The Adena of North America

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Adena occupation of North American and establishment of ritual behavior.

Beginning about 700 BCE during the Early Woodland period, a “mound-building” people known as the Adena settled along the upper Ohio River Valley, with evidence of their habitation reaching as far west as northeastern Kentucky and west to West Virginia.  Although archaeologists had for a century assumed that the Adena—and other Woodland moundbuilders—were organized into simple “chiefdoms,” a hierarchal, ranked society, the consensus today is that they were more likely of a “tribal” organization in which membership in kin groups such as clans and lineages was of social significance.  In any regard, the distinguishing characteristics of the Adena were their adoption of a sedentary lifestyle, persistant practice of horticulture (growing squash, with corn as yet unknown, but also tobacco), manufacture and use of ceramics, long-distance trade and inter-group interaction, and of course, mound building practices and mortuary ceremonialism. 

Known for their uiniquely-designed flat-top platform burial mounds, the Adena moundbuilding practices—which became quite complex by 200 BCE--are thought to have begun with the burial of a single individual—perhaps a village leader, shaman, or some other prominent member of Adena society.  With additional “capping” layers of earth added with each subsequent burial, over time a mound of communal spiritual significance formed, where ritual acts of reverence may have been demonstrated.

Initially, individual interment methods varied depending upon the ritual practices in place at that time—with burial customs varying greatly from the simple to the elaborate.  With crypts sometimes lined with bark or logs, occupants of many early burial chambers have been found covered in red ocher or accompanied by large chunks of it.  Sometimes entire bodies were interred—other times just the cremated remains. It appears that in some cases, bundles of bones were deposited, speculated to have been retrieved, perhaps, from a distant location and brought back for ceremonial burial.

Judging by the remarkable array of exotic grave goods (items foreign to a geographic location) found at Adena burial sites, their evolving spirituality seems to have spurred their societal expansion and organization, and over time prompted the construction of more substantial homes  and manipulation of their surroundings.  Over a period of perhaps 200 years, the Adena managed to not only establish a stable means by which to meet their culture’s ever-expanding spiritual obligations, they established a far-reaching trade network to bring in foodstuffs not locally available, and a far-flung exchange system to bring in copper (from the north), shells and feathers (from the south), and other ritual goods such as grizzly bear teeth (from the west) needed for their ever-more elaborate funerary ceremonies.

At the peak of their cultural influence, the Adena occupied a large swath of territory along the middle Ohio River Valley and thousands of square miles in all directions.  But as extensive and well-established as the Adena culture appears to have been, another culture came to dominate the Woodland regions by 200--150 BCE known as the Hopewell.  (By some reckoning, the Hopewell evolved from the Adena themselves; by others, a neighboring group.)  In any regard, the Hopewell came to dominate the cultural landscape of North American as no group had before.

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1 comment

Ron Siojo
Posted on Oct 13, 2010