The Hopewell Tradition and the Spread of Indigenous Ritual Across North America

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The Hopewell "moundbuilders" were among the most dynamic cultures of North America. This article charts the spread of their ritual practices from the Ohio River Valley to central Florida.

While scholars can only speculate as to who first walked the vast expanses of the North American continent, evidence of Paleoindian activity--particularly that of the Clovis and Folsom peoples--can be traced back at least 12,000 years through the archaeological record.  Although there is little doubt that these first inhabitants were hunter-gatherers who used stone and bone tools to exploit the wild resources they discovered across the land, there is still much debate as to how mobile these people were, what resources they utilized, and how they were socially organized.

Beginning about 10,890 BP, a succession of people settled, flourished, and then faded from the Ohio River Valley--perhaps drawn to its diverse range of vegetation, terrain, water sources, and wild game--leaving numerous rock shelters, flint knapping sites, hunting camps, agricultural hamlets, and mound-oriented ceremonial centers in their wake.  Slowly evolving from a big-game hunting society into one based on foraging and smaller game, a dynamic culture of the so-called “mound building” tradition emerged from the upper Ohio River Valley about 2,700 BP known as the Adena, a group that shaped the cultural and geographic landscape of Northeastern America as no group had before. 

Following close in their footsteps, a second mound building culture emerged from the same region a few centuries later known as the Hopewell, who succeeded in establishing a cultural tradition so energetic and powerful that it not only came to define their geographic center in current-day southern Ohio, it established a societal blueprint that spread throughout the east, midwest, southeast, and as far south as the Florida peninsula. (Indeed, in excavation sites across southern Florida, the ritual and ceremonial practices of the Hopewell are still being uncovered today.)

The Adena and Hopewell occupy a period of North American prehistory referred to as the Early and Middle Woodland periods, respectively. While “Woodland” is often used to denote specific cultural developments in stone and bone tool innovation, leather working, textile production, plant cultivation, and shelter construction, it is the advent of ceramic technology that categorically demarcates the onset of the Early Woodland period (separating it from the Archaic at roughly 3,000 BP), with the emergence of Hopewellian ceremonialism marking the onset of the Middle Woodland (at roughly 2,150 BP).  Although these dates can vary significantly from perspective to perspective, it is generally accepted that the Adena occupied the Ohio River Valley from approximately 2,500 BP--1,800 BP, with the Hopewell from approximately 2,300 BP--1,400 BP.              

American history tell us that during the 18th century when newly-arriving Europeans first came upon the fascinating display of giant mounds and elaborate earthworks dotting the North American landscape, their Eurocentric ideals couldn’t accept that American “Indians” were capable of such advanced and elegant engineering. 

When George Washington charged adventurer and military strategist Rufus Putnam with surveying the land at the confluence of the Ohio and Muskingum Rivers in Southeastern Ohio for settlement, Putnam--though highly impressed--assumed the massive walled earthwork complex he found was the ramparts of an ancient fortress built by some long since forgotten ancient civilization--perhaps the Egyptians. 

By the late 19th century, the popular consensus among many academics was that a now extinct race of “mound builders”--perhaps wandering Hindus, migrating Mexicans, or a Lost Tribe of Israel--had erected the mysterious earthworks; resolving the century-old riddle for many.

But even though the fantastic earthwork complex Putnam found at Marietta (the first permanent settlement of the Northwest Territory) is now recognized as a multigenerational, multicultural complex of sequentially constructed ceremonial centers spanning centuries of Adena-Hopewellain interaction, the tens of thousands of mounds and earthworks spotlighting North America continue to speak of a period of the past about which scholars can only hypothesize. 

And even though the Adena and Hopewell left virtual treasure troves of evidence of their highly developed and extraordinarily influential cultures behind, both traditions remain shrouded in mystery, illuminated brightest by little more than educated guesses.  But to gain insight into the Hopewell ritual tradition that so greatly impacted subsequent indigenous cultures as far south as Florida, one must first consider the influence of the Adena.


