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Ohio Prehistory


Prehistory is defined as the period before the development of written records. The first written records associated with Ohio come from the mid-1600s, and this is considered the beginning of the historic period in this region. The Prehistoric Era in Ohio is divided into four periods: The Paleo-Indian Period (12,000-7,000 B.C.); The Archaic Period (8,000-500 B.C.); The Woodland Period (1,000 B.C.-A.D. 1,000); and the Late Prehistoric Period (A.D. 900-1,650). For more on Ohio Prehistory

Paleoindian 13,000 - 8000 BC
The first people to enter the western hemisphere, known as Paleoindians, arrived between 13,000 and 8000 BC during the Pleistocene Epoch, or commonly known as the “Ice Age.” The landscape was very different from that of the modern world. Canada and the northern United States were covered in two glacial ice sheets – the Laurentide and Cordilleran. Flint PointsGlobal sea levels were approximately 120 meters lower than modern sea level since much of the world’s water was frozen in massive polar ice caps and glaciers.

Although popular depictions of the Ice Age often depict the world as an endless icy wasteland, most regions were green and populated by diverse flora and fauna. This included many species that are now extinct or no longer reside in the same areas. “Megafauna” such as mammoths, mastodons, giant ground sloths, giant armadillos, short-faced bears, saber-toothed cats, and giant beavers thrived on the land. Paleoindians hunted many of these species using a spear and atlatl.

Although glaciers blocked human and animal migration in some regions, the Pleistocene world was not one composed entirely of ice and snow. Plant and animal life thrived even in the far North where ocean and air currents left some areas unglaciated. A land bridge, known as Beringia, connected Asia and North America and this ice-free tundra may have served as a migration route for the earliest Americans. Archaeologists no longer agree on how, where or when humans first entered the continent, but the traditional interpretation is that they crossed through Beringia into Alaska sometime around 15,000 years ago. The discovery of new sites and other new sources of information in the past decade have led many archaeologists to question this long-held interpretation. One hypothesis that has been gaining support in recent years is the suggestion that the earliest Americans traveled from Siberia to western North America by boats along the ancient coastline. Other more controversial hypotheses include travel from Europe to eastern North America by watercraft or on pack-ice. The peopling of the Americas is currently one of the most controversial and dynamic topics within the professional archaeological community.

Paleoindians were hunter-gatherers, as were all people in the world at this time. They hunted megafauna, but also hunted many other species that we still find in North America today, including deer, caribou, and small game. In addition to hunting, they may have spent even more time gathering wild foods, such as fruit, nuts, roots, and other edible plant foods. They lived in small groups of less than fifty, with kinship playing a substantial role in social organization. A hunting and gathering economy usually requires people to remain mobile throughout the year, moving every few weeks or months to exploit resources in other areas. Consequently, Paleoindians did not build permanent settlements, though they likely returned to many of the same camp sites each year in a predictable cycle.

Archaic 8000 - 1000 BC
Ax head This period is the longest of the prehistoric periods defined by archaeologists, lasting over 7000 years. This time period encompasses many changes in human behavior and the surrounding environment, including climate change, population growth, and technological innovation. Archaic people practiced the same hunting and gathering economy as their Paleoindian predecessors, though in an environment that roughly resembled that of Ohio in modern times. Megafauna that became extinct were no longer available to hunt, but the expansion of deciduous trees into the region allowed them to exploit other resources such as hazelnuts, acorns, hickory, black walnuts, and chestnuts. The Archaic Period is subdivided into three small periods – Early, Middle, and Late Archaic.

Archaic people were highly mobile, but probably spent most of their time living within a loosely defined home territory. Their tool kit included many of the same tools found in the Paleoindian period, but without the distinctive fluted points used by the earlier hunters. Spear points were typically long and broad and they used atlatls to throw their spears. Towards the end of the Archaic period, mysterious ground stone objects were manufactured from slate. Many archaeologists suspect that some of these objects, often called “bannerstones,” “pendants,” or “gorgets,” are counterweights that were attached to atlatls.

