The Hopewell Culture of Ohio: Teaching Native American History

The Hopewell Culture of Ohio: Teaching Native American History
Page content

Features of Hopewell Culture

Earthen Works- built in geometric and circular patterns. Some of these were very complex and connected by roads that were more than a hundred miles long. Recently, some of these have been identified as connected with agricultural production. Others were used for ceremonies, grand feasts and most likely the points of meeting for great exchange networks.

Copper- Extensive use of Copper made into tools, jewelry and ceremonial items including breastplates- imported from north of Lake Superior

Platform Pipes- an extraordinary amount of these have been found and were usually made of steatite which is soapstone and pipestone

Fabrics or Textile Samples- some that have been found are woven so fine that they at first looked as if they were linen. These were used for burial covers, clothes, bags, straps, and mats. Dogbane and Milkweed were identified among other plants used to create their textiles.

Obsidian- shiny black glass created when volcanoes erupt. It was brought in from places such as Wyoming and Utah. It was used to make very sharp blades and knives**.**

Mica- Transluscent and somewhat like glass, although it is actually a mineral used Hopewell people obtained and carved into ornaments and intricate figures. The material appears to have come from people that lived in North Carolina

Galena- lesser known than some of the others, this came from a lead sulfate from places as close as Illinois. It also came from Wisconsin, and Iowa. The crystals may have been used for good luck charms, ornaments and gifts. Sometimes it was ground or pounded into a powder and mixed with bear fat or tallow and used as a silvery body paint

Clay Pottery- Hopewell pots were unique because some had flat bottoms or stood on four separate small legs. Some had stamped designs while others were cord marked.

Steatite- soapstone which was usually dark grey or black and was carved into pipes, and figurines used in rituals and cermonies-

Pearls- These were from freshwater mussels found locally in the Ohio River . They were used for ornaments and decoration on clothing. Copper and pearls were sometimes used together as necklaces or strings for embellishment on ceremonial clothing.

Digging Into History

Dr. Ken Tankersley of University of Cincinnati and his team discovered that the complex earthworks at Shawnee Lookout at the confluence

Hopewell pottery pot with bird design

of the Big Miami River and Ohio River are not an ancient fort for military use, but instead are agricultural canals, ditches and waterways developed by the women of that culture. Hopewell culture lasted from around 300 BC to 400 AD and it was a time of cool, dry climate so this may have been one reason for such elaborate construction.

In addition to this, the results of the work, conducted in 2009 offered evidence of cultural continuity from the time of the Hopewell, through Fort Ancient occupation and finally, to the Shawnee who occupied the site 300 years ago. Another method that Dr. Tankersley is using to look for direct connections between the Shawnee and the Hopewell is to use DNA testing. They will be taking samples of DNA from modern Shawnee and comparing to some from the skeletal remains in the vicinity of Shawnee Lookout. They are using every method available to them, to gather evidence and lay the groundwork for arguments that the Shawnee continued ancient traditions passed on to them from their Hopewell ancestors. Dr. Tankersley believes that this will change how we view modern historical Native Americans who have been thought of as less sophisticated than the mysterious Hopewell, Adena, and Mississippians. There have always been rumors that Iroquois, Sioux, and Cherokee were the direct descendants of the Hopewell. So far there has been no historical evidence and no archaeological evidence to support that.

More work will be done at the site and at other known Hopewell sites in the region in future archaeological excavations. This was just one more very productive season that revealed a tremendous amount of new evidence about the Hopewell and later occupations of the site. There is definitely more work to be done and this information will be updated when more becomes available.

Hopewell Housing and Earthworks

Hopewell houses are still a bit of a mystery to scientists. In the past, most scholars believed that the outlying villages consisted of scattered small settlements and larger villages were located closer to the most prominent earthwork complexes. They believed that there was some seasonal rotation of the villages. Early investigations found dwellings that looked like wigwams because of post holes that revealed sets of arches made of young saplings put into the ground in a circles. These would have most likely been covered with bark or plant fiber mats, or even both. Both sites in Illinois and Ohio have been documented as having oval or rectangular longhouses with somewhat rounded corners. This information would have been obtained from post molds found at these sites.

