Article

The Hopewell tradition stretched from the Rocky Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean.

Map courtesy Voyageur Media Group, Inc., The Ohio Historical Society, and Hopewell Culture National Historical Park

Hopewell Habitat
Although [the Hopewell] lived in scattered little villages all over the place, they did gather periodically at these amazing earthwork centers like the Newark Earthworks or Fort Ancient or Mound City. Chillicothe seems to have been the center of this.
Brad Lepper, curator of archaeology at the Ohio Historical Society

Capitol City
Chillicothe is a Shawnee word that means "principal town." The present-day Ohio city was once a center for Hopewell culture.

What's in a Name?
The term Hopewell is derived from Mordecai Cloud Hopewell, who owned a farm where earthworks were excavated in the 1890s.

By Stuart Thornton

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

In the Ohio River Valley, large mounds and earthen walls that reach more than 3 meters (12 feet) high are remnants of a people who resided in the region from 200 BCE to 500 CE. Perhaps more impressive than the mounds and earthworks of the Hopewell tradition—a culture that included various Native American tribes—are a collection of artifacts suggesting they had regular contact with cultures thousands of kilometers away.

Among the items found near the earthworks in Ohio are fossilized shark’s teeth that either came from the Gulf Coast or a southern part of the East Coast. Copper and silver used in jewelry was mined in the northern Great Lakes region. The collection includes mirrors made from mica, a mineral commonly found in the Appalachian Mountains. Spear points found in the region were made of obsidian, a volcanic glass that has been traced to what is today Yellowstone National Park in Montana, more than 2,400 kilometers (1,500 miles) away.

Brad Lepper, curator of archaeology at the Ohio Historical Society in Columbus, says there is reason to believe the Hopewell did not acquire the obsidian through trade.

“The obsidian is really interesting, because if it were from trade from village to village, you would expect there to be a trail of obsidian from Montana to Ohio,” he says. “And there really isn’t.”

Nor is there evidence of the region being a trade hub, where goods are collected and redistributed, he says.

The artifacts were amassed somehow, however, and archaeologists have come up with a theory.

Hopewell Interaction Sphere

Rather than calling this ancient system a trade network, archaeologists who study the relationship between the Hopewell people and other far-flung cultures of the time call it the Hopewell Interaction Sphere.

Bret Ruby, an archaeologist at Hopewell Culture National Historic Park in Chillicothe, Ohio, says the term describes the long-distance sharing of certain artifact styles and raw materials, including copper, mica, and marine shells.

“These things are moving over the whole eastern U.S., but it is not necessarily a trade network,” he says. “In fact, in a number of cases, we can show it wasn’t trade.”

So how did all of these exotic objects end up with the Hopewell? There are two theories.

“A lot of what people had traditionally called trade is probably direct procurement,” Ruby says. “It’s people going out from Ohio and bringing these exotic things back.”

The other theory has to do with the mounds and walls that dot the Ohio River Valley. The monumental structures were arranged in various shapes and in some cases covered hundreds of acres.

“Another thing that could be going on is that these big earthwork centers in Ohio were probably widely known,” Ruby says. “They were built over a period of hundreds of years. They are awesome to see, so people knew about them. It’s also likely people went as pilgrims from distant places to Ohio to visit these great religious centers,” bringing the objects with them.

Lepper agrees with the second theory.

“I think that during the Hopewell era in the Middle Woodland period, Ohio was this nexus, this cultural center for much of eastern North America,” he says.

Lepper notes that there have been small amounts of flint from Flint Ridge in Newark, Ohio, found in Pinson Mounds, Tennessee. He believes this is further evidence of the Ohio earthworks being pilgrimage sites.

“For me, the interpretation of that is that these massive offerings of thanksgiving or supplication are being brought to Newark, and what people are taking away are pilgrim’s tokens,” he says.

Lepper even has some ideas on how the Hopewell or pilgrims visiting them might have traveled.

“In terms of evidence, I don’t think we have identified any definitive Hopewell roads,” Lepper says. “But we have identified sources of raw material and endpoints. They could have either followed a direct overland route, which is unlikely. Or they could have followed streams. You could just jump on the Missouri River and go to the Mississippi River then go up the Ohio River and Scioto River, and you’d be there in less time and less effort.”

