Who were the people of the Hopewell Culture?
Between 2,200 and 1,500 years ago the Hopewell Cultural Expression flourished in the eastern half of the North America continent, becoming one of the most influential cultures ever to exist in North American prehistory. Centered in what is now southern Ohio, they were epic travelers and consummate artists. Living in what is speculated to have been a singularly peaceful environment, they intentionally gathered materials for their crafts from far-flung places, apparently making epic journeys to the Great Lakes for copper, Florida for shells, the Carolinas for mica, and Yellowstone for obsidian.
The Hopewell built both ridge top enclosures, such as Fort Hill and Spruce Hill, and earthwork complexes on the floodplains such as Junction Earthworks. The earthwork complexes tall earthern walls up to 12 feet high in the shape of precise circles and squares, commonly enclosing a few dozen acres of land and sometimes a collection of mounds. These often lead to a nearby river and also aligned with major astronomical events. Some of the mounds included human burials, some precious sacred art pieces, while others were seemingly empty- serving as what we can only guess at today as ceremonial purposes.
A Daunting Task
The labor it took to build these immense earthwork complexes required a substantial and well-organized work force, which is especially impressive when we reflect on the fact that these people were still primarily hunters and gatherers, their diet only partially supplemented by domesticated greens, squash, and small seeds.
The remnants of the largest Hopewell mound ever built, bearing the prosaic name of Mound 25, can be found in Chillicothe at the Hopewell Mound Group. The mound at one time measured an impressive 500 feet in length and 30 feet in height. A dirt mold of a carrying basket used to move the soil to create the mound was discovered at the site, and was determined to carry 27 pounds of earth at a time. It was calculated that it would have taken roughly 1.5 million basket fulls of dirt to create just Mound 25 alone, not counting the site’s two miles of walls and the remaining forty mounds that made up the entire complex. Such demonstration of labor has led to the speculation that the Hopewell ceremonial centers may have served more than just local communities, possibly attracting pilgrims from great distances away.
Why are Native American Eastern Earthwork Sites so Important?
The indigenous history of the Eastern North American continent IS THE MOST UNDER-RATED AND UNDER-APPRECIATED story in American history. Archeology and anthropology in the western half of the United States have often taken precedence in the hearts and minds of the American public. In the East, most of our Native American earthworks were destroyed in the fifty years following European settlement, either by plow, excavation, or development. Of the many people inhabiting the Eastern Forest, the culture known as the Hopewell, living between 2,200 and 1,500 years ago, were one of the most artistic and geographically influential to have ever lived on the entire continent.
If those of us living in the East are ever to establish a deep sense of place and pride in our landscape, we would do well to commit to recovering and honoring the history of our land, and the long history of people who lived upon it.