Hopewell Culture - North America's Mound Building Horticulturalists

Why Did the Hopewell People Build Enormous Mounds?

1862 Map of Newark Earthworks, Ohio
Woodcut map of Newark Earthworks, Ohio, USA. Built during Hopewell culture. 1889 facsimile of 1862 map in Prehistoric Man by Daniel Wilson. NNehring / DigitalVision Vectors / Getty Images

The Hopewell culture (also known as Hopewellian or Adena culture) of the United States refers to a prehistoric society of Middle Woodland (100 BCE–500 CE) horticulturalists and hunter-gatherers. They were responsible for building some of the largest indigenous earthworks in the country, and for obtaining and trading imported, long distance source materials from Yellowstone Park to the Gulf coast of Florida.

Key Takeaways: Hopewell

  • Hunter-gatherer and horticulturalists in the American eastern woodlands between 100 BCE–500 CE 
  • Built numerous large earthworks, which were likely ceremonial centers 
  • Lived in small dispersed settlements 
  • Built and maintained the Hopewell Interaction Sphere, a trade network in exotic raw materials that spanned nearly the entire North American continent

Distribution of Sites

View of Mound City at the Hopewell Culture National Historic Park, near what is today the town of Chillicothe Ohio
View of Mound City at the Hopewell Culture National Historic Park, near what is today the town of Chillicothe Ohio. Marilyn Angel Wynn / Nativestock / Getty Images Plus

Geographically, Hopewell residential and ceremonial sites are located in the American eastern woodlands, concentrated along the river valleys within the Mississippi watershed including parts of the Missouri, Illinois, and Ohio Rivers. Hopewell sites are most common in Ohio (where they are called the Scioto tradition), Illinois (Havana tradition) and Indiana (Adena), but they can also be found in parts of Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, Missouri, Kentucky, West Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, Louisiana, North and South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Florida. The largest cluster of earthworks are found in the Scioto River Valley of southeastern Ohio, an area which is considered by scholars the Hopewell "core."

Settlement Patterns

The Hopewell built some truly spectacular ritual mound complexes out of sod blocks—the best known is the Newark mound group in Ohio. Some Hopewell mounds were conical, some were geometric or effigies of animals or birds. Some of the groups were enclosed by rectangular or circular sod walls; some may have had a cosmological significance and/or an astronomical alignment.

Generally, the earthworks were solely ritual architecture, where nobody lived full time. There is clear ritual activity at the mounds, though, that included the manufacture of exotic goods for burials, as well as feasting and other ceremonies. Hopewell people are thought to have lived in small local communities of between 2–4 families, dispersed along the fringes of rivers and connected to one or more mound centers by shared material cultural and ritual practices.

Rockshelters, if available, were often used as hunting campsites, where meat and seeds may have been processed before returning to base camps.

Hopewell Economy

Mica Raptor Talon Effigy, Hopewell Culture, Ohio, North America
Mica Raptor Talon Effigy, Hopewell Culture, Ohio, North America. John Weinstein © The Field Museum

At one time, archaeologists thought that anyone who built such mounds must have been farmers: but archaeological exploration has clearly identified the builders of the mounds as horticulturalists, who tended stands of seed crops. They built earthworks, participated in long-distance exchange networks, and only periodically traveled to earthworks for social/ceremonial gatherings.

Much of the diet of the Hopewell people was based on hunting white-tailed deer and freshwater fish, and nuts and seeds, supplemented by the tending and shifting slash and burn methods of growing local seed-bearing plants such as maygrass, knotweed, sunflowers, chenopodium and tobacco.

The Hopewell people were semi-sedentary, who exercised a varying degree of seasonal mobility, following the various plants and animals as the weather changed throughout the year.

Artifacts and Exchange Networks

Pipestone National Monument
Winneswissa Falls, in Pipestone National Monument, Minnesota. John Brueske / iStock / Getty Images

Archaeologists still debate how much of the exotic materials found in the mounds and residential areas got there as a result of long-distance trade or as a result of seasonal migrations or long distance travels. But, quite nonlocal artifacts are found in many Hopewell sites, and were manufactured into a variety of ritual objects and tools.

  • Appalachian mountains: Black bear teeth, mica, steatite
  • Upper Mississippi valley: Galena and pipestone
  • Yellowstone: Obsidian and bighorn sheep horns
  • Great Lakes: Copper and silver ores
  • Missouri River: Knife River Flint
  • Gulf and Atlantic coasts: Marine shell and shark's teeth

Hopewell craft specialists made pottery, stone tools, and textiles, in addition to exotic ritual artifacts.

Status and Class

It seems inescapable: there is evidence for the presence of an elite class. A few individuals were buried at the earthen mound sites and interred in complex burial mounds, with lots of exotic and imported grave goods, and show evidence of receiving elaborate mortuary. Their bodies were processed in ritual center charnel houses before being buried in mounds with exotic funerary offerings.

What additional control those individuals had while living, apart from earthbound construction, is difficult to establish. They may have been political leaders of kin-based councils or non-kin sodalities; or they may have been members of some hereditary elite group who were responsible for the feasting and earthwork construction and maintenance.

Archaeologists have used stylistic variations and geographic localities to identify tentative peer polities, small collections of groups that were centered around in one or more mound centers, particularly in Ohio. Relations between the groups were typically nonviolent among different polities based on the relative lack of traumatic injuries on Hopewell skeletons.

The Rise and Fall of the Hopewell

The reason why hunter-gatherer/horticulturalists built big earthworks is a puzzle—the earliest mounds in North America were built by their predecessors, whose archaeological remains are called the American Archaic tradition. Scholars suggest that mound construction occurred as a way to bind small communities together, communities who were mostly confined to waterways, but were too small to build social connections required to support one another in hard times, or to find appropriate marriage partners. If so, then economic relationships might have been established and maintained through public ritual, or mark territory or corporate identity. Some evidence exists suggesting at least some of the leaders were shamans, religious leaders.

Little is known about why Hopewell mound-building ended, about 200 CE in the lower Illinois Valley and about 350–400 CE in the Scioto river valley. There is no evidence of failure, no evidence of widespread diseases or heightened death rates: Basically, the smaller Hopewell sites simply aggregated into larger communities, located away from the Hopewell heartland, and the valleys were largely abandoned.

Hopewell Archaeology

Hopewell archaeology began in the early 20th century with the discovery of spectacular artifacts of stone, shell, and copper from mounds in a complex on Mordecai Hopewell's farm on a tributary stream of the Scioto River in southcentral Ohio. Indigenous peoples living in the region today have argued that "Hopewell" is not an acceptable name for the ancient people, but have not as yet agreed on an acceptable alternative.

There are hundreds if not thousands of archaeological sites associated with Hopewell. Here are a few of the better known.

  • Ohio: Mound City, Tremper mounds, Fort Ancient, Newark Earthworks, Hopewell site, Great Serpent Mound (partly)
  • Illinois: Pete Klunk, Ogden Fettie
  • Georgia: Kolomoki
  • New Jersey: Abbott Farm

Selected Sources