Though not the first to build mounds in North America (a feat credited the Watson Brake mo:und complex culture of northern Louisiana of some 5,400 years ago), the Adena built earthworks far more impressive in design than their predecessors, and are thought to have been the first to develop complex communities centered around such works.  Scholars believe settlements such as Marietta represent sites initially chosen for one specific purpose: to bury the dead in accordance with their evolving cultural directives. 

Settled in scattered “hamlets” of perhaps 10--12 families, the early Adena spent their days like most indigenous peoples of the period, hunting, gathering, and meeting daily needs.  Botanical remains from various Adena sites support the likelihood that they were among the first to cultivated plant foods, growing maygrass and little barley [ground into flour], goosefoot [a leafy vegetable similar to spinach], knotweed [of the buckwheat family], little barley [an edible grass], sump weed and sunflower [grown for their edible seeds], and perhaps squash--the selection of early cultigens commonly referred to as the “Eastern Agricultural Complex,” as early as 2,600 BP. Like Marietta, Adena settlements were often located near streams or rivers where the rich bottomland produced enough vegetation to accommodate a sedentary lifestyle, where mortuary facilities were constructed near (but not adjacent) the mounds.

Thought to have begun with the burial of a single individual--a village leader, shaman, or perhaps the child of a prominent member of society--the Adena mound building practices most likely developed with the formation of a mortuary cult, that began “capping” burials with earth, which eventually formed a mound of spiritual significance. 

As the Adena sociocultural structure became increasingly more ritualized, the hamlets’ residents cooperated in construction of additional mortuary centers; centers which eventually took on the distinctive, identifying cone-shaped design. Initially, individual interment methods varied dependant upon the ritual practices of the time: burial chambers were sometimes lined with bark or logs (creating tomb-like, roofed structures), with many burials including red ocher on either the corpse or the bones, or sometimes deposited in chunks in the grave itself--reflective of burial practices dating back to the Neanderthal, circa 70,000 BP. 

Physical orientation also seems to have factored into grave rites as some bodies were placed in an east-west orientation suggesting astronomical alignment.  As ceremonialism grew more complex, pieces of flint, copper bracelets and breastplates, stone tablets, marine shell beads, cut mica, as well as stone effigy pipes (usually resembling birds, fish, or human figures), broken pottery (often associated with contemporary Native American ritual) and other goods were buried with the dead. In the latter stages of the Adena period, corpses were placed first in wooden buildings and then ritually burned (charnel houses), while others were cremated in circular or elliptical clay basins dug into the earth--reflecting an evolution of mortuary practices.

The remarkable array of exotic grave goods found at Adena mortuary sites suggests that their fundamental concepts of life and death directly affected their societal expansion, their socio-spiritual requirements becoming the impetus for building more substantial homes, producing and utilizing ceramics, and manipulating their ecosystem. 

In just a few centuries, the Adena were able to not only establish a stable means to meet their culture’s ever-expanding spiritual obligations, they instituted a far-reaching agricultural trade network that provided foodstuffs not locally available, an extensive exotic exchange system to access copper from the north, shells and feathers from the south, and grizzly bear teeth from the west, and may have been the first to establish spiritual pilgrimages--a concept also insinuated by the Hopewell Tradition.

At their peak of influence, the Adena occupied a dominant portion of the middle Ohio River Valley including southern Ohio, northern Kentucky, southeastern Indiana, and western West Virginia--a remarkable achievement for people of this period by any measure. But as extensive as the Adena cultural accomplishments may have been, they would prove mere groundwork for the culture that came to dominate the Woodland regions by 2,150 BP. Indeed, as more elaborate mortuary practices began to emerge from their neighbors the Hopewell, the Adena period came to a quiet close; their accomplishments fading into the background of the cultural landscape. This marked the commencement of the Middle Woodland period and the rise of the Hopewell Tradition.

The Hopewell Tradition 

First referenced in 1820 by archaeologist Caleb Atwater, the Hopewell are most commonly associated with the distinctive burial mounds and extraordinary geometric earthwork complexes they constructed throughout Ohio at places like Marietta, Newark, Fort Ancient, and Mound City, and at thousands of other sites across North American. 