Dr. Ken Tankersley found houses at the Shawnee Lookout site that were as large as a modern ranch house ranging from twenty five feet long to nearly fifty feet in length. Some were probably houses, while others may have been for council meetings, or other communal uses.

Earthworks - Mathematics played a creative role in the design and implementation of the construction of the mounds and earthen embankments. Some were so massive, it would have taken many calculations on the part of the designers to come up with how many baskets of earth it was going to take to build them. The mystery lies in how some were lined up, matching each perfectly but were many miles apart. Geometric shapes of all kinds were selected and used. We know that some of these were used for elaborate rituals connected with the exchange of exotic materials from far away places. Others were used for agricultural purposes, while still others were used for burials and ceremonies associated with them. Charnal houses were used to house the dead were sometimes burned during ceremonial prayers and chants. Some of the earthworks most likely were built for several purposes including ceremonies connected to religious beliefs and some involving ritual exchange

The climate seems to have played a role in the need for locks, canals and waterways that fed water to their crops. Terraces and irrigations channels had to be dug precisely in order to get the right amount of water at the right time. Some of the architects of the agricultural works appears to have been women. Men have always been thought of as traditional builders of great monuments, however in the case of the Hopewell, current evidence points to women having major roles in these endeavors. Math skills for men and women had to be extremely important to those who held leadership positions and the responsibility for the calculations needed to build roads connecting their exchange networks. The need to know how much food a group might need to travel from one location to another was also a primary concern. Math and geometry were extremely important in the lives of the Hopewell people over 2000 years ago.

*Teachers: Encourage students to think about the complexity of this culture with its vast exchange networks and earthworks

1. Ask students how they would organize an exchange of objects between three or more people and keep it organized

2. Ask students to compare / contrast some of the complex traits of the Hopewell with those of modern society

Basics of Hopewell Culture

Society: Scientists now believe that the Hopewell had a society comprised of different ranks or positions. There seems to have been priests, headmen or chiefs that ranked at the high end of the scale.There were probably sacred priests or even people designated specifically with certain types of knowledge regarding some of the most elaborate mounds, burials and platforms.

Subsistence: Hopewell were becoming more agricultural but relied on small game and fish as well. Archaeologists believe that the farmers among the people began selection of wild plants for certain traits such as Maygrass. They would save the larger seeds from these wild plants and use them only for planting new gardens the following spring. Food growing success was instrumental in population growth. There is one estimate along the Illinois River which suggests there were 50 people for every square mile. This is a denser population than the population of the region today.


Hopewell Clothing

Ornaments were worn head to foot. Women’s hair was pinned back with dowels of wood or bone in a bun or knot and a long sort of ponytail. When nursing, women wore their hair braided and tied up in a shorter ponytail that was held together by a mesh or net-like bag. Typical male hairstyle seems to have been shaved on the sides with the top with their hair pulled back into a bun in the back. As for male dress, a warrior wore a loincloth of dyed material of plant fibers such as dogbane, nettle or milkweed (Dr. Kathryn Jakes from Ohio State U.) with patterns created from dyed fibers used in the weaving. He carried a long spear, used an atlatl, wore various necklaces of bone, shell, and stone beads including bear claws, shark teeth ,and other exotic items.

Some of the textiles or fabric created by Hopewell weavers is as delicate and fine as linen or silk. What they have found so far comes from local plant fibers and is made using a “twining” technique. This technique is ancient and involves no loom, only the use of cordage or twine, dyes and a simple frame. Due to the cremations of so much of the population, it has been difficult to locate much of the textile materials. Some which was laid adjacent to copper ornaments has survived and offered rare glimpses of this technology.

Teachers: Have students research how far back examples of textiles have been found in other cultures around the world

Engaging Activities for Students

Questions for Your Students

1. The majority of the population lived in small wigwams.

True or False

2. The Hopewell people had a very simple life and did not do much trading with their neighbors.

True or False

3. The Hopewell used several unique materials that were “imported” or exchanged from other people living in areas far from Hopewell settlements. Which set of materials were all found in Ohio Hopewell sites?

