While attempting to identify some Native American points (arrowheads), I, with my highly curious but totally novice investigation, concluded that my best specimen was likely a product of the ancient Adena culture. Even though my point was over two thousand years old, it was well-preserved and very distinctive. As I admired its condition and relevance, it soon became an object of fascination -- a wonderful relic my father left to me from his young days of exploration at his grandfather's farm in Adams County.
I let my imagination turn to the fact that I was holding living history, an artifact made and used in ancient times by a native in Southern Ohio. I wondered what the person was like who had crafted it and how he had used it. I wondered how he had dressed, why his people had built so many mounds, and why they had left so few clues to their identity.
Very quickly, I understood although my love for local Native American history began in my early childhood, my personal searches, my field trips to points of interest, and my readings in Ohio History had left me with little knowledge about the Mound Builders and even less about the Adena. So, naturally, I began an online investigation of the ancient people who once occupied my own backyard.
What I found was both amazing and perplexing. Let me explain.
First, it is of utmost importance to emphasize that the Adena culture is not the name of an ancient American Indian tribe or ancestral group. We really have no evidence of what these people might have called themselves.
The people remain nameless in their own language.
We don't even have words or an oral history preserved by their own vocabulary.
Governor Worthington's Adena
Comprehending the Adena Culture
Instead of a living, definitive expression of a name for the culture, we know these people by the simple "tag" of Caucasian settlers. Adena is a term of archaeological convenience that encompasses similarities in artifact style, architecture, and other cultural practices that distinguish the Adena culture from earlier and later cultures in the region.
The name Adena comes from the title of the 2000-acre estate of Governor Thomas Worthington (1773-1827) in Chillicothe. Worthington was the 6th governor of Ohio and one of the state's first United States Senators. He was a close friend of Thomas Jefferson, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and Tecumseh. Worthington named his beautiful estate Adena, meaning "a place remarkable for the delightfulness of its situation." We Ohioans know the view from the estate was the inspiration for the Great Seal of the State of Ohio
A large burial mound on this property became known as the Adena Mound. Since this mound site exemplified all the significant features of the culture, Adena also became the "type site" and the name of the site was applied to this entire culture of Mound Builders.
So, Adena also became the name given to the people who built these mounds. This does not even suggest Worthington's mound was the first mound made by the ancient culture. That fact remains unclear today.
I have lived in Southern Ohio all my life. I have visited the Adena Mound and many other mounds including the famous Serpent Mound near Peebles. My hometown of Portsmouth is the home of a mound preserved in a very popular park appropriately titled Mound Park. To think the scant history of these mound-building people exists with no traceable name stunned me. How could this be?
Upon further investigation, I found out that very little is know about the Adena people, and almost all that is known has been determined through archaeological remains and artifacts.
Tracing Adena Culture
A. Poverty Point and the Archaic Period (Between 1650 and 700 BC)
Long before the Native Americans we commonly know as Indians lived a people we call the Mound Builders. There are varying beliefs about when they were around. Most archaeologists agree the time fell between 3000 BC to 200 AD. This would place the early Mound Builders in America during the Archaic Period.
Most scholars believe mound building customs related to the Adena first began at the edge of Maçon Ridge, near the village of what would become known as Epps in West Carroll Parish, Louisiana. These earthworks are said to predate the Adena, and they became known as the Poverty Point works, named after a northeastern Louisiana plantation. Likewise, the culture that built these structures are now known as the Poverty Point culture.
Poverty Point is the earliest major mound complex site found in America north of Mexico. It contains some of the largest prehistoric earth works in North America.
Poverty Point is a rare example of a complex hunter-gatherer society that constructed large scale monuments. The site consists of six rows of concentric ridges which were at one time five to over twenty feet high. The site is surrounded by other outlying earthen mounds that overlook the Mississippi River. Archaeologists have debated the functions of the Poverty Point site since its rediscovery. One of the main questions has been whether it was used for a settlement or only for periodic ceremonial events.
Radiocarbon dating of the Poverty Point site has produced a wide variety of results, and suggests that most of the rings of earthworks and mounds had been constructed between 1600 and 1300 BCE. This indicates that the monuments had likely been gradually built over several centuries by groups of successive generations.
Because Poverty Point culture is defined in terms of stone tools and trade rocks, it really represents a technological and economic pattern more than a social and political one. The technology and economy were not confined to one large body of kinfolks or to a single tribe, nation, or ethnic group. They were not confined to people who spoke the same language. Many groups of people bore Poverty Point culture, and most of them were unrelated and politically independent.
The culture extended 100 miles (160 km) across the Mississippi Delta. The original purposes of Poverty Point have not been determined although archaeologists have proposed various possibilities including that it was: a settlement, a trading center, and/or a ceremonial religious complex.
As the mound builders of Poverty Point spread throughout the northeast, they not only impacted the landscape but influenced the development of new civilizations. While they possessed a limited agricultural base, the people of Poverty Point engaged in trade with other indigenous tribes. It was through these various trade missions that they most likely introduced aspects of their own culture – possibly even the techniques used in the construction of mounds.
The populations of the mound-building cultures are unknown, but at times they probably reached well into the millions. Poverty Point was a thriving trade center. Population estimates for Poverty Point are about five thousand inhabitants; the later Adena culture is estimated to have been from 8 to 17 million; the Mississippian city of Cahokia alone is estimated to have had between forty thousand and seventy-five thousand inhabitants during the twelfth century.