Thought to have originated in western New York or Illinois, the Ohio Hopewell have fascinated archaeologists for over a century since a number of mounds produced an amazing cache of skeletal remains, clay altars, sculptured sandstone tablets, bone carvings, celt-shaped polished limestone, bone awls, plates of mica, headdresses, copper plates and ornaments, and tens of thousands of other remarkable artifacts.

Named after the individual who owned the Hopewell Mound Group (City) site in Chillicothe where the seminal archaeological investigation began in the 1880s, its “type site” designation (a site displaying typifying features) was subsequently applied to the entire tradition--though less-than-clear delineations between the Hopewell and Adena traditions persist. Now recognized as a far-reaching network of related cultural “traditions” based on artifact style, architecture, and mortuary beliefs rather than a single “tribe,” anthropologists acknowledge six independent Hopewellian groups, as well as a number of other Hopewellian-like societies found throughout the eastern and southern regions of North America.


Developing a limited system of horticulture paralleling that of the Adena by 2,500 BP, the Hopewell are thought to have evolved into the first fully-committed agriculturalists of North America by 2,000 BP.  Initially paralleling the Adena mortuary practices as well, the Hopewellian explosion--as it has been called--of ritual practices, art, and ceremonial architecture quickly eclipsed their neighbors, their ritualized lifestyle becoming the societal model emulated from the prairie lands to far points east and south.  And while ceramics and lithic artifacts suggest that some Ohio Hopewell communities maintained an Adena influence well into the first century CE and often build on Adena sites, it is evident that once the Hopewellian “episode” began, it grew evermore diverse, adaptive, and powerful as it spread.

Central to understanding the sociocultural underpinnings of the Hopewell Tradition is, of course, the practices behind the fantastic mounds and earthworks dating back to 2,200--1,500 BP.  Although mounds of earth or stone had become common landscape features across the Midwest by 2,300 BP, the majority of early Middle Woodland mounds were generally circular or oval-shaped piles of earth rarely more than a few yards high (though some were much larger); the biggest being the elongated types built over mortuary structures like those at Newark. 

As time progressed, however, the Hopewell developed increasingly more elaborate earthwork designs with three major building styles diverging: embankment earthworks, mounds covering “prepared” floors, and timber constructions (the majority of which were later destroyed and covered by mound works).  Major mounds were usually constructed in layers of selected earths, clays, stones, and gravels, with timber structures capped with “prepared” floors of gravel and clay before mounds were raised.  While not all earthworks incorporated mounds, those that did often utilized crematory basins, burial platforms, as well as crypts, with the majority containing human remains accompanied by exotic and local artifacts. 

And while many of these mounds appear superficially similar, they were actually quite different internally, with individual graves constructed in a variety of methods with varying numbers of individuals entombed.  Looming today as testament to Hopewellian ideals and accomplishments, these mind-boggling monuments are believed to have been the centers of ceremony and social gatherings, presumed essential to sociocultural organization. But in actuality, scholars don’t know what significance they may have held for the Hopewell people.

While scholars are often tempted to lump the thousands of mounds and sites into one, cohesive “system,” for every scholarly argument supporting an interregional system, two emphasize the contradictions.  And even when the tens of thousands of artifacts these skilled and creatively prolific people left behind are pieced into the Hopewellian framework, the best scholars can offer is a patchwork picture of a seemingly complex society whose socio-religious ideology so impressed neighboring groups that it became the prevailing model of societal development throughout eastern North America, yet varied so greatly even within single regions that no one can profess to know exactly what that ideology was.  This reality makes their obvious influence on neighboring indigenous societies all the more phenomenal.

Although it can be logically assumed that Hopewell mounds and earthworks reflect the Hopewellian worldview and are pivotal to sociocultural organization, knowing how they laid-out their settlements in relationship to these earthworks allows scholars to draw conclusions based on informed cross-cultural conjecture--rather than simple subjective speculation. 

In the mid-1960s, Hopewellian scholar Olaf Prufer advanced the controversial idea that Ohio Hopewell communities were “small in size, modest in content, low in visibility, and located away from communal earthworks.”  According to Prufer, Hopewellian households were part of a stable, long-term system of relatively self-sufficient “hamlets” constituting an interdependent community of farmers and craft specialists (such as cloth makers, flint knappers, and nut processors) who cultivated indigenous domesticated plants, collected a wide variety of edible plants and nuts, and hunted wild game extensively--but applied relatively little time to earthwork construction. 

