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Hopewell Culture

Also referred to as one of the cultures known as the Mound Builders as well as the "Woodland culture," Hopewell refers to a Native American culture that grew out of the earlier Adena culture and that existed from 200 BCE to 400 CE in the eastern Woodlands of the United States. The Hopewell culture is characterized by its monumental earthen structures, complex mortuary rituals, diversified art forms, and vast trade networks known as the Hopewell Interaction Sphere that stretched from the Dakotas and Canada to Florida and Louisiana. Well-known Hopewell sites include Mound City, Ohio; Mound House, Illinois; the Effigy Mound, Iowa; and the Serpent Mound, Ohio. Smaller Hopewell sites are found across the eastern United States. Reasons for the collapse of the Hopewell culture are still unknown: Some scholars attribute it to the evolution of cultural ideas and sole reliance on agriculture, while others state that famine, warfare, and plague destroyed the Hopewell people.

Warren King Moorehead, one of the first archaeologists to work on Hopewell sites, coined the term "Hopewell." It refers to Captain C. M. Hopewell, the owner of the property on which the first excavations of the cultural group occurred. There is no known single point of origin for the Hopewell culture. The universal features shared by all Hopewellian settlements include complex mortuary rituals associated with large mortuary mounds, diversified art, and extensive trade networks. The Hopewell people are considered hunter-gatherers as well as agriculturists, although it is believed that they placed a greater reliance on agriculture than on hunting and gathering. Evidence indicates that the Hopewell exploited a great number of local domesticates, including squash, marsh elder, goosefoot, sunflower, erect knotweed, may grass, little barley, sump weed, and chenopod. The Hopewell people also exploited local game and riverine resources.

The Hopewell culture is believed to have been made up of multiple chiefdom settlements, the majority of which were clustered around major waterways and areas with plentiful resources. These settlements varied in size, though an average settlement had a population density between 1,290 and 4,500 people. Permanent settlements were created around the periphery of a central ceremonial complex and were often made up of single-family or extended-family communities. There is evidence of social stratification within Hopewellian societies, as illustrated through their mortuary rituals.

The Hopewell people are known for their complex mortuary rituals consisting of monumental earthen mounds as well as funerary rituals that took a couple of months to years to complete. Hopewell people also had various types of funerary customs that appear to be reserved for certain status groups. Excavations of mortuary mounds have yielded information illustrating this practice as related to the status of the deceased through the evidence of differing burial treatment. The dead were interred in a variety of ways: primary burials, burial shortly after death, laid out in either an extended or flexed, or fetal, position; secondary bundle burials, burial after the removal of the flesh from the bones, be it from an extended period of time or intentional removal of the flesh from the bones; and cremations.

Social stratification is illustrated in Hopewell burials through the diversity of burial goods, or the lack there of, found with the deceased. Many burials have been found with a rich assortment of grave items, including clothing, fabrics, costuming, household items such as cooking pots and grinding stones, and occupational items such as bone needles and projectile points of varying degrees of craftsmanship and material types. Items that are formed from rare or exotic materials are believed to be associated with higher-status individuals, and the lack of grave goods in a burial is believed to be associated with lower-status individuals, which is evidence of social stratification within the Hopewell culture. There is also a notable gender difference in the distribution of burial goods, with household items associated with women and hunting items associated with men. There do not appear to be any patterns associated with age and gender for burial type that are universal for the Hopewell culture.

Burial mounds are geometric structures with a charnel house at the summit. The charnel houses were the locations for ritualized cremation ceremonies. It is also believed that both the charnel houses and the mounds were aligned with an astronomical body such as the moon. Given the diversity of mortuary rituals utilized by the Hopewell people, it is believed that it may have taken months to years for these rituals to be completed and they were undertaken by groups of people. It is further believed that the family of the deceased may have helped with these mortuary rituals.

The monumental earthworks of the Hopewell are associated not just with mortuary ritual but with general ceremonial practices as well. Religion may have played a role in the creation of these earth-works. These mounds take the shape of various geometric designs and span wide areas. The most famous of these geometrically shaped mounds is Serpent Mound in Adams County, Ohio, although it is unclear if the Hopewell peoples or a previous cultural group built this mound structure. Other shapes include squares, circles, ovals, semicircles, and combinations of these.

There is evidence outside of the mounds themselves that points to the presence of shamanistic religious practices within Hopewell culture. Such evidence includes animal effigies, the use of animal symbolism in Hopewell artworks, and household artifacts. A number of sacrificial caches have been found within Hopewell settlements that are associated with the dominant religious practice. These sacrificial caches included effigy pipe, flint disk, shell bead, pearl and copper celt caches. The effigy pipe and shell bead caches showed evidence of intentional ritual sacrifice as they were "killed"—that is, rendered useless by holes punched through them.

Artifacts common in Hopewell culture include ceramic vessels, various types of smoking and effigy pipes, clay human figurines, conch shell artifacts, mica mirrors, panpipes, flint bladelets, nonutilitarian celts, awls, projectile points, modified human remains, jewelry, weaponry and armor, fabrics, buttons, beads, cutouts, and tinklers. These artifacts were created out of a variety of local and nonlocal materials, including animal and human bone, vegetation, and minerals such as copper, iron, galena, hematite, silver, gold, mica, quartz crystal, chalcedony, hornstone, pipestone, sandstone, steatite, gypsum, and cannel coal. Animal and human motifs are illustrated in many of the commonplace artifacts and are not limited to ceremonial artifacts. Hopewell pottery is known to have been cord-marked (imprinted with rope while the clay was still wet to leave a textured design upon firing); rocker-stamped (produced by rocking a sharp instrument back and forth across the wet clay before firing); and incised (geometric designs scratched into the wet clay).

Although it appears that local resources were exploited most often, the use of nonlocal resources (such as obsidian, silver, and mica) for the creation of various artifacts supports the long-distance trading network that the Hopewell culture is known for: the Hopewell Interaction Sphere. The term was first coined by archaeologist Joseph R. Caldwell in 1964 and is defined as being a long-distance trade network that spanned from the Dakotas and Canada to Florida and Louisiana. This trade network is also credited for being the reason for the spread of Hopewell culture throughout the eastern Woodlands. It is also from this vast trade network that it is believed that the Hopewell peoples spoke either various dialects of the same language or different languages. This is unclear as there is no evidence of the Hopewell having any form of written language.

Evidence of the fall of the Hopewell culture indicates that it started around 200 CE in some areas and that the culture had completely fallen everywhere by 400. Various hypotheses exist to explain the decline. One hypothesis states that the culture evolved into a more advanced version of itself due to the emergence and acceptance of maize agriculture. Another hypothesis states that the Hopewell peoples disappeared due to plagues, warfare, or drought. Presently there is not sufficient evidence to support either of these hypotheses.

Christine Elisabeth Boston


Further Reading
Dancey, William S., and Paul J. Pacheco. 1997. "A Community Model of Ohio Hopewell Settlement." In Ohio Hopewell Community Organization. Edited by William S. Dancey and Paul J. Pacheco, 3–40. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press.; Dancey, William. 2005. "The Enigmatic Hopewell of the Eastern Woodlands." In North American Archaeology. Edited by Timothy R. Pauketat and Diana Dipaolo Loren, 108–137. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.; Milner, George. 2004. The Moundbuilders: Ancient Peoples of Eastern North America. London: Thames and Hudson.; Romain, William F. 2000. Mysteries of the Hopewell: Astronomers, Geometers, and Magicians of the Eastern Woodlands. Akron, OH: University of Akron Press.
 

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