of history, especially ancient civilizations, I had only the slightest exposure to the indigenous cultures of my country. What I’ve learned in these programs vastly expanded my concept of the peoples and societies that came before European settlement. This is something that every American would benefit from knowing. It helps us appreciate our rich heritage and also acknowledge what has been lost in the dismantling of indigenous cultures.

My next several blogposts will cover some of the great civilizations of North America. This is also to honor Native American Heritage Day on November 27.

My blogposts will start with the Pyramid Builders, though Dr. Barnhart’s programs start by exploring the origins of North American peoples. The latest research verifies through DNA evidence that they came across the Bering Strait from Asia. The Great Courses Programs cover Clovis, the first paleolithic culture, and Archaic period information. The Pyramid Builders started the first coherent civilizations bringing together far-flung Archaic practices, evolving through several stages.

  • Adena Culture – about 3,000 years ago the Adena culture built conical burial mounds in modern-day Ohio. They had a shared concept of an afterlife shown by their burial practices. It is thought they were the first habitual tobacco smokers, for ritual purposes. Their influence spread widely across the region.
  • Hopewell Culture – following Adena was the Hopewell culture, known for building massive earthen pyramids and other huge structures. They spread the practice of burying important dead in earthen mounds, and influenced all the eastern North America peoples through their trade networks and art traditions. They had knowledge of mathematics and astronomy, using these to orient ceremonial structures to solar and lunar events. Their numerous complexes with geometric patterns are found all across Ohio.
  • Mississippian Culture – about 1,200 years ago the Mississippian culture introduced use of bow and arrow and expanded reliance on farming. They build cities with defensive walls indicating increased warfare. Their influence spread with a large corpus of art and extensive trade networks. The mythological creation stories brought by this culture are still part of traditions among many current indigenous nations.   

Poverty Point Culture

Artists conception of the Poverty Point archaeological site near Epps, Louisiana at it’s height. UNESCO World Heritage Site 2014 . H. Rowe 2016, Wikimedia Commons.

Even before these cultures, an intriguing structure was built 3,500 years ago at a location called Poverty Point, in the northeast corner of Louisiana. Dr. Barnhart calls this North America’s first city. It was a planned community built on 900 acres that once had up to 5,000 inhabitants, the largest settlement in North American at that time. Situated next to the Mississippi River, the houses were arranged in several rows forming a huge crescent. The ridges forming these rows were 4-6 feet high and 140-200 feet apart. In the central plaza were pyramid structures, including one of the oldest pyramids ever built anywhere. The largest pyramid was 50 feet high and 500 feet long, aligned east to west. A large bird effigy mound was also there, 70 feet high and 640 feet across. On the western side of the plaza were deep pits that once held huge wooden posts serving as calendar markers. Watching the sun’s shadows, residents could predict the changing of the seasons and the main solar stations such as solstice and equinox.

Poverty Point was occupied for 1,000 years, thriving from 1730 – 1350 BCE. People of this culture also occupied villages that extended for nearly 100 miles on either side of the Mississippi River, including over 100 sites. To build such great projects, a sustained investment of human labor was required, along with organizational skill, leadership, and dedication of the society. Archeologists have excavated numerous artifacts including pottery, tools, figurines, and cooking objects. There were stone cooking balls heated in bonfires and dropped into pits with food. Human figures and animal effigies were possibly used for religious purposes. Artifacts of flint, iron ore, slate, copper, quartz, and soapstone, some from over 600 miles away, attest to broad trading patterns. Uniquely, they used stone to make beads while other cultures used softer materials like bone and shell. Many beads depict animals commonly found nearby, such as owls, dogs, locusts, and turkey vultures.  

Poverty Point Artifacts, Wikimedia Commons.

Poverty Point especially interests me, since I’m originally from Louisiana. All those years growing up, and I was never aware of this huge ancient city! Visiting Poverty Point is definitely on my bucket list.

My next blogposts will give more details of the Adena, Hopewell, and Mississippian cultures.

Author in Mayan dress.
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