Woodland Culture Flourishes in Northern America

The Indians of the Woodland period established the hunting-and-gathering style that was still in place when Europeans arrived in North America in the sixteenth century.

Summary of Event

The Indians of the Woodland period lived in an enormously wide range of territory in the eastern portion of North America. The region extended from the vast forest regions of Canada to the southern extreme of Florida. The main habitat of the people was east of the Mississippi River and along the waterways of large rivers and lakes, as well as the tributaries that flowed into those bodies of waters. The tribespeople that belonged to the region spoke in one of the three main language groups: Siouan, Iroquois-Caddoan, and Algonquian.

The tribes of the southern woodland region were hunters and fishermen, but mainly farmers of squash, corn, beans, and tobacco. The tribes of the northeastern woodland region were primarily hunters and gatherers, and the spoken language was either Iroquois or Algonquian. Those tribes of the northwestern woodland region were also primarily hunters and gatherers, and they spoke Iroquois, Algonquian, or Siouan.

The success of the native people’s lifestyle was based on the region in which they lived. The climate allowed for successful crop growing and provided an abundance of wildlife and plenty of natural materials for shelter and warmth. The people adapted well, and they prospered. The Woodland period saw an enormous change in lifestyle based on technology.

The Old Copper period immediately preceded the Woodland period; from an archaeological perspective, this was an Archaic culture. During the Old Copper period, the use of copper products, such as knives and other tools, made life for the Indians much easier. Two major inventions of the Woodland period produced even more significant changes. The bow and arrow were developed, displacing spears as the weapon of choice. The bow and arrow allowed the archer to be some distance away from the prey or the enemy and yet be successful. No longer did the hunter have to be so close to the target, where danger might be lurking. The second major change in the period was the invention of the clay pot. Water and food supplies could be successfully carried or stored. Both of these inventions made life much easier, and because of this, the clans and families flourished.

The native cultures became somewhat more complex as tribes established more permanent living places, forsaking the nomadic lifestyle. The Woodland people developed settlements and lived in small villages of twenty to two hundred people. Most of these villages maintained the same lifestyle and political framework. Although it was an informal existence, it was a distinctive way of life that, in some areas, is known as the Adena or Hopewell culture. Not all the Woodland people were part of this lifestyle, but it did impact their lives.

The Woodland period saw the development of a social structure that was divided into clans grouped by family and controlled by the female line of ancestry. The eldest female in the family was the leader, and the leadership of the clan traced directly down the female line. Marriage could take place only within the clan and was prohibited from taking place outside that social structure.

During the latter part of the Woodland period, an increase in warfare led to the fortification of the more permanent villages. It was more or less expected that war was a constant and sustained occurrence in Woodland society. The warfare was based on revenge, not bloodletting. The activity used only small groups of warriors, which would go out and ambush neighboring enemy tribes. The capture of slaves was a key to the survival of the society, although after a captured person lived with the group for a time, he or she often became accepted as a tribal member and then had all the same rights and privileges.


Two significant Native American cultures are associated with the Woodland period: the Adena and the Hopewell. The Adena first appeared in what is now the state of Ohio and then spread to the west and south. They are known as mound builders; their earthworks were built to represent specific designs and shapes, most of them snakes, birds, and various symbols of the sky universe. The Hopewell people were also builders of earthen mounds. Both people lived along major rivers and controlled the flow of trade goods in and out of the region. The Adena and Hopewell people served as a link to the other tribes in North America, from the Rocky Mountains in the west to the swamps in the south. Archaeologists suggest that the Woodland cultures were very similar to the Archaic culture in that they were primarily hunters and gatherers, and that they tended to migrate from season to season. The major difference was that the Woodland culture developed pottery production, farmed a little, and buried their dead in earthen mounds. They also made the transition to more permanent, although not completely permanent, settlements.

Archaeologists suggest that the Adena people lived a rather simple life; the culture spread from the Great Lakes region to the Gulf Coast and stayed mainly to the west of the Appalachian Mountains. The Hopewell people culture tended to be more complex, with larger populations that were organized and covered a larger geographical area. It also appears that the Hopewells cremated their deceased and placed influential families in special, dominant mounds. In comparison to the Adena, theirs was a more highly structured society that relied on close management skills.

Further Reading

  • Anderson, David G., and Robert C. Mainfort, Jr., eds. The Woodland Southeast. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2002. Covers the culture and archaeology of the Woodland period.
  • Mainfort, Robert C., Jr., and Lynne P. Sullivan, eds. Ancient Earthen Enclosures of the Eastern Woodlands. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1998. A collection of strictly archaeological papers on the interpretation of Woodland sites. Illustrations, maps.
  • Sattler, Helen R. The Earliest Americans. New York: Clarion Books, 1993. A close look at the Native Americans in the northeast portion of North America.
  • Shaffer, Lynda Norene. Native Americans Before 1492: The Moundbuilding Centers of the Eastern Woodlands. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1992. Although this book’s focus is on a somewhat later stage of Woodland culture, it offers a concise introduction to the mound building of the Adena and Hopewell cultures.
  • Trigger, Bruce G. Northeast. Vol. 15 in Handbook of North American Indians. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988. A review of all the tribes in the northeast portion of North America.