You may have seen our recent blog post encouraging the world traveler known as “Mr. UNESCO” to come to Ohio. In that post, we compared Ohio’s Serpent Mound and the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks to the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site near St. Louis, noting how these sites are more than “some dirt hills” but are rather the ceremonial centers of vast and developed pre-contact American Indian civilizations.
That’s certainly true from a broad perspective, but actually, the sites and the cultures that constructed these various earthworks are distinctly different from one another.
In addition to Ohio’s own Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks and Serpent Mound, the US boasts two UNESCO World Heritage Sites relating to the genius of pre-contact American Indians: Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site near St. Louis and the recently inscribed Monumental Earthworks of Poverty Point in Louisiana.
To the untrained eye, all four of these sets of sites look like the “dirt hills” described by Mr. UNESCO. Through archaeological survey methods, however, archaeologists have been able to piece together the significance of each site and the specific groups of people who once lived, worked, prayed, and thrived there.
Poverty Point was at its peak 3,000 years ago, constructed by the Poverty Point culture (4,000-2,500 years ago in the Lower Mississippi Valley. Notably, it was built by nomadic hunter-fisher-gatherers and is of a scale unsurpassed for the next 2,000 years. The site comprises an integrated complex of earthworks, including large mounds, semi-elliptical ridges, and a central flat plaza.
Cahokia was the center of a city-state that reached across the Midwest roughly 1,000 years ago during the Mississippian period. The archaeological remnants of that city today show that the city itself was nearly 4,000 acres in size and comprised homes and public works, including ceremonial “woodhenges.”
In 1848, Squier and Davis were the first to map Serpent Mound, which is the largest effigy mound in the world.
The Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks here in Ohio were the focal points of Woodland culture communities 1,500 years ago. Large numbers of people may have traveled from as far away as the Rocky Mountains with exotic gifts to offer in ritual at these sites during distinct times for gathering. The archaeological evidence shows that these sites acted as ceremonial sites, including for mortuary use, but there is no evidence that people lived near the sites for extended periods of time. Additionally, the sites exhibit precise alignments to astronomical events, like the far reaches of the moon’s position over an 18.6 year cycle, which would have taken years of study in preparation.
Serpent Mound, another one of our World Heritage Ohio sites, is a more than 1,200-foot-long earthen effigy of a serpent winding across the top of a hillside. This earthwork also mirrors astronomical alignments and therefore embodies the fundamental cosmological principles of the people who built it. The best dating estimates place its construction roughly 1,000 years ago by the Fort Ancient culture of the Ohio River Valley, although more recent work suggests it may be more than 2,000 years old. iI is the largest effigy mound in the world.
Even though all four of these sites do have in common that they were constructed out of earth by pre-contact American Indians, in reality their particular social and ceremonial functions may have varied widely.
We can liken it to comparing Stonehenge and Westminster Abbey in the United Kingdom, for example. Although the sites are close together and both are made of stone, the time differences between them make it so we say they had different social functions and therefore different “outstanding universal value” from one another.
We can branch out even more: the Ohio River Valley (where Serpent Mound and the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks are) is farther from Louisiana, for example, than Stonehenge is from London. Not only are we dealing with time and culture but also with space. Stonehenge and Westminster Abbey also differ from the Great Pyramids of Giza, despite their common material base.
Similarly, Poverty Point, Cahokia, the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks, and Serpent Mound all originated in the minds of people in particular cultures at particular historical moments in North America. Rather than building upward with stone, they built outward with earth.
The cultures of indigenous North America vary as much in time and space as do the cultures of any other continent. Even though we can’t know everything about the people of prehistoric times, archaeology provides persuasive evidence that these cultures were very different from one another. The four sites discussed here – two current and two hopeful UNESCO World Heritage sites – represent four distinct cultures and distinct ways of thinking within pre-contact North America.