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Adena Mounds of the Ohio River Valley

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Adena Mound
A typical Adena earthwork and village in the Ohio Valley around 200 BC
Photo: VR Image by Richard Thornton, Architect

Around 1000 BC a stocky, broad headed people migrated into the Upper Ohio Valley. Their original home was probably in the Southeast since their physical appearance was identical to that of the peoples who built the platform village at Poverty Point, LA and the shell rings on Sapelo Island. (See previous articles on those locations.) Another hint about their place of origin was that unlike their new neighbors, they knew how to make pottery. The oldest known pottery in the Western Hemisphere was found in the Savannah River Basin of Georgia. Ceramic technology spread very slowly elsewhere. It did not reach Mexico until around 1500 BC. Archaeologists have labeled these immigrants, the Adena People. That name in turn comes from the Adena Mound, near Adena, Ohio.

During the first 200 years in their new home, the Adena were not remarkably different than their neighbors, other that they made pottery. Then, around 800 BC, the Adena people began to create mounds in their villages, initially by dumping detritus in the same spots for generations. By 300 BC they were intentionally piling soil and clay into geometric forms. Their later, more sophisticated, earthworks were aligned to the solar azimuth and perhaps some stars. Over time, some of their cone shaped mounds became extremely large – up to seventy high at the Grave Creek Mound in Wheeling, WV. Most of the larger mounds appear to have been burial mounds, and show no evidence of ever supporting buildings. The cone shaped mounds were usually surrounded by ceremonial ditches and earth berms. The circular enclosures typically had 30 feet+ openings facing the south or the Summer Solstice sunrise. They were not fortifications.

Their domestic architecture really didn’t change too much over the 1200 years that they lived in the Ohio Valley. Adena houses seemed to have always consisted of saplings and reeds woven like baskets in the shape of onion domes. It is quite likely that the houses of their cousins in the Southeast built similar lightweight structures, because little remains of either but hearths.

Adena families primarily sustained themselves by hunting, fishing, gathering wild plants and gardening indigenous plants that had been domesticated in the Southeast as early as 3500 BC. They did not grow corn or beans, but did grow several types of squash, which had been domesticated from a wild squash that grows in the Southern Highlands.

As the centuries past, the Adena became master artisans of native stones; mica, quartz crystals and lead crystals from the Southern Highlands; and copper obtained from the Upper Great Lakes region. They were obviously participating in a regional trade network. Their pottery also showed increasing sophistication and variation.

Expansion of Adena earthworks and inhabitation of their village sites seem to have stopped around 200 AD. It is not known what exactly happened to these people. There is some evidence of intermarriage with their “Hopewell” neighbors, who lived in the same region after 200 BC. It is possible that most of the Adena’s were pushed out of their homeland and they migrated elsewhere. It is not known where they migrated to. The most likely direction, however, would be back to the South where they came from.

Most of the larger Adena mounds are now publically owned, and therefore, protected. The biggest concentration of these mounds is in southern Ohio, but Adena mounds may also be seen in Kentucky, West Virginia, Tennessee and Indiana.


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