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Monday, October 29, 2012

The Adena -- Considering the Point


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.
Scientists believe changes in temperature and precipitation such as increased flooding, caused an ecological imbalance that led to abandonment of Poverty Point. Archaeologists use this as a time boundary between the Archaic and later Woodland periods.

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.
These differences appeared to be so great that some archaeologists in the past believed that the Woodland peoples must have moved into Ohio from places as far away as Mexico. And, archaeological evidence suggests that these ancient cultures came up the Mississippi Valley from the Gulf of Mexico.
Similarities between artifacts recovered from Ohio mimics similar artifacts found in the Mayan Culture of Central America. Did the Mound Builders come from Central America? Or did the Mayan Culture come from the Mound Builders, or are they both branches of the same tree?
Because of lack of written evidence, it is difficult to make any definitive conclusions as to the origins of the Adena. And, whether this ancient culture is related to contemporary Native American cultures cannot be determined. Perhaps in time, DNA tests will be able to further identify characteristics of all ancient American cultures.
In fact, more recent research shows that in much of the Ohio Valley, there was not an abrupt change, but rather a slow shift from Archaic to Woodland lifestyles.
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.

C. Adena and the Early Woodland Period (Between 800 BC and 1 AD)
What we do know is that a Pre-Columbian Native American culture flourished in Ohio from 500 BC to 100 BC, in a time known as the Early Woodland period. The Adena culture during this period refers to what were probably a number of related native societies sharing a burial complex and ceremonial system.
The Adena were primarily hunter/gatherers, but they also farmed crops. They depended on a variety of native plants that provided relatively small seeds. And, they planted their seeds in what we assume were relatively small gardens and harvested their crops on a regular basis. They situated themselves where they could do farming but also could go up into the hills to take some wild game and harvest
a variety of different native plants.
Seed plants farmed by the Adena included sunflowers, squash, sumpweed, goosefoot, knotweed, maygrass, and pumpkins. This set of native plants often is referred to as the Eastern Agricultural Complex.
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.
Unfortunately, Native American cultures were limited in agricultural development by the general lack of suitable animal domesticates. Native American horses had become extinct, and these animals might not have been suitable for domestication in any case. At the time, no other animals might have served as domesticated sources of burden, wool, milk, meat, traction, or transportation in North America. It is widely held that horses were not re-introduced to North America until the coming of the Spanish Conquistadors in the 16th century
This fact limited technological change and compelled a reliance on wild game for meat, hides, and animal fiber. The absence of any animal equivalent to the ox forestalled the development of plows and wheeled vehicles as well as grassy plant domesticates similar to Eurasian wheat and barley, which require plow technology.
Despite the limits of native agriculture, the Adena culture was wide spread from Indiana to New York and from central Ohio south to Kentucky, but Southern Ohio seems to be the center of their culture simply because of the size and number of mounds found here. In Ohio alone, they built ten thousand mounds of earth, and in fifteen hundred different places they built walls of earth and stone around spaces sometimes as large as 300 acres.
Like the rest of the Woodlands peoples, the Adena lived in small temporary villages and continued to migrate from spot to spot within a broad geographical area. However, the Adena peoples were distinct from their neighbors in that they were evolving toward a more complicated pattern of sociopolitical organization.
The mounds they left give clues to this complex structure. Some have suggested Adena leadership followed a "Big Man" pattern (later know as “Chief”). Historian Otis Rice suggests these early Americans "built mounds over the remains of leaders, shamans, priests, and other honored dead." For their "common folk," the Adena cremated the dead bodies, placing the remains in small log tombs on the surface of the ground.
By 100 B.C., some of the Adena groups had begun to build larger earthworks and expand their efforts to acquire exotic raw materials. The Adena's extensive trading network is confirmed by finds of materials native to the Southeast, North and South. These groups became known as the Hopewell culture, but many people continued to follow the old ways and in some regions, such as southwestern Ohio, the Adena culture persisted well into the 1st century A.D.
The Adena and Hopewell mounds along with the Hopewell system of trade suggest to us that the people lived in a stratified society with a leadership of individuals who were responsible for negotiating and maintaining the necessary contacts and exchanges. Exactly what type of leadership this was is not known.
Other archaeologists conjecture a pattern firmly rooted in kinship principles, with lineage and /or clan heads acting as the conduits for exchange between local and regional groups. This latter hypothesis is based on the interpretation of the many Hopewell animal effigy smoking pipes recovered from burial mounds as representing clans or lineages, somewhat similar to clans named after animals by some later Native American groups.
According to this hypothesis, then, Adena society was divided into a series of rank-ordered lineages with each of the primary burial centers used by one or more of the lineages as the final resting place for its leaders.
In addition to their sociopolitical organization, archaeological evidence proves that the Adena had highly developed social customs and religious rites, and they had a thriving artistic community. We know from finds that the Adena were skilled potters and sculptors, making pottery and small effigy sculptures out of clay and stone. In addition to clay, they made bowls and other household utensils from wood and stone.