In the Middle and Late Archaic, other new tools were introduced. These include the earliest axes, which are suggestive of the increasing importance of trees and nuts in the Archaic economy. Plummets and “net-sinkers” may represent a similar growing emphasis on aquatic resources such as fish and shellfish. Heavy stone bowls are rarely found, but show evidence for the processing of seeds or nuts. In general, the Archaic economy is remarkable for its diversity on a wide range of natural resources, which was an effective long-term adaptation to a changing environment. Archaic people were the first to experiment with growing food sources, including squash, sunflower, and marsh elder.

Small Archaic campsites are common, especially in the Early and Late Archaic. Most represent brief, single-use campsites, but there are a few larger settlements with hearths, earth ovens, deep storage pits and middens. The Archaic people typically buried their dead in the vicinity of large camp sites to which they regularly returned each year. Burials indicate a division of labor and social status. Some men were buried with stone spear points and hunting equipment while women were buried with bone awls, needles, and stone scrapers. Goods from distance regions appear in burials as well – flint from Indiana, copper from Lake Superior region, and shells from the Atlantic and Gulf Coast. Not all people were treated equally in death, indicating that status was achieved by personal accomplishments, not by heredity.

Early Woodland 1000 BC - AD 50
Pottery and points The Early Woodland represents several major changes in lifeways from the preceding Archaic periods: increasing sedentism, the introduction of pottery, cultivating plants as a food source, implementing more complex mortuary practices, building mounds and earthen enclosures, and the introduction of exotic materials from distant locales. These transformations emerged slowly, but all continued to grow in importance in subsequent cultural periods. Archaeologists often use the term “Early Woodland” interchangeably with “Adena” as a name for the first woodland culture in the Ohio River Valley. Some archaeologists prefer to use “Adena” only to describe mortuary behavior.

The Adena people built conical mounds and small circular earthen enclosures, which were typically built in prominent locations, often at the edges of river valleys. These structures were highly-visible public monuments which may have served as a boundary of territories and a way to demonstrate wealth and power. These monuments also are interpreted as a place for communities to come together and mourn the dead, celebrate marriages, and hold festivities or conduct ceremonies. Small earthen enclosures appear unrelated to mortuary practices, but were likely ceremonial and social centers for small groups of people.

Burial rituals varied greatly. The deceased might be buried laying on their backs or cremated, buried with and without objects, and might be placed inside or outside a mound. Not all people were buried in mounds since those structures do not contain a representative cross-sample of genders or age groups. Those who were privileged enough to buried in mounds were individuals who held social status in life, perhaps as a shaman, a revered warrior, a respected artisan, community leader, or the family of a leader. Grave offerings included with a burial likewise reflect high social status within the community. Although some Adena mounds, such as the Miamisburg Mound, are very large, these constructions were built slowly in many individual burial events over a long period of time by few people.

The use and importance of exotic raw materials intensified with the Adena. Archaeologists note an influx of copper from the Great Lakes, marine shell from the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, and mica from the southern Appalachian Mountains. This increased use of exotic materials might have been a way to establish economic trade relationships with distant communities that extended to other tangible exchanges of both goods and information. Long-distance trade may also be a way for an individual leader to assert social status or represent “tangible certificates” of good will and support from many groups.

The Early Woodland people were the first to make pottery. Pottery was made from local clay, mixed with tiny coarse pieces of stone to add strength, and formed to the desired shape. Pottery varied in size and shape, but most was thick-walled with straight sides, a cone-shaped base, wide mouth, and straight or flared rim. Some vessels were decorated with stamped or punctuate designs, but most often, it is plain. The pots were large vessels with thick walls, which made them heavy and easily broken. The emergence of pottery indicates that populations were increasingly sedentary since these vessels were difficult to transport.

The Adena people relied on hunting, fishing, and gathering wild resources, but they also began producing significant amounts food through the cultivation of plants. Starchy plants such as sumpweed, sunflower, goosefoot, little barley, squash/gourd, and maygrass were all being cultivated and part of what archaeologists have termed the Eastern Agricultural Complex (EAC). Archaeologists describe this food production as horticulture, which is more similar to gardening than farming. Hunting and gathering remained important which is reflected in tool kits, which might include side-notched, corner-notched, triangular, and teardrop-shaped points, blades, drills, scrapers, grooved axes, and celts.

