Posted By Ned Farley on April 19, 2010
“The Hopewell Culture Complex of the Mississippi River Watershed”
The Middle Woodland Period of what is today the American Midwest represents one of the most influential time-periods within the cultural development of this region. Archaeologists recognize the Middle Woodland to be a time when the numerous Amerindian communities inhabiting the Mississippi River Valley and its associated watershed became large year-round settlements connected through a highly organized system of trade. By 1,100 years ago, this trade network had developed into a centralized, urban power structure that culturally unified the entire Mississippi River Valley.
Aztalan State Park in Lake Mills, Wis., and Cahokia State Park, in Collinsville, Ill., represent the north and south extent of archaeological complexes generally referred to as ‘Hopewell’ and ‘Mississippian.’ The term ‘Hopewell’ is derived from an early mound site in central Ohio and its 19th century landowner, Mordecai Hopewell. The earthen structures of Mordecai’s farmstead became the focus of a bourgeoning school of American Archaeology and a national controversy – The mound builder myth;” both were focused on the recordation and explanation of the thousands of mounds found throughout the riverine areas of the Great Lakes Region. Ephraim George Squier and Edwin Hamilton Davis – antiquarians from the frontier community of Chillicothe, Ohio – recorded the physical nature and location of more than one hundred mounds in 1845. They finalized their research in 1848 with the publication of Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley. Today, the term ‘Hopewell’ is unique to archaeological circles, though it would not have been a label used by the diverse language communities that it now represents; it is an archaeological, regional horizon of cultural remains and physical features, describing a unique style of pottery and mortuary practice.
In 1965, archaeologist Stuart Struever reviewed the physical evidence that American archaeologists of the early 20th century used to define the Hopewell complex. After comparing residential and mortuary sites in Ohio and Illinois, he concluded that the Amerindian Midwest was a resource entrepôt. Raw materials arrived in Hopewellian communities from regions throughout the North American continent, appearing as grave goods among a small number of individuals within this mound building culture. “Copper earspools, breastplates, panpipes… cut mica sheets … worked bear-canine teeth … [and a] special class of pottery vessels” became the markers of Hopewellian culture and its increasingly centralized power structure (i.e. they were the “typical … ceremonial items … usually found in [Middle Woodland] burials” (1965, 212).
In order to consolidate this vast network of riverine communities, the Hopewellian politeia had to provide its member groups with an important administrative service. Archaeological evidence from sites throughout the Ohio and Mississippi River Valleys demonstrate social-organizational characteristics unique for their selective food procurement economies. These horticultural or gardening communities differed from earlier Amerindian groups of the Archaic Period (10,500 to 3000 BP).
Prior to the Woodland Period small bands of foragers and hunters migrated throughout the North and South American New World. They gathered food resources from a wide range of locations, utilizing an intimate understanding of seasonal change in local biomes. Small-scale foraging and hunting allowed for a limited number of multi-generation households to coalesce at select times of the year. The possessions, carried by members of these households were few in nature and the technologies associated with their production were easily fashioned from surrounding lithic, faunal, and floral materials. Early tool industries, for example, such as the Dalton Tradition of Southern Illinois, express artifact forms fashioned from noncarbonate, nonclastic sedimentary rocks such as microcrystalline chert and metamorphic quartzite (common throughout much of the North American continent).
At the start of the Woodland Period, 3,000 years ago, population sizes increased. More people came to occupy North American watersheds and began to compete for fewer available resources. Additionally, the archaeological record associated with this period demonstrates an increased reliance on domesticated vegetative stands. The early horticultural pursuits of communities comprising several family groups witnessed an increase in the number of household architectural features and associated storage-refuse pits. Dependable food resources and annual surpluses were important to the survival of these bourgeoning watershed villages. Small-scale agriculture and the administrative control of natural and domestic land and labor resources were necessary if the communities of the Mississippi and Ohio River Valleys were to remain intact.
Modern researchers believe that the Hopewell archaeological complex and associated artifact and feature horizon was a Woodland system of social and economic control. The shared mortuary practices and grave contents of this mound building tradition eventually provided the scattered Amerindian communities of the Great Lakes-Riverine area with a trade network and centralized power structure. Archaeological evidence from central and southern Illinois and southern Wisconsin demonstrate the proliferation of procurement strategies that were focused on the breeding and harvesting of Pigweed, Acorn, and Sunflower stands. It is believed that these plant types were integral to the urbanization and demographic increases of the period, and that by 1,200 years ago they became the crops important to developing small-scale agricultural traditions. These traditions and the diverse language communities which were bound together by their food surpluses and trade networks are ‘the Hopewell.’
The circular burial mounds and effigy mound shapes that initially characterized this culture complex have come to symbolically represent the unification of the Mississippi and Ohio River watersheds. As is the case with the barrow cultures of Neolithic and Bronze-age Europe these burial practices came to materialistically represent the communities and traditions that were responsible for their construction. Archaeological evidence associated with the contents and surface treatments of their burial chambers demonstrate the presence of a significant urban, state-level structure within the American Midwest that rivaled the contemporary Mayan and Aztecan States of Meso-America.