A. Mica, Copper, Aluminum, Iron, Textiles, Pottery

B. Silver, Galena, Onyx, Obsidian, Turquoise

C. Galena, Obsidian, Mica, Steatite, Copper

D. Copper, Jade, Ivory, Gold, Red Ochre

Correct Answer: C

4. Earthworks built by Hopewell had different purposes. Circle all that apply.

A. Celebrations

B. Agriculture

C. Charnel Houses

D. Ceremonies

The correct answers are A. B. C. D.

5. Up until now, no one tribe was connected to the Hopewell directly. As of 2009, which tribe is believed to be directly linked to them?

A. Shawnee

B. Delaware

C. Miami

D. None

Suggestion for Activities:

Field Trip to some of the Hopewell sites in Ohio that are part of the historical sites preserved by the State. Check the Ohio Historical Website for times various sites are open from spring through fall.

While on a field trip, have students bring notepad and pencil and see if they can map out one of the sites and then compare it to other similar sites. Find out what each one was used for specifically

Assign a research topic to each student or have them choose from a list of materials given in this lesson such as galena, mica or copper. Have each student try to find out the origins of the material, who might have had access to it, and how it got to the Hopewell of Ohio. Have them trace routes that might have been used from the source, around swamps, lakes, forests,etc. Then have them decide how that object might have been used by the Hopewell. Some objects were used on clothing as ornaments, other raw materials were made into pipe bowls, pottery, or made into textiles. Have them decide if there was more than one use and more than one source for the materials.



Michabo - The Great Hare

(Miami, Shawnee, and all Algonquins – as witnessed from materials recovered from the Hopewell site by Charles Willoughby)

The Great Hare, the Algonquian culture hero, was the creator of the world. He was supposed to possess the power for creating life in others. He was chief of all of the animals. In ancient times, he caused man to be born from the dead bodies of the first of these animals who died. This was why the Native Shawnee, Miami and other Algonquins believed their ancestors were a type of animal. In his journeying over the earth, Michabo destroyed many ferocious monsters on land and water who were trying to harm humans. One of these monsters was the Great-Horned Serpent. The fossil bones of extinct animals, when found were said to be the remains of monsters destroyed by the Great Hare.

He placed beings (the four winds?) one at each of the four cardinal points of the earth. The being in the east supplied light and started the sun on its daily journey. The being in the south supplied warmth, heat, and dew which aided the growth of corn, beans, and squash. It also helped plants and trees to bear fruit. The being in the west sent cooling and life-giving showers. The being in the north supplied snow and ice, enabling the tracking and successful pursuit of wild animals. Under the care of the man-being of the south, lesser beings were placed, dominantly bird-like in form.

Throughout the entire Algonquian area, the people never tired of gathering around their campfires and repeating the stories of Michabo. He was the highest spirit being recognized by them. The story has been retold among the Shawnee, Miami, Lenape, Ojibwa, and other Algonquins, including the Powhatan in Virginia who also speak a dialect of Algonquin. It has taken many forms and has been passed down for hundreds of years.

This is another link in the chain connecting historic Algonquin people such as the Shawnee and others to the ancient Hopewell.

Resources to Follow-Up With Students

Websites to visit with more information on Hopewell

Ohio Historical Society Virtual First Ohioans, The Hopewell Culture


Hartman, Sheryl,Natives Along the Wabash & Ohio Teacher Resource Book, Piankeshaw Trails Publications 2010188 PagesReproducibles for students and Teacher Background Materials

Roza, Greg, The Adena, Hopewell, and Fort Ancient of Ohio (Library of Native Americans) Powerkids Press 2005 Ages 9-12

Woodward, Susan and Mc Donald, Jerry, Indian Mounds of the Middle Ohio Valley: A Guide to Mounds and Earthworks of the Adena, Hopewell, Cole, and Fort Ancient People, McDonald and Woodward Publishing Company 2002318 pages , General Audience