Middle Woodland 50 BC - AD 450
canine earpiece point This period is marked by the emergence of the Hopewell people, who are remarkable for their elaborate burial practices, large and complex earthworks, acquisition of massive and diverse collections of exotic raw materials, refined artistic styles, and innovations in stone tool and ceramic technology. Although the term “Hopewell” is used to describe many contemporary peoples throughout all of Eastern North America during the Middle Woodland, the Ohio Hopewell are regarded by most archaeologists to be the most extraordinary of all these various peoples. Many would regard the Illinois Hopewell as a similarly spectacular cultural fluorescence, though it is no accident that the term Hopewell by which many prehistoric people are denoted is a term that originated in Ohio. Indeed, the Ohio Hopewell intrigued early scholars to such a degree that this mysterious culture undoubtedly played a major role in starting American archaeology. Unfortunately, the physical prominence of Hopewell earthworks to early American explorers resulted in extensive damage to most of our largest and most famous earthworks. Destructive indiscriminate excavations, especially during the late 1800s, yielded large collections of artifacts still present in many museums, but often with poor associated contextual data.

Within Ohio, Hopewell earthworks are most prominent in the valleys of the Great and Little Miami rivers, the Scioto River, and the Muskingum River. There are few comparable sites in surrounding states. Hopewell communities were located in small clearings with a rich environment – mostly on the Glaciated Allegheny Plateau of south-central Ohio. Here the groups had access to a variety of resources including those of primeval forest, prairie, and river.

Though the structure of Hopewell economy and settlement is similar to those of the Early Woodland period, there are more settlements, with a higher concentration in major valleys. Despite the impressive accomplishments of the Hopewell, most settlements are not what could be described as “villages.” They are more accurately termed “hamlets.” These hamlets were multi-seasonal and permanent, but were comprised of only one or a few houses.

Houses were generally square and constructed of log posts woven with small branches and twigs that were then covered with bark or daub (a clay and grass mixture). Most houses were about 20-30 ft long and the roof was covered with thatch, reeds, or bark. Each house probably had cooking and activity areas surrounding it with the trashpits, or middens, located downwind or out of sight.

Like their Early Woodland predecessors, the Hopewell people grew plants of the Eastern Agricultural Complex and also relied on hunting and gathering. The Hopewell did not practice an economy that yielded massive surplus or material wealth, but instead practiced an economic strategy that was diverse and consequently stable. Although the production and harvesting of resources was simple, it was one that was sustainable for nearly half a millennium.

The artwork of these people depicts various animals, with deer, bear, and birds appearing most frequently. In particular, animal effigies are common in the form of carved stone pipes. The bowls of the pipes are carved into effigies in which the animal effigy would face the smoker. This is thought to represent the guardian spirit of the shaman. Spectacular caches of effigy pipes have been recovered from two mounds – one at Mound City in Chillicothe and Tremper Mound near West Portsmouth. Hopewell effigy pipes are diverse in the species of animals depicted and if all known effigy pipes were gathered together in one place, they would likely represent most of the large animal species known to the Hopewell. The human form is rarely depicted in Hopewell art, though geometric shapes are also common. With the exception of hilltop enclosures, most earthworks are in the shapes of circles, squares, and octagons.

The Hopewell people of Ohio sought and utilized large amounts of exotic raw materials. They obtained more copper from the Great Lakes region than any other culture, which was used for objects such as earspools and celts. They acquired obsidian from the Rocky Mountains, marine shell from the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, mica from North Carolina, galena from Illinois and Missouri, fresh and marine pearls, steatite, silver, and hematite. This acquisition of exotic materials suggests that they were trading regularly with many other groups in a system labeled the “Hopewell Interaction Sphere.” Although high-quality Ohio flint is found in distant locations, archaeologists do not seem to find equivalent Ohio raw materials distributed across the region to indicate reciprocity. This suggests several interpretations, one of which might be that Ohio Hopewell people traded non-physical offerings, such as specialized ritual knowledge.