And while the near-by mound centers provided communal identification and served the social and spiritual needs of the community (and were scenes of frequent human activity), no significant habitation was located within the earthwork proper. And while many scholars hold a different vision of the Hopewellian social arrangement, most agree that they fully exploited local resources--gathering, gardening, and hunting while promoting trade to provide dietary variety, constructed long-term shelters, participated in regular communal ritual activity, and that no one funerary method prevailed across the Ohio River Valley--let alone the entire Hopewell sphere.

As demonstrated at various sites along the Great Miami, Little Miami, and Scioto Rivers, a wide range of mortuary practices were in practice across the region.  At Hopewell, for example, each of the 24 mounds was built over a charnel house, and there is ample evidence of widespread “aggrandizing” reflected in great quantities of copper, obsidian, and mica grave goods indicating long-distance exotic trade as well as large-scale local production. 

At the Turner site however (a distance of some 85 miles), of the 16 known mounds only six contained burials, no mounds approach the monumental size of those at Hopewell, and the majority of bodies were interred in a large communal burial area with few grave goods included--indicating limited exotic trade or local production. Thus, while ceremonialism is assumed to have been deeply interwoven into Hopewellian earthwork methodology, there appears to have been no strict all-encompassing tenets regarding communal application.   And quite significantly, despite all the apparent pomp and circumstance accompanying some burials, there is no evidence of special treatment during individuals’ lifetimes regardless of the community model in place.

One of the most frequently debated issues among Hopewellian scholars is the so-called Hopewell exchange system, or as coined by Joseph Caldwell, the “Hopewellian Interaction Sphere.”  While most scholars agree that the large deposits of exotic mortuary artifacts commonly found among North American Hopewellian societies indicate large-scale trade, the logistics, politics, and ultimate purpose of such a system has produced a number of competing theories over the past century. 

Many scholars contend that if such an exchange system existed, it was related directly to shared religious beliefs necessitating an on-going procurement of ritual items.  Others believe a political “network strategy” tied to elites--persons of status such as “Big Men“ or Chiefs--was in place across the Hopewell sphere wherein exotic goods were given in reciprocal exchange or as social payment of debt, damages, bride-price, ceremonial function, or other signs of respect; tribute. 

Some support the idea that pilgrims (of various societies) routinely made offerings of exotic goods as demonstrations of supplication or homage when visiting Hopewell ceremonial centers--thus bringing a steady flow of exotic goods north. And still others site the natural human desire for exotic items leading to the establishment of social and economic ties between neighboring villages, villages and groups of villages, and groups of villages with other regions.  And one theory gaining particular supported in recent years is one postulating the existence of a so-called “Great Hopewell Road” proposed by archaeologist Brad Lepper of the Ohio Historical Society.

Lepper contends that a walled “Road” some 60 meters wide and 90 kilometers long once ran directly from the octagonal “observatory” at Newark to its astronomical counterpart at Chillicothe to accommodate Hopewellian astronomer-priests who routinely charted the skies.  He argues that travelers could easily have found the Hopewell complex on the Scioto River from points south by following the long-assumed north-south trade routes, then following the “pilgrim’s path” northeastward to the Great Circle and Octagon at Newark.

Lepper also asserts that although travelers and pilgrims may have used the long-proposed travel route to bring exotic goods, all that was taken away was a deepened spirituality; thus a system ultimately incumbent on ceremonial syncretism.  But while the true nature of the Hopewell exchange system may never be known, there can be little doubt that much more than material wealth was traded among peoples of the Hopewellian Tradition.  In fact, these societies may well have accomplished an ideological meeting of the minds the likes of which has never been seen before or since.

Points South 

Though carrying varying meaning among archaeologists today, the term “Woodland” is most widely used to denote major cultural advances in technology, social complexity, and ceremonial strategies.  Particularly significant to Hopewellian scholars, the major cultural characteristics associated with this period--the production and utilization of pottery, burial mound building, and increased reliance on horticulture--are not initially found in the Southeastern part of the country, but first appeared in an area extending from the upper Mississippi Valley to southern New England around 3,000 BP. These ideas then spread to other areas over the course of the next two millennia.

