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This Site Last Updated: Wednesday, December 31, 2003
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Introduction
The Hopewell culture, from what is today Hopewell, Ohio, arose as a result of extensive trade routes which ran, north-south, from the Great Lakes to Mexico and, east-west, from the Rocky Mountains to the Atlantic coast. It is unclear if the Hopewell culture created these routes or were simply the major traders on them. (It must be noted that until the Spanish invaded that there were no horses in the new world, and travel was either on foot or by canoe.)
The Hopewell are most famous for their earthworks and burial mounds.
The Hopewell culture peaked circa A.D. 500 and then rapidly fell into decline. It is unclear why it ended, but archaeologists believe it is possible that their trade routes collapsed and this brought about the end. Whatever the cause, after A.D. 500 the number of mounds and the craftsmanship of the artifacts in them began to decline.
The Hopewell had a stratified social structure, with leaders who were likely of a special class, craftsmen and traders, and laborers. There were guilds composed of carvers, metalworkers, woodworkers, and traders. These appear to be first trade unions in the New World. The societal organization does not appear to have been divisive, and simply seems to reflect the specialization of labor which is required for an advanced society. All classes contributed to their earthworks and burial mounds.
As a result of their extensive trade routes, Hopewellian beliefs and values were carried all over North America. The Marksville Culture, in what is today the Florida Keys, is believed to have been created as a result of Hopewell influence. Each culture that adopted Hopewell values modified them in some way, incorporating local beliefs and traditions. There is no evidence that the Hopewell culture was a warlike one, and it appears that their culture spread because it was a free society.
The Hopwell trading region ran, north-south, from the Great Lakes to Mexico and, east-west, from the Rocky Mountains to the Atlantic coast. This enormous region was traversed on foot or by canoe, as there were no horses in the New World until over a thousand years later when Spanish invaders brought them. It is unclear if the Hopewell culture created these trade routes or if they were simply the major traders on them.
To the south, the Gulf Coast region include alligator teeth, conch shells, elaborate bird feathers, pottery, and shark's teeth and skins. From the east, the Atlantic Coast region provided mica (a flaky clear mineral), chert (a flint-like rock), shells, and wampum beads. Lake Superior and the Upper Mississippi Valley supplied copper and lead. The western region of the Rocky Mountains provided obsidian (a jet black glassy rock) and grizzly bear teeth.
The primary impetus for trade appears to have been obtain manufactured goods, or the raw materials which which the Hopewell either made into goods or traded for goods, all in order to create elaborate funeral objects for their famous burial mounds.
The earthworks at what is today Raccoon Creek in Lickling County, Ohio, are the most complicated ones known outside of the Aztec, Incan, and Mayan. The Hopewell built a large, flat mound over nearly four square miles in size and between thirty and fifty feet above the stream. There were numerous structures -- with circular, rectangular, and octagonal shapes -- all connected by wide streets. Moats ran along the interior sides which did not face the river.
These earthworks, and the artifacts the contained, were, alas, destroyed by farmers of European descent before any study could be made.
Various branches of the Middle Mississippi Culture began to make burial mounds circa A.D. 700 and continued the practice for about three hundred years. At that point the practice evolved into the "Temple Mound Period" which built enormous mounds as foundations for ceremonial temples and the dwellings of high-ranking leaders and priests. Their mounds are found from Ohio to Iowa and from Minnesota to Missouri.
The Hopewell created some of the finest craftwork and artwork of the Americas. Most of their works had some religious significance, and their graves were filled with them. Beside the dead were placed beads, birchbark scrolls, ear and finger rings metal figures, necklaces, ornate carvings made from bone or wood, painted mosaics, decorated ceremonial pottery, and pendants. Some graves were lined with woven mats, mica (a flaky clear mineral), or stones.
Metalworking
The Hopewellians never discovered the technique of casting molten metal, and instead hammered copper, iron, gold, and silver into tools and jewelry.
Some artifacts were made from hammered meteorites, since this was the only available source of pure iron. (Iron converts to oxides -- rust -- easily, so until the advent of smelting there was no other source for iron aside from meteorites.) Other artifacts were made from gold and silver, which are not found in the area. It is unclear from which cultures the iron, gold, and silver were obtained.
Copper working arose in the Great Lakes area because of the numerous exposed deposits of almost pure copper. Copper was extracted by fracturing the rock surrounding the ore. The process was simple: build a fire to heat the rock surrounding the copper ore and then quench it with water. The repeated cycle of expansion and contraction then split the rock. Any rock still attached to the ore was removed by bashing it with a stone club.
Tools include such items as arrow or spear points, awls, fish hooks, gouges, knives, picks, wedges, and other utensils. Jewelry included beads, earings, finger rings, effigy coverings, headplates, and pendants. Copper trade goods made in the Great Lakes region have been found in the northeast (what are today New England and New York), in the south (what are today Alabama, Florida, and Louisiana), and on the Great Plains (what is today the midwest).
Fabrication used two techniques. One was to hammer the cold copper into the desired form. Designs were indented or cut, and the final product was removed from the surrounding sheet by repeatedly bending the copper until it work hardened and broke. As copper is worked, it forms grains which make the metal brittle. These grains are normally removed by annealing, which heats the metal red hot in order to remove these grains and make the copper pliable again.
The richest veins were on the shores of Lake Superior, on the Keweenaw Pennisula of what is today northern Michigan, and on the shores of what is today Isle Royale.
Skeletons recovered from Hopewell mounds show lesions characteristic of syphilis. Given that the disease was unknown in Europe, just as many European diseases, such as smallpox, were unknown in the New World, it is highly likely that European explorers carried it back with them after contact with native peoples along the Atlantic coast. If so, it is the only time the Native Americans are known to have inflicted any disease upon the Europeans.