Most of what is known about the Hopewell comes from mortuary and ceremonial contexts, with few domestic sites identified. Mortuary sites are often large earthworks enclosing burial mounds that may contain small or large numbers of human burials and cremations. Cremation of the deceased and accompanying burial goods was common, with these cremations taking place in specialized structures known as “charnel houses.” The remains of large wooden structures have been found underneath some large oval-shaped burial mounds. Some of these wood structures are interpreted as “charnel houses” or “Big Houses” which typically are associated with processing and interacting with the deceased, but may have also served other purposes. Some Hopewell burials have been found with large quantities of accompanying goods. The variety of burial practices suggests some level of hierarchy in regards to social status. Women and men are both represented in high status burials and it is likely that women played different, but equally important roles in society.

The Hopewell are most widely known for the building and use of elaborate earthworks and mounds. Earthworks usually fall clearly into two groups: regular geometrically-shaped earthwork complexes and irregularly shaped hilltop enclosures. Geometric earthworks are more common and are often conjoined squares, circles, and/or octagons with associated individual mounds. The regular and consistent layout of geometric earthworks demonstrate that Hopewell people had a consistent unit of measure, and an understanding of mathematics, geometry, and astronomy. Some of the earthworks, such as Newark Earthworks, have astronomical alignments, both lunar and solar to mark certain important times of the year. Some archaeologists claim that there was even a “Great Hopewell Road,” a 60-mile stretch of parallel walls of earth that connected the Newark Earthworks in Newark to Mound City in Chillicothe.

Hilltop enclosures, such as Fort Ancient, are fewer in number and are more predominant in southwestern Ohio. These enclosures are composed of earthen walls that surround a flattened hilltop, sometimes with elaborate gateways. Early scholars in the nineteenth century assumed that these enclosures were defensive in nature and most of them have been given names with the word “Fort” in them such as Fort Ancient in Warren County. More recent work on sites such as the Pollack Works in Greene County has revealed that they are primarily ceremonial with only a secondary defensive function, if any. Hilltop enclosures vary greatly in size, number of “gateways” or openings, and presence of interior mounds or other features.

The Hopewell prospered for perhaps six centuries, but around A.D. 500, the culture “collapsed.” There are many hypotheses and possible causes, but no consensus and little direct archaeological evidence. Culture collapse in general is a subject that archaeologists and historians struggle to define and address. Disease, warfare, and economic failure have been proposed to explain the disappearance of the Hopewell, but modern archaeologists have suggested more sophisticated and complex explanations as well.

For example, the behaviors that archaeologists label as Hopewell may be evidence of status competition between different communities and their corresponding leadership. Assuming this to be an accurate working explanation, the lack of evidence for continuing this social competition could reflect a diverse set of possible causes: a loss of confidence in local leaders due to economic or environmental difficulties; a failure of trade networks supplying those local leaders with prestigious non-local material; or the resolution of that competition to the satisfaction of the participants. In addition, the Hopewell people may have abandoned this competition for status as the needs of local communities changed. If Hopewell people lived in dispersed communities that were led by small groups of leaders whose authority was based on personal status, charisma, and socio-religious position, perhaps those communities grew to the point that such leadership was no longer necessary or productive. In this hypothetical scenario, the Hopewell abandoned that status-based leadership in favor of simple administrators who could manage the economic and social needs of villages and whose authority was not based on competing for status.

Most archaeologists conclude that the evidence does necessarily indicate that the Hopewell people left the Ohio River Valley, were physically harmed by disease or warfare or other causes, or were otherwise eliminated as a population. Although the relationship between the Hopewell and their Late Woodland successors is unclear, there is no doubt that a native population continued to reside in southern Ohio after the demise of the Hopewell culture. There is also, however, no question that these successors did not practice the extravagant and complex behaviors that we define as Hopewell, leaving archaeologists to debate what “Hopewell” represents.