B. Adena Roots
Some evidence suggests groups of Archaic people lived in Ohio at least until 1000 to 500 B.C.
But, it is clear that in the centuries just before the birth of Christ, a new culture evolved in eastern North America referred to by archaeologists as the Woodland period. At first, the differences between Archaic and Woodland cultures like the Adena seemed to be quite clear: the people of the Woodland period grew more plant food, lived in permanent villages, made pottery, and emphasized ceremony and art.
And so it is that the Adena of the Ohio River Valley have been identified as the most likely successor civilization to that of Poverty Point. The Adena share many cultural traits with Poverty Point and also practice similar mound construction.
a variety of different native plants.
The Ohio and Mississippi valleys were one of only seven regions in the world where people turned local plants into the basis for a food-producing economy.
The consequences of this change in how people made a living would be far-reaching.
D. The Demise of the Mound Builders
- Conflict with stronger, more dominant cultures
- Crop pestilence
- Disease or plague
This invasion seems to be supported by finds from later Mound Builder sites, that we have identified as the Fort Ancient Culture. These were constructed on elevated positions, with walls surrounding increasingly larger villages suggesting that these sites were created as defensive positions. Excavations of grave sites, particularly in the northeast, show numerous remains that had arrowheads embedded in the skeletons. Some remains besides having multiple arrowheads, also showed signs of animal teeth marks suggesting that the individual may have been killed outside the compound and left to scavengers before being brought inside for proper burial.
- William Cullen Bryant, 1832
A poem inspired by his travels in Illinois, home to one of the largest American Indian chiefdoms and mound centers in the New World (Cahokia)
Because the new Euro-American settlers could not, or did not want to, believe that the mounds had been built by the Native American peoples they were displacing as fast as they could, some of them – including members of the scholarly community – began to believe in a "Lost Race of Mound Builders.”
Prejudice was so strong that few, if any, scholars believed that Native Americans, themselves, constructed the mounds (the view from our time). The logic of racial superiority, national pride, religion, and the pocketbook demanded a history in which the Indians killed off an ancient white race of "Mound Builders."
After all, a vast continent lay at the feet of a young nation, and the only thing obstacle to its settlement were the natives. Robert Silverberg, author of And the Mound Builders Vanished from the Earth (1969), writes with brilliance and humor: "The dream of a lost prehistoric race in the American heartland was profoundly satisfying; and if the vanished ones had been giants, or white men, or Israelites, or Danes, or Toltecs, or giant white Jewish Toltec Vikings, so much the better."
Mary Sutherland, author of Living in the Light, wrote that people in 1872 of Seneca Township, Noble County, Ohio, in what is now called Bates Mound, reported three skeletons were found. According to the reports, all three skeletons unearthed were at the very least eight feet tall in height with bone structure proportional to their height. Another amazing discovery about these skeletons is that they all had double rows of teeth.
* From the History of Medina County, Ohio, published in 1881
“In digging the cellar of the house, nine human skeletons were found, and like such specimens from other ancient mounds of the country. They showed that the Mound Builders were men of large stature. The skeletons were not found lying in such a manner as would indicate any arrangement of the bodies on the part of entombers.
“In describing the tomb, Mr. Albert Harris said: “It looked as if the bodies had been dumped into a ditch. Some were buried deeper than others, the lower one being about seven feet below the surface. Then the skeletons were found, Mr. Harris was twenty years of age, yet he states that he could put one of the skulls over his head, and let it rest upon his shoulders, while wearing a fur cap at the same time. The large size of all the bones was remarked, and the teeth were described as “double all the way around.”* From the History of Brown County, Ohio, published in 1883:
“Mastodonic remains are occasionally unearthed, and, from time to time, discoveries of the remains of Indian settlements are indicated by the appearance of gigantic skeletons, with the high cheek bones, powerful jaws and massive frames peculiar of the red man, who left these as the only record with which to form a clue to the history of past ages.”
* From the History of Marion County, Ohio, published in 1883:
“A citizen of Marion County estimates that there were about as many human skeletons in the knolls of Marion County as there are white inhabitants at present!”
Then, bones began to be considered no longer as good a source of information as they once were thought to be, and for several good reasons. Bone, while composed dominantly of the metallic calcium, yet is made up of organic molecules. Depending on moisture and temperature, it will decay, break down with time, and return to the condition of the soil after a certain number of centuries.
Bone evidence has created over-emphasis on certain periods of prehistory, in this region the so-called "Hopewell" and "Fort Ancient" (Mississippian) people. Thus, a great proportion of the Archaic and early Adena bones discovered were decomposed beyond preservation. Due to a lack of skeletons other more antique periods have not received the same kind of recognition save from the better scholars affecting the interested public's view of the ancient world.
Members of the public were harder to convince, and if we read county histories into the 1950s, we will still see stories about the Lost Race of Mound Builders. Scholars did their best to convince people that the Native Americans were the architects, by giving lecture tours and publishing newspaper stories: but this effort backfired. In many cases, once the myth of a Lost Race was dispelled, the settlers lost interest in the mounds, and many of the mounds were destroyed as settlers simply plowed away the evidence.Most scholars today recognize that the ancestors of modern Native Americans, not a Lost Race, were responsible for all of the prehistoric mound construction in North America. But, of course, speculation continues due to lack of evidence.