Few will have heard of the Hopewell Tradition. These people, a loose knit collection of interconnected cultures who lived everywhere from the Great Lakes to the Florida panhandle, are contenders for the title of the longest lived civilization in North American history.
From perhaps as early 200 BC to 500 AD they built great earthworks, mounds and ditches which serve a purpose still mysterious to us. They do not seem to have been warriors, and their artwork, exquisite in its craftsmanship, seems to have come from a time of peace.
This may seem odd given that we do not think they were one people, but rather a collection of tribes united through trade and commerce. The name, Hopewell, is defined based on similarities in architecture and artifacts.
But sadly, as with many ancient civilizations, their extraordinary art and their mysterious mounds are all we have left. This was a silent culture, and we know nothing of the people or their gods.
The People of the Hopewell Tradition
All the pre-historic Native Americans of the Hopewell Tradition lived in the east-central part of North America between 200 BC and 500 AD, centered around what is today southern Ohio. Here it is that we see the greatest concentration of their mysterious mounds.
Just like the Native Americans of the earlier Adena culture, it is thought that they built these enormous mounds to bury high status individuals, the North American equivalent of the Eurasian barrows.
These people must have been important indeed given the amount of manpower to build even one such mound, but the collective industry of the Hopewell does not stop there. Alongside the mounds are circles, octagons or rectangles, shaped in pleasing forms as they sculpted the landscape along the banks of the river they called home.
All the earthworks made by people of the Hopewell Tradition were considered ceremonial places and were not any kind of settlements. The usual design of those earthworks is geometric and has individual mounds. The burials or cremations were done in specific earthwork sites with dome-shaped or conical mounds.
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We know other things about them, too. They built dome-shaped houses out of animal hides, woven mats and bark. They were hunters and fishers, gatherers of fruits, seeds, roots and nuts, and farmers too, growing corn and beans for basic sustenance.
But above all the people of Hopewell Tradition were traders, building extensive and long-distance networks. They traded copper from the Great Lakes, shells from the Gulf of Mexico, mica from the Carolinas and obsidian from the Rocky Mountains. These raw materials were used in their beautiful artworks.
Some surviving examples are spear points made out of obsidian, or human hand puppets made out of mica. The artworks made by the Hopewell Tradition mostly replicate the design of birds, bears and deer. Animal forms, considered to represent the guardian spirits of shaman, are carved on the bowls of stone pipes.
These people of Hopewell Tradition also had access to limited amounts of iron, however these appear to be exclusively meteoric, from a meteor which fell in Minnesota. They used iron sparingly, and the creations using this material were almost entirely for practical survival: the Hopwell saw the value of this rare metal.
Most of the structures made back then by the people of Hopewell Tradition are either fully or partly destroyed today. Some of the preserved structures of that time are situated in the Hopewell Culture National Historical Park. One among them is an earthwork parallelogram, fully 1800 feet (550 m) long running east/west and 2800 feet (850 m) long running north/south.
Within the large earthwork, there is a long array of other small earthworks and an array of mounds. It is just one among the hundreds of other large structures that were built by the people of Hopewell Culture.
But many of these mounds remain mysterious to this day. Most structures are not studied in-depth, and research is very much ongoing. So far, only a very few of these sites have gotten the attention of archaeologists from all over the world.
The End of the Culture
Some believe the people of Hopewell Tradition thrived for so long because they cracked the code of harmonious living. They had the best-talented craftsmen in their villages, which gave rise to a good trading cycle with different parts of the country.
They were helped by living in a natural paradise. They used natural sources for food, learned to farm, and made big structures for various ceremonial, settlement and other purposes. The people of that time had the idea of working together. The mounds are clearly the best examples of how people from different villages collaborated on various projects.
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But suddenly, after 400 AD, the Hopewell Tradition started to decline. The researchers believe that the rapid decline of the Hopewell Culture was mostly due to the debris that rained down due to a near-Earth comet.
Evidence in the soil layers and rocks show that they was some form of wide-scale destruction across the continent of North America. Forests were laid waste, and the Native American villages along with them.
Archaeologists studying the land in southern Ohio found high diversity and concentration of the meteorites at Hopewell sites compared to the other periods. The meteor fragments were identified to have platinum and iridium, along with a charcoal layer. Thus, it is evident that the area was exposed to immense heat and fire.
When tested in laboratories, these meteorite fragments showed a distinct and recognizable chemical composition. Such a chemical composition, and particularly the presence of platinum, can only have come from a cosmic event, such as comet airbursts or asteroids.
The problematic fact is that platinum also occurs due to volcanic eruptions. So, to verify the research, the experts experimented on another rare element found at the Hopewell sites, iridium. When both were found, it was confirmed that meteor debris rained down on the regions of North America to end the Hopewell Tradition.
Some of the Hopewell even bore witness to this. The peoples living around what is now Miami have an oral tradition that a horned serpent flew over the sky and dropped rocks to the land. A passing-by comet in the sky has a replication of a large snake.
The devastation of the land and forest broke the people of Hopewell Culture. As a result, the people of Hopewell Culture then became loosely organized. The quality and quantity of fine art pieces decline. The structures or mounds they made were also not the finest compared to what they built in the past. Thus, civilization perished.
But this disaster, while not enough to kill the people of the Hopewell Tradition, destroyed their delicate trading network. Increasingly isolated, the individual villages retreated into themselves, and the longest civilization ever to exist in North America died out.
Top Image: An exquisite blackstone craving of a bird from the Hopewell Tradition. Source: Peter D Tillman / Public Domain.
By Bipin Dimri