Ruby says the existence of the Hopewell Interaction Sphere might correct a misconception about ancient cultures like the Hopewell.

“I think it’s good for people to know that there were these continent-spanning journeys happening, that people weren’t isolated,” he says. “We have this picture that people were isolated in little villages, not in contact. In fact, there is all this evidence that for thousands of years, people were moving and in contact with one another.”

Vocabulary

Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry

accumulation

Noun

a buildup of something.

acquire

Verb

to get or take possession of.

amass

Verb

to gather.

ancient

Adjective

very old.

archaeologist

Noun

person who studies artifacts and lifestyles of ancient cultures.

artifact

Noun

material remains of a culture, such as tools, clothing, or food.

continent

Noun

one of the seven main land masses on Earth.

Encyclopedic Entry: continent

copper

Noun

chemical element with the symbol Cu.

curator

Noun

person who designs, assembles, and manages an exhibit at a museum or other cultural center.

earth

Noun

soil or dirt.

earthwork

Noun

constructed mound, wall, or other feature made of soil.

exotic

Adjective

foreign or strange.

far-flung

Adjective

spread over a great distance.

flint

Noun

hard stone that sparks when struck with steel.

fossilize

Verb

to become a solid mineral.

Great Lakes

Noun

largest freshwater bodies in the world, located in the United States and Canada. Lake Huron, Lake Ontario, Lake Michigan, Lake Erie, and Lake Superior make up the Great Lakes.

Hopewell

Noun

(500 BCE-200 CE) people and cultures of a trading network in the Mississippi and Ohio Valleys of North America.

Hopewell Interaction Sphere

Noun

exchange network surrounding a nexus in southern Ohio, stretching to the East and Gulf coasts and the Rocky Mountains.

jewelry

Noun

ornaments and decorations worn on the body.

marine

Adjective

having to do with the ocean.

massive

Adjective

very large or heavy.

mica

Noun

type of mineral that can be split into thin, see-through sheets.

Middle Woodland

adjective, noun

(380 BCE-500 CE) time period in the development of eastern Native American cultures.

mine

Verb

to extract minerals from the Earth.

mineral

Noun

inorganic material that has a characteristic chemical composition and specific crystal structure.

misconception

Noun

misunderstanding or false statement.

nexus

Noun

central region or hub.

obsidian

Noun

black glass formed as lava cools above ground.

pilgrim

Noun

person who travels to a place for a religious or spiritual reason.

procure

Verb

to get, buy, or obtain.

raw material

Noun

matter that needs to be processed into a product to use or sell.

region

Noun

any area on the Earth with one or more common characteristics. Regions are the basic units of geography.

Encyclopedic Entry: region

religion

Noun

a system of spiritual or supernatural belief.

reside

Verb

to live in a place.

silver

Noun

chemical element with the symbol Ag.

stream

Noun

body of flowing fluid.

supplication

Noun

act of religious humility or prayer.

token

Noun

material, usually similar to a coin, that may be exchanged for specific goods or services.

trade

Noun

buying, selling, or exchanging of goods and services.

village

Noun

small human settlement usually found in a rural setting.

Encyclopedic Entry: village

volcanic

Adjective

having to do with volcanoes.

Credits

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Writer

Stuart Thornton

Editor

Jeannie Evers
Kara West

Producer

Caryl-Sue, National Geographic Society

User Permissions

For information on user permissions, please read our Terms of Service.

If you have questions about licensing content on this page, please contact natgeocreative@ngs.org for more information and to obtain a license.

If you have questions about how to cite anything on our website in your project or classroom presentation, please visit our FAQ page.

Media

Some media assets (videos, photos, audio recordings and PDFs) can be downloaded and used outside the National Geographic website according to the Terms of Service. If a media asset is downloadable, a download button appears in the lower right hand corner (download) of the media viewer. If no button appears, you cannot download or save the media.

Text

Text on this page is printable and can be used according to our Terms of Service.

Interactives

Any interactives on this page can only be played while you are visiting our website. You cannot download interactives.