The Hopewell Culture got its name for the group of mounds found on land once owned by Captain Mordecai C. Hopewell in Ross County, just north of Chillicothe. Although these mounds were described in earlier land surveys, the mounds themselves were not excavated until the 1890s. Today this mound group is called the Hopewell Mound Group.
The Hopewell Culture like the Adena Culture were also mound builders. In fact, the Hopewell Culture is really just a more contemporary version of the Adena Culture. As the Adena Culture aged, many of its cultural practices were refined not only in their earthworks, but also the artifacts they created, their living style, and their development of agriculture as a major food source. It was this cultural migration that gave way to assigning a new name to this group of Mound Builders-- they became known to us the Hopewell Culture.
The Hopewell earthworks were dramatically larger with more complex and varied shapes including circles, squares, octagons and lines. Although there is evidence to suggest that the Hopewell Culture ranged as far away as upper New York to the east, Minnesota to the west, and down both sides of the Mississippi River to the south. However, it seems that their cultural center was primarily in southern Ohio.
Adena Culture mounds were primarily conical-shaped mounds used exclusively for burial purposes. The Hopewell Culture also had burial mounds, but more often these burial mounds were located either inside or nearby massive scaled earthworks such as those that can be seen in Newark and Chillicothe.
How these earthworks were used is not known for sure. Some earthworks seemed to be connected as unique gathering places where members of the culture would come together at specific times during the year. In analyzing the orientation of these sites, it has recently become apparent that they are even more complex than originally thought.
Certain aspects of their geometry seem to indicate that the Hopewell Culture was keenly aware of long-range astronomical events. For example, throughout the year, the location of the moonrise changes.
During the annual moonrise cycle, the point where the moon rises on the horizon cycles through being either north or south of due east. However, once every 18 years, the moon will rise at a point further north than at any other time during this 18 year cycle. The Hopewell Earthworks are so constructed that obvious sight lines running directly through the center of these massive works, is in a direct line with the moonrise on this 18 year cycle.
What purpose this served is unknown. It does however, shed additional light on what many thought to be a primitive culture, showing it is now precisely the opposite. The remaining earthworks today are more than just piles of dirt, but a reminder that their creators were highly ordered and precise.
It is believed that the Hopewell Culture people lived in small villages dotting the Ohio landscape from northeast Ohio southward, extending all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, mostly along major rivers. The fact that Ohio has multiple north / south flowing navigable waterways was an important factor in determining where these ancient cultures located. We have no evidence of what kinds of watercraft they built, but with their widespread trading with far away locations, they certainly must have had some form of watercraft.
From artifacts recovered from their characteristic earthworks, it is believed that the Hopewell's were hunters and farmers. Also from the intricately detailed artifacts, it suggests that each community would have divided responsibilities, much like today's society, according to their special skill sets. Craftsmen built, hunters hunted, farmers farmed, and artisans crafted jewelry. Many of the artifacts recovered from diverse locations, seem to have been created by the same individuals. This further suggests that there was specialized responsibilities within their culture. They also had businessmen that went on expeditions to bring trade for exotic materials used in their art.
The Hopewell Culture was most likely the same people that composed the Adena Culture. Like any culture, over time, they refined their craftsmanship and their ideas. The Hopewell Culture displayed a more refined artistic style compared to the Adena Culture. They also expanded the idea of the burial mounds by building much larger complexes using earth walls.
Who were the Mound Builders?
We have no way of knowing who made up these ancient cultures. What archeologists have done is classify their history into periods of time which had similarities, such as the way the built communal areas, buried their dead, and ways they created pottery. Whether these ancient cultures are related to contemporary Native cultures can not be determined. Perhaps in time, DNA tests will be able to further identify the Ancient cultures.
What we do know is that they stopped building the massive earthworks that were so predominant throughout the southern half of the Ohio country. Why they stopped, we don't know. Contemporary archeologists have never recovered any written historical references to this activity. That is not to say that there is none, only that we haven't discovered it.
Just as the pyramid builders in the Mid-East stopped building pyramids, just as the Stonehenge builders stopped erecting great stone works, so too did the mound builders of Ohio stop. Only the pyramid builders left a recognizable language that helped identify their history.
Where did the Mound Builders come from?
Again, because of the lack of written evidence, it is difficult to make any definitive conclusions as to their origins. But archeological evidence suggest that these ancient cultures came up the Mississippi Valley from the Gulf of Mexico. There are also similarities between artifacts recovered from Ohio that mimics similar artifacts found in the Mayan Culture of Central America. Did the Mound Builders come from Central America? Or did the Mayan Culture come from the Mound Builders, or are they both branches of the same tree? These questions may never be fully answered.