Late Woodland AD 450 - 1000
awl flint stone The Late Woodland is a poorly known time period, but stands in marked contrast to the Middle Woodland. There was a decline or abandonment of building new mounds and monuments, reduction in art production, less use of exotic materials, and a surprisingly complete absence of the traits and behaviors that defined the preceding Hopewell. This period includes three important developmental changes: the introduction of the first villages, an increasing emphasis on corn as a dietary staple, and the introduction of the bow and arrow.

A village was comprised of several houses surrounding a plaza and some villages were surrounded by a stockade or deep ditches. This may indicate a defensive posture, though there is little other evidence suggesting warfare. Villages are indicative of increasing sedentism, which may have been tied to a growing reliance on agriculture. In contrast to the garden-scale horticulture of the Early and Middle Woodland, Late Woodland people focused more intensively on food production in the form of large-scale agriculture based on plants of the Eastern Agricultural Complex and corn. This may be a response to an increased population with an ever greater need to extract more calories from smaller parcels of territory. Squash, gourds, and tobacco were also grown. Nuts, including hickory, black walnuts, and acorns, remained important as a source of protein.

As always in prehistoric Ohio, hunting remained an important source of protein from meat, bone for tools, and hides for clothing. In much of southern Ohio, almost every rockshelter or cave has evidence of a Late Woodland presence. These shelters were used as temporary hunting camps. Ash Cave, in the Hocking Hills region of southeastern Ohio, is an excellent example of a rockshelter and named for the dense ashes found there from thousands of years of continual prehistoric use. Rockshelters are a great asset to archaeologists as the environment of the shelter preserves material culture better than other environments.

The tool-kit changed as well. Late Woodland people utilized local chert instead of traveling long distances to obtain finer quality flint. Spear points were simple notched and stemmed points. Around A.D. 750, the bow and arrow was introduced. The bow and arrow was an important change to the toolkit, allowing projectiles to be fired from a prone position at greater rate of fire. In addition to stealth and speed, the lighter weight allowed a hunter to carry more arrows than the same hunter could carry spears. Some studies indicate that average deer size became smaller, suggesting the deer population was declining due to overhunting.

The use of art and ritual is less visible within the Late Woodland period. The villagers were using local and convenient materials instead of exotic materials. The emphasis changed from exotic and intricate to quick and “dirty.” Archaeologists suggest this change indicates a shift in social organization, which is also seen within the village structure.

Individuals were buried in cemeteries for the village. This is a major change as many were buried in mounds and near ceremonial centers during the Middle Woodland period. People were buried in small, stone mounds close to the village, but there does not seem to be a “typical” burial. Late Woodland people used extended burials, bundle burials, and cremations. Few burial goods have been found. Archaeologists have uncovered a few Late Woodland individuals buried in Hopewell earthworks, or “intrusive mound” burials, which date after 1300 B.P. These burials are accompanied with red ocher, antler harpoons, platform pipes, and granite picks. This may be seen as a method for local leaders to create a real or contrived connection to the older mounds and earthworks to legitimize the authority of Late Woodland leaders.

Late Prehistoric Period AD 1000 - 1750
The Late Prehistoric Period is the final period of the prehistoric era in Ohio and is perhaps the best known. Although other unrelated groups thrived along Lake Erie to the north, southern Ohio was populated by a culture referred to as Fort Ancient. This culture is related to larger and more complex Mississippian cultures to the west and throughout the southeastern United States. There is clear interaction with Missippian groups in the form of trade goods and shared symbolism. Some archaeologists see the Fort Ancient as an offshoot of the Mississippians, while others regard them as a unique and separate culture. The Fort Ancient culture are generally thought to be descendents of Late Woodland predecessors. The Fort Ancient are notable for their intensive reliance on corn agriculture and their large, densely occupied villages, such as SunWatch Indian Village in Montgomery County.

The Fort Ancient people had large villages that generally included about 100-500 residents. This number varied with the season as people would leave the village in the winter to live in hunting camps. The villages were substantially larger and more sedentary than the Late Woodland and were occupied for at least 20-30 years.