D. The Demise of the Mound Builders
For some reason the Adena stopped building the massive earthworks that were so predominant throughout the southern half of the Ohio country. Why did the building stop? Did some force wipe out the Adena or cause them to move away? Contemporary archaeologists have never recovered any written historical references to this activity.
That is not to say no evidence exists, but only that no one one has yet made such a discovery. Just as the pyramid builders in the Mid-East stopped building pyramids, just as the Stonehenge builders stopped erecting great stone works, so too did the mound builders of Ohio stop.
The fate of the Adena is truly unknown. We know from evidence that the Mound Builders evolved over the centuries. Technologies changed, rituals changed, farming changed. At some point their culture stopped being identified with a central location. Did that mean they no longer existed as a people? Did some internal conflicts or power struggles cause the breakup of the culture? No one can say for certain. There is certainly no shortage of theories about the Mound Builders, where they came from and why they stopped. When a civilization has no preserved written history, the fate of that civilization is left to speculation.
Here are a few of the more plausible speculations:
  • Conflict with stronger, more dominant cultures
  • Crop pestilence
  • Disease or plague
Many experts believe that warfare and invading tribes contributed to the end of their way of life.
One theory is that beginning around 1650 AD, the powerful Iroquois tribe drove out the other native tribes from Ohio. The Iroquois had already hunted most of the beaver from areas in the East, and they moved into Ohio in search of more furs to trade with Europeans. The Iroquois were in turn driven out by the Shawnee, Delaware, Wyandot, and Miami tribes, which were probably the tribes present in the Ohio area when European settlers first arrived.
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.
The Myth of the Lost Race of Mound Builders

The Prairies
“And burn with passion? Let the mighty mounds
That overlook the rivers, or that rise
In the dim forest crowded with old oaks,
Answer. A race, that long has passed away,
Built them; - a disciplined and populous race....
The red man came
The roaming hunter tribes, warlike and fierce,
And the mound-builders vanished from the earth.
The solitude of centuries untold
Has settled where they dwelt.”
  • 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.”
By 1800, the mystery of the tens of thousands of mounds in the eastern United States called out for a solution, and that solution was not to be found in the Native Americans, who were considered too lazy to have constructed such great works. The Euro-Americans then conjectured that the mounds had to have been the work of some superior lost white race.

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."
So, what were the colonial justifications emerging from the Mound Builder myth? Precisely this – if Indians killed a white race, the white race was justified in killing or removing them. This political view certainly helped the myth circulate and ascend to such popularity. In particular, frontiersmen who were eager to fulfill Manifest Destiny were very supportive of this myth, as they stood to gain economically from the removal of Indians from their original lands.
The early accounts of Mound Builders claimed they were a race of superior beings, perhaps one of the Lost Tribes of Israel, who were killed off by later people.
James Adair, who traded and lived with American Indians from 1735 until 1775, published The History of the American Indians in 1775, which laid out a biblically based argument for Native Americans as descendants of the Hebrews, some of the lost tribes of Israel. Even Joseph Smith's Book of Mormon, produced in 1830 and widely known in its time, helped develop this merger of the lost tribes of Israel theory with the Mound Builder myth.
This view of the Lost Race persisted. Much later, people who excavated Mound Builder structures claimed that they had found skeletal remains of very tall individuals, who certainly could not be Native Americans. Or so they thought.
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.
Later, in 1878, another discovery was reported in the county of Ashtabula County, Ohio. Mounds were excavated on land belonging to Peleg Sweet, a man of large features. In the first mound, workers unearthed a skull and jaw which were of such size that the skull would cover Sweet's head and the jaw could be easily slipped over his face. Excavating further, they discovered these mounds contained the graves estimated between two and three thousand. Many of the skeletons found were of gigantic proportions.
Here are some other accounts written by the Whites of the Lost Race:
* 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:
Evidence for the occupation of this region before the appearance of the red man and the white race is to be found in almost every part of the county, as well as through the northwest generally. In removing the gravel bluffs, which are numerous and deep, for the construction and repair of roads, and in excavating cellars, hundreds of human skeletons, some of them of giant form, have been found.

