Hopewell People Construct Earthworks Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Earthworks of the Hopewell Culture indicate that groups of prehistoric Native Americans shared elaborate rituals, established an extensive exchange system, and held a sophisticated understanding of astronomy and geometry.

Summary of Event

Between approximately 200 b.c.e. and 500 c.e. independent groups of Native Americans living in eastern North America practiced similar customs and rituals, characterized by the construction of monumental earthworks and burial mounds. Collectively, these practices are referred to as the Hopewell culture.

Although influence of the Hopewell can be found throughout the Missouri, Mississippi, and Ohio River Valleys, the culture was most prominent in southwestern Ohio, with the largest concentration in the Scioto River Valley near present-day Chillicothe, Ohio. The term “Hopewell” comes from a nineteenth century farmer, Mordecai Hopewell, on whose property the complex later named the Hopewell Earthworks was located.

The most impressive manifestation of Hopewell culture is to be found in its earthworks and mounds, numbering in the tens of thousands. Geometrical enclosures, some more than 1,000 feet (305 meters) across and with walls 12 feet (3.7 meters) high, distinguish Hopewell from the earlier mound-building Adena culture as well as from Illinois Hopewell. Mounds in the shapes of animals and conical burial mounds reaching up to 30 feet (9 meters) are located in or near the enclosures. The Hopewell employed precise standards of measurement in their constructions, often aligning them with lunar and solar cycles and orienting them to the east.

Large enclosures typically included a rectangular wooden building or great house, constructed on evenly spaced posts. Separate areas within the great house were used for elaborate burial preparations. Although cremation was common, skeletal remains were entombed in log crypts inside the great house. Once the great house had served its purpose, it was dismantled or burned and a mound built over it. Other structures within the enclosures may have been used for holding ceremonies, storing cremated remains, and securing valued artifacts.

The largest enclosure, part of the Hopewell Earthworks at Paint Creek, west of Chillicothe, covers 111 acres (45 hectares) and contains the largest Hopewell burial mound, which is 34 feet (10.4 meters) high and 500 feet (152.4 meters) long. This site was first surveyed by Ephraim G. Squier and Edwin H. Davis in the 1840’s. Although Squier and Davis conducted some excavation, it was not until 1892 that significant discoveries were found. An excavation arranged by Harvard archaeologist Frederick Ward Putnam, in preparation for the World’s Columbian Exposition, yielded an extraordinary quantity of burial goods: jewelry, animal-shaped or effigy cutouts, ornaments of copper, mica, and gold, conch shells, carved teeth of grizzly bears, effigy pipes, and tens of thousands of freshwater pearls. The variety of materials from which these burial goods were composed reflects a vast and complex exchange network extending eastward to the Atlantic coast, south to the Gulf of Mexico, west to the Rocky Mountains, and north into Canada.

Differing types and amounts of burial goods found with remains and the variation in funeral practices indicate a class structure, with only an elite few receiving elaborate burials. Unlike Adena interments, which appear to have buried generationally, adding layers to mounds, the Hopewell erected a mound following the interment of an important person, arranging cremated and skeletal remains from earlier deaths around the central crypt. Evidence from skulls suggests many elite burials were members of one prominent family of the Ohio Hopewell.

The class structure suggests that the Hopewell, who were cultivators as well as hunter-gatherers, were more settled than earlier cultures; however, there is little evidence of large villages. Habitation sites, which have been identified by patterns of post holes and middens or trash pits, were small, often single-family households. These dwellings are believed to have been semipermanent, the inhabitants relocating every few years, presumably when nutrients in the soil had been exhausted. Graves located near habitation sites offer further proof of social stratification: Many Hopewell were buried without accompanying goods in unmarked locations.

Identifying habitation sites has been difficult, not only because dwellings were constructed of perishable material, but also because they were often scattered at a distance from the earthworks. Yet it is obvious that people came together at arranged times to erect ceremonial sites and participate in seasonal rituals. Clearly, the Hopewell had evolved a calendar, and there is some evidence of pilgrimages. In 1995, Bradley T. Lepper, an archaeologist from the Ohio Historical Society, working with maps drawn by researchers more than a century earlier, postulated the existence of a road 60 miles (97 kilometers) long linking major groupings of earthworks in Chillicothe with those in Newark, Ohio.