In addition to signaling the onset of the Woodland period in a given area, the widespread appearance of pottery production in the archaeological record is also used by archaeologists to track the diffusion of ideas that predictably accompanies the exchange of this practical and often ritually-related cultural product.  The earliest known pottery of the northern regions was a variety made with a simple subconoidal (rounded cone or ovoid shape) base, having a much different origin than that of the earlier Gulf Formational ceramics of the Southeast (circa 4,000 BP--2,000 BP). 

Through the apparent trade of ceramics between northern and southern indigenous societies, southern pottery began taking on northern characteristics, with an obvious blending of ceramic modes between these two once-distinctly different pottery styles.  This phenomenon is further emphasized in areas of the Southeast where northern interaction was limited and Gulf coast ceramics remained virtually unchanged.  Apparent by the preponderance of Hopewellian pottery and mortuary goods at various settlements across the Southeast by Middle Woodland times, not only did the Hopewellian Tradition influence numerous societies of this region, it appears to have virtually replaced, in many cases, regional traditions of earlier periods.

According to the fossil record, Hopewellian ceremonialism reached the Southeast early in the first century CE, presumably via inter-regional trade.  While the cultural origin of mound building in Central and Northeastern North America is still debatable, ample evidence supports the contention that burial mounds in this part of the country derived directly from the Hopewell Tradition, with three easily discernable corresponding periods reflecting specific mound building cultural diffusion: the Southeastern Burial Mound 1 period: 2,000 BP—1,700 BP, Mound 2 period: 1,700—1,400 BP, and Mound 3 period: 1,400—1,000 BP. 

Mounds of the Mound 1 period exhibit strong similarities to Ohio Hopewell structures, most containing grave goods like copper panpipes, earspools, anthropomorphic figures, platform pipes, and exotic pottery of Hopewellian design; those of the Mound 2 period show that Southeastern mortuary procedures evolved into a variety of diverse, regional styles varying group to group, with some groups opting for caves (rather than mounds) and locally-made (rather than exotic) grave goods; and those of the Mound 3 period reflects post-Hopewellian development characterized by a cessation of mound building over much of North America, a sharp decrease in the exchange of exotic goods, the advance of regional specialization, and the rise of the Weeden Island culture along the Florida Gulf coast. 

This period is characterized by small conical earthen mounds usually containing the remains of less than a dozen individuals (perhaps a single family or clan), with marine shell cups and ornaments the only traditional long-distance trade goods still exchanged—although copper ornaments and elbow pipes are sometimes found.

As indicated by a vast array of physical evidence, native Floridians and peoples of the north and southeast maintained long-distance, sustained trade for millennia.  Thought to have been initiated by Adena and Hopewellian societies seeking exotic goods from the Gulf coast, Florida products (especially Busycon shells that could be fashioned into cups, beads, and other ritual items) were apparently traded for northern copper, stone, and ceramics beginning about 2,100 BP. 

Based on such trade, numerous Hopewellian-style mound-centers were established by the first century CE in north-central Florida and the inland tri-state area of Alabama-Florida-Georgia, with the emergence of the Swift Creek-Santa Rosa Hopewell (1,900--1,200 BP) in northwest Florida attesting to the far-reaching influence of Hopewellian ideology.  Anthropologists acknowledge both the Weeden Island (1,700--1,100 BP) and Tocobaga (of the Tampa Bay and St. Petersburg area, circa 1,200--500 BP. depicted below) as cultural progenies of the Swift Creek Hopewell ritual tradition

In the early 1900s, an atoll in northeast St. Petersburg, Florida now known as Weedon Island took on special significance when a number of mounds discovered there were designated Native American in origin.  Later acknowledged as part of a much larger regional system of pre-historic indigenous burial mounds, the island, as well as the people thus named (regardless of the misspelling), became the focus of an ever-broadening exploration of Florida’s past which continues across the state today. 