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!”
* From the Ironton Register, a small Ohio River town newspaper, dated May 5, 1892,:
Where Proctorville now stands was one day part of a well paved city, but I think the greatest part of it is now in the Ohio river. Only a few mounds, there; one of which was near the C. Wilgus' mansion and contained a skeleton of a very large person, all double teeth, and sound, in a jaw bone that would go over the jaw with the flesh on, of a large man; The common burying ground was well filled with skeletons at a depth of about 6 feet. Part of the pavement was of boulder stone and part of well preserved brick.”
Even Native American legends told of two different races of strange humans that pre-existed their culture. One was the early Archaic people who had slender bodies with long narrow heads.. The other group was the later Adena people who had a massive bone structure with a short head.
The legend told of Archaics living in the Ohio River Valley prior to the Adena culture.

David Cusic, a Tuscarora by birth, wrote in 1825 that the legend tells of an ancient people existing in the Ohio Valley, a powerful Archaic tribe called Ronnongwetowanca. They were giants, and had a "considerable habitation." Cusic said, according to legend, when the Great Spirit made the people, he created some of them as giants. They made themselves feared by attacking when most unexpected.

As the legend goes, in what is assumed to be around 1000 BC, the Adena moved into the area, coming up from the South, to claim dominion over the land.

After having endured the outrages of these native giants for a great long time, the Adena people banded together to destroy them. With a final force of about 800 warriors, they successfully annihilated the abhorrent Ronnongwetowanca. There were no giants anywhere after this, it was said. This was supposed to have happened around 2,500 winters before Columbus arrived in America, i.e. circa 1,000 B.C. – the time that the Adena seem to have arrived in the Ohio Valley. And, from the Adena, the art of mound building was established .
By the late 1870s, scholarly research (led by Cyrus Thomas and Henry Schoolcraft) had discovered and reported there was no physical difference between the people buried in the mounds and modern Native Americans.

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.

Little did I realize one arrowhead would open so much interest. I am determined to read much more about the Adena culture. I think I owe it to those who occupied my homeland so long before me. I believe I should attempt to better understand just who these inhabitants were and how they impacted my county. After all, I have lived with the knowledge of their presence here nearly all my life, and I have never taken the time to study their contributions.
Most of the obligation I feel stems from a feeling of sadness that these people are not even remembered by the name of their native tribe or group. How could this be?
As a European, I feel partly responsible for the displacement of the Adena, even if they were driven from the land by other Native American cultures.
And, as a human being, I feel bitter that such an advanced culture left such a little trace of its proud tradition and history. Accepting the minute documentation we have about the Adena people endows us with a very special and personal gift, yet it also presents us with a challenge to learn more about them.
How can we European Americans not question the origin of the people we eventually displaced? Even if early natives told our distant ancestors that they, the Native Americans, understood themselves as always present in America, the "Spontaneous People," we should investigate their roots with more interest and precision.
In Red Earth, White Lies, Vine Deloria Jr. takes to task European Americans interested in American Indian origins. He argues that little progress has been made in the "scientific" study of Native origins. Deloria says that the major contemporary theory for these origins, the Bering Land Bridge Theory, is simply a redux of racist nineteenth-century arguments: "The Bering strait became first the ecclesiastical and then the scientific trail from Jerusalem to the Americas."
Deloria continues by arguing that, beyond being a remnant of the racist politics of the nineteenth century, the Bering Land Bridge Theory does not fit with "scientific" data, does not mesh with any American Indian oral traditions, and has "existed only in the minds of scientists."
How do we reconcile these positions and feelings with the continued and expanding quest for answers about American Indian origins? Perhaps, we should better open our ears to Native American views and recollections of their own ancestral experiences. I like to think some of them surely know more about their own history than archaeologists who dig in the earth and interpret artifacts. I stare at my Adena point and wonder. It is a touchstone to a past reality that I feel compelled to explore.
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