By the end of the fifth century c.e., the Hopewell culture disappeared. Although it is possible that it died out because of disease or migrated because of deteriorating resources, more likely it was dispersed or eliminated by invading tribes. The last examples of Hopewell earthworks are palisaded hilltop enclosures resembling forts, and the western orientation of post-Hopewell burials implies an incursion of Iriquois.

Although the ending of Hopewell culture is readily apparent, the beginnings are less easily discernible. Some researchers regard the Hopewell as descendants of the Adena; others believe the two coexisted for several centuries. Yet it is widely recognized that Hopewell is a markedly distinct culture. Even though daily life may have been similar for the two groups, their social structure and belief systems were dramatically different. The stratification of Hopewellian society evidenced in burial customs suggests that the elite functioned as intermediaries between the earth and the spiritual world, a radical departure from the apparent egalitarianism of the Adena. Further, the complexity and sophistication of the Hopewell earthworks indicate enormous changes in worldview and thought processes. What brought about these changes and why they were concentrated in one small area have yet to be determined.


The earthworks of the Adena, Hopewell, and later Fort Ancient cultures commanded the attention of early Americans, such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, who excavated a mound at Monticello, Jefferson’s home in Virginia. However, it was generally believed that the earthworks were too complex to have been created by Native Americans, and in the absence of written records, vast speculation about their creators ensued. The researchers Squier and Davis determined that the mound builders were a lost race, not ancestors of the indigenous peoples. In 1882, newspaper publisher Ignatious Donnelly wrote that the mounds were constructed by survivors of the lost continent Atlantis. Other theories named Egyptians, Celts, Hindus, Vikings, and prehistoric masons. Attempting to settle the matter, the U.S. Congress, in 1894, allocated funds to the Federal Bureau of Ethnology, and studies conducted by its director, Cyrus Thomas, revealed conclusive evidence—some which was available to earlier scientists—that the mound builders were indeed prehistoric Native Americans. Writing in 2001, historian Thomas S. Garlington attributes the misreading of archaeological evidence to prejudice and believes the failure to identify correctly the mound-building cultures helped justify repressive policies through the nineteenth century.

Research since mid-twentieth century has firmly established the contributions of Hopewell to the progress of civilization in North America. They appear to be the earliest cultivators of maize, and their advancements in agriculture led to increasingly stable and complex social structure. Their intellectual achievements are remarkable: Without precise tools, they created exact standards of measurement, comprehended and applied geometric principles, devised calendric lore, and acquired a working knowledge of astronomy, all of which is reflected in the construction and design of their earthworks.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Korp, Maureen. The Sacred Geography of the American Mound Builders. Lewiston, N.Y.: E. Mellen, 1990. A discussion grounded in history and physical evidence. Chapters on the Adena and Hopewell cultures draw perceptive distinctions between the two.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Romain, William F. Mysteries of the Hopewell: Astronomer, Geometers, and Magicians of the Eastern Woodlands. Akron, Ohio: University of Akron Press, 2000. Using precise measurements of archaeological sites, the author attempts to connect the earthworks with a highly complex worldview; he also presents convincing evidence that the Serpent Mound is a Hopewell structure rather than Adena or Fort Ancient.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shetrone, Henry Clyde. The Mound-Builders: A Reconstruction of the Life of a Prehistoric American Race, Through Exploration and Interpretation of Their Earth Mounds, Their Burials, and Their Cultural Remains. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1930. The first comprehensive text written for nonspecialists, this volume provides an overview of mound building cultures, but focuses on the Ohio valley earthworks, including one chapter devoted specifically to the Hopewell. Index, bibliography, and 299 illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Silverberg, Robert. Mound Builders of Ancient America: The Archaeology of a Myth. Greenwich, Conn.: New York Graphic Society, 1968. A rich examination of myths about the origins of the mound builders. The chapter on the Adena and Hopewell represents theories in place at mid-twentieth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Woodward, Susan L., and Herry N. McDonald. Indian Mounds of the Middle Ohio Valley. Blacksburg, Va.: McDonald and Woodward, 2002. An excellent guide providing maps, illustrations, and an historical overview of Adena, Hopewell, Cole, and Fort Ancient sites.

Categories: History