Thought to have developed from the Swift Creek-Santa Rosa Hopewellian Tradition of the Florida panhandle, the Weeden Island people constitute a number of distinctive traditions that emerged across Florida, Alabama, and Georgia.  Of special interest is the Safety Harbor culture that developed around the Tampa Bay area about 1100 BP, who erected numerous platform mounds across Pasco, Hernando, Citrus, Sarasota, Polk, Hardee, and DeSoto Counties. 

While Safety Harbor community settlement patterns reflect the aquatic, non-agrarian environment of the region (reflected in their economic patterns, food procurement, mound construction, and craft-type production), so too do they reflect the continuation of Hopewellian ceremonialism at the heart of their culture.  For example, like burial mounds of the north, the majority of Safety Harbor mound sites are located at the mouths of river or streams.  Like their counterparts, Safety Harbor mounds were periodically rebuilt with new layers added, often part of a charnel house (log-lined, roofed structure) capping methodology.  As with many Ohio Hopewell mound sites, adjacent to many Safety Harbor mounds were plazas and shell middens reminiscent of Hopewell embankment earthworks, with several mounds displaying distinct earthen embankments surrounding them; and significantly, habitation areas are often outlying from the ceremonial complex. 

As the Ohio Hopewell frequently incorporated Adena mounds, Safety Harbor mounds were often built on top of older mounds consecrated by previous societies, and many covered cremation pits where large numbers of people were interred.  And though rare, some Safety Harbor burials were accompanied by copper objects: a circular copper disk (placed atop the bones of a child), a 10” copper plume and copper earspool (interred with an adult male), and a copper-covered wooden mace (buried with an adult woman), reflecting not only Ohio Hopewell funerary habits, but long-distant trade as well.

Ritual in the Archaeo Record

One of the greatest (and most controversial) challenges facing field archaeologists today is the identification of ritual activity in the prehistoric fossil record.  As no site to date has contained artifacts labeled, For Ritual Use Only, it is often a daunting challenge in itself to delineate utilitarian from ceremonial artifacts--a challenge beyond the purview of many archaeologists of the past.  In recent years, however, a number of cross-disciplined specialists (like myself)--with concentrations in psychology, religious studies, or ancient history--have emerged from the field of anthropology, educated in recognizing the signs.

While prehistoric ritual behavior--including that of the Ohio Hopewell--is rarely self-evident, cultural anthropologists recognize that people worldwide approach ritual in very similar ways, and is frequently the subject of artistic expression.  Thus, the preponderance of ornate necklaces, beautiful carvings of bone and wood, exquisite earspools and pendants, intricately designed pipes, masks, and finely crafted items of pearl, copper, and silver commonly found in Hopewell funerary settings can reasonably be equated with ritual behavior.  A number of quite unusual pieces recovered from burial mounds like a rare mask using a human skull as a face plate (found at Mound City), a pipe portraying a dwarf, and an 11” X 6” human hand cut from a single sheet of mica (below) also seem to support this presumption.

Of all the items found in Hopewell mounds, the smoking pipe is probably most often associated with ritual.  First appearing in the fossil record during late Archaic times, pipes seem to have become integral to ceremonial life during the Early Woodland period, along with the advent of “smoking” ritual and pipe carving techniques.  Among the Ohio Hopewell, elaborately carved stone platform pipes were most common, while large elbow types made of clay or stone seem to have been preferred by southern groups like the Swift Creek.  But most significantly, although pipes were common throughout Eastern North America, they are very rarely found outside a mortuary setting--thus attesting to their ritual relationship.

Earspools, panpipes, effigy figurines, engraved shell and copper gorgets, head plates and headdresses, engraved shell cups, bone hair pins, silver and copper tablets, discoidals (game stones), engraved conch shell cups, shell pendants, greenstone axes and celts, flint blades, zoomorphic effigy vessels, animal claws, and collections of family skulls are just a partial list of artifacts common to Hopewellian funerary settings and thought to have ritual connection.  But discovery alone of such items in cultural settings doesn’t guarantee a ritual relationship. (Any number of scenarios can account for an artifact ending up in a mound or midden.)   Anthropologists must rely on context, experience, and of course, intuition!    


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