SunWatch Indian Village is the most thoroughly excavated village attributed to this culture. The village structure was a pattern of concentric circles with a plaza in the heart of the village. Surrounding the plaza was a circular cemetery zone in which deceased villagers were buried. Although some individuals appear to have grave goods and other indications of status, there are also individuals of corresponding lower status and children represented. Around the burial zone, there is a circular zone of storage pits, trash pits, and work/cooking areas. Surrounding the work zone is another circular ring of domestic structures. Houses were rectangular in shape and ranged in size from 16 to 22 ft wide and 19 to 30 ft long. The village was surrounded by a substantial stockade despite a general lack of evidence for warfare.

As the population continued to grow, corn (“maize”) became the primary crop, supplemented with beans and squash. These three plants were grown together and were referred to by historic Native Americans as the “three sisters.” Fort Ancient nutrition was poor, lacking diversity and protein. Approximately fifty to seventy-five percent of the diet was composed of corn alone. The Fort Ancient hunted deer extensively, but also relied on elk, turkey, bear, and small game. Nuts, fruits, and berries were also gathered.

The Fort Ancient people of Southern Ohio are known for the construction of two animal effigy mounds – Alligator Mound in Granville and Serpent Mound in Peebles. These effigy mounds were not burial sites, but were probably more ritualistic in nature, serving as ceremonial sites. The “Alligator” was originally interpreted as an alligator, it is more likely that the mound represents an opossum or panther and the name was a mistranslation by early settlers.

As Europeans began settling North America, they began trading goods with the native peoples. Europeans goods made their way through native hands into Ohio long before Europeans ever crossed the Ohio River. Some later Fort Ancient culture sites include a few European trade goods such as beads, but few if any early European explorers ever saw a Fort Ancient village. Archaeological sites attributed to the Fort Ancient culture disappear fairly abruptly around A.D. 1650. It is unclear what relationship, if any, the Fort Ancient have to the historic tribes encountered by later explorers. Large villages and most of the middle Ohio River Valley may have been largely unpopulated for at least fifty years. The introduction of European diseases may have decimated Fort Ancient people leading to their virtual disappearance, though there is no direct archaeological evidence supporting this popular idea. It has been suggested that the Fort Ancient were driven out by conflict with contemporary groups, also an idea unconfirmed by archaeological evidence.

Historic Period AD 1750 - Present
Europeans made their way into Ohio fairly late in contrast to other regions. Reliable descriptions of the Ohio River Valley do not appear until around the mid-1700s. The tribes found living in Ohio at that time include the Shawnee, Miami, Delaware, and others, of which none may be directly related to the prehistoric Fort Ancient. The Shawnee tribe is often described as the most likely historic descendent, though it is difficult for historians and archaeologists to find any definitive links. The Shawnee were an exceptionally fragmented group in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with many relocations, fissions, and conflicts with other tribes. Prior to Europeans encountering them in southern Ohio, the Shawnee were encountered in Maryland and Pennsylvania. The Miami, Delaware, and other tribes were likewise observed in other states prior to being encountered in Ohio. Regardless of whether or not the historic tribes were related to the prehistoric cultures described by archaeologists, there is no question that historic period people lived in dynamic and threatening times.

The natives faced several hurdles and challenges to their way of life as settlers moved into the region. They were confronted with diseases in which they had no natural immunities, trading posts were built within their territories, missionaries tried to convert them to Christianity, liquor was introduced, and settlers were expanding into Ohio. The European settlers forced their way into the Ohio Valley and fought continuously for the rich and fertile land of Ohio. By the end of the War of 1812, most of the native tribes were defeated, both militarily and in spirit. Many moved westward, but a few remained in defiance. In 1830, the United States Congress enacted the Indian Removal Act which forced all natives living in the Northwest Territory, which included Ohio, to move west of the Mississippi to government-designated lands, or reservations.

For a more in-depth discussion of Ohio’s prehistory check out Brad Lepper’s book Ohio Archaeology: An Illustrated Chronicle of Ohio’s Ancient American Indian Cultures available in The SunWatch Store. You can also visit the Ohio Historical Society’s Prehistoric Timeline of Ohio.