The Ohio Valley Mound-Builders Were Algonquian
Modern realization that the principal mound-builders of the Ohio Valley (those usually referred to as “Adena” and “Hopewell”) were of the Algonquian ethnolinguistic group began early and has only grown stronger with time. The polyglot genius Constantine Rafinesque – the first systematic cataloguer of the mounds – was first to make the association in the 1830s, though his scientific arguments were masked by his chosen form of presentation: a fake “sacred text” of the Lenape called the Walam Olam. In parody of the Book of Mormon, the Walam Olam portrayed the works of the Ohio Valley as the ruins of epic battles between the Algonquian Lenape and the Cherokee, with the Lenape playing the role of the more “advanced” civilization building precision works – the role later attributed to the newly named “Hopewell.”
Despite the dramatic ruse, real science and ethnology underlay Rafinesque’s identification, which included a complete early theory of how the Algonquians had crossed North America after fording the Bering Strait, correct in all of its essentials. Rafinesque took much of his ethnology from the Moravian missionaries John Heckwelder and David Zeisberger, who had written of the genuine Lenape oral tradition that their ancestors had defeated a people called “the Snake People.” Rafinesque connected this legend to the many snake effigies, large and small, found among the works of the mound-builders, and obligingly filled his invented Lenape sacred script with serpent shapes borrowed from Algonquian iconography, reinforced by the real tendency of historic Central Algonquians to name their tribal divisions after snakes. Thus, though we must recognize the Walam Olum as fakery, it did intuit the genuine science yet to come.
There are eight categories of argument that demonstrate that the Mound-builders of the early and middle Woodland Period were indeed Algonquian. And by this I mean full-fledged Algonquians who spoke an Algonquian language (not Proto-Algonquian) and who descended from an Algic stock that probably constituted a separate migration into North America from Beringea. By saying that they were Algonquian, of course I do not exclude that there was influence or incorporation of other ethnolinguistic elements, but the general Algonquian identification is strong and clear.
Here I will briefly summarize each of the eight arguments, some of which I will expand upon separately. It should be born in mind that the overall identification depends not on any one or two arguments but on all eight. Potential objections to individual points should not obscure the strength of the multiple types of evidence and the fact that no rival theory can come close to displacing the Algonquian ID.
Charles Willoughby, the assistant to Frederick Ward Putnam with a specialty in art interpretation, was the first modern scientist to propose the Algonquian identity of the so-called “Hopewell,” as early as the 1920s. Willoughby based his determination on explicit portrayals of Michabo, the Algonquian “Great Hare” culture hero, at the North Fork Site (aka Hopewell Mound Group), portrayals connected to the role of Michabo in the mortuary transmutation process to which the site was obviously connected. These portrayals include an elaborate depiction of a Michabo death-figure incised on human bone, and a Michabo copper headdress worn by a buried shaman. Willoughby also did a detailed analysis of Ohio mound-builder basketry and ceramic patterns and connected them to historic Central Algonquian designs. In 1961, Olaf Prufer, considered the dean of Ohio archaeology, endorsed the identification of the “Hopewell” as Algonquian and expanded Willoughby’s list to include mound-builder depictions of Algonquian hairstyles and moccasin styles. Other archaeologists, including the “Adena” specialist Don Dragoo, have also confirmed the Algonquian identity of the mound-builders, though Dragoo thought that some of the Algonquian influence might be coming from the Lenape (before the availability of genetic testing). The figure of Michabo is connected in Algonquian lore to that of Michi-Atchiika, the Great Fisher, a figure unique to Central Algonquians as represented by Ursa Major. That the effigy mound in Granville, Ohio, is demonstrably that of a fisher is confirmation that the Algonquian “hero” pair of Great Hare and Great Fisher was strongly at work among the mound-builders of Ohio. The theme of the hero-twins is also represented in much mound-builder art including on a number of the Adena Tablets.
Two studies of Middle-Woodland mound-builder remains, one by Lisa A. Mills of OSU and the other by Deborah Bolnick et al. have confirmed that these remains have the strongest genetic relationship to the only two Central Algonquian tribes for whom data is available for comparison – the Ojibwe and the Kickapoo. Their results support a continuous genetic lineage between mound-builders of the early Woodland Period, mound-builders of the middle Woodland Period, and members of the modern Central Algonquian tribes. important in their analysis was the discovery of X-haplogroup in mitochondrial DNA. Central Algonquians have the highest proportion of mitochondrial X haplogroup of any group in the world and are believed to be the source population of X-haplogroup in North America. Though a few other North American groups, namely the Plains Siouans, also have relatively high frequencies of haplo-X, it is believed those frequencies are of recent origin, owing to close contact with Central Algonquians. Bolnick has been vocal in proposing a separate migration from Beringea that formed the Proto-Algic stock, which then branched to include the Ohio Valley mound-builders and descendant Central Algonquians.
III. Historical Linguistics
Historical linguists reconstruct past language distribution patterns on the basis of statistical divergence in historic language patterns. On this basis, it is clear that the east-Central Algonquian languages or dialects all diverged from a common mother language sometimes called Proto-Lake Algonquian or Proto-Core Central Algonquian. The historic languages include the northern Anishinaabeg langauges (Ojibwe, Potawatomi, Ottawa), the southeastern “Fox” group (Fox, Sak, Kickapoo, Shawnee), and the eastern group (Miami-Illinois). The area of this Proto-Lake homeland is projected to have been the mound-builder heartland of Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan. In other words, the Proto-Lake language reconstructed by linguists was the language spoken by the Woodland Period mound-builders of the Ohio Valley. No other linguistic homeland is projected to have been anywhere close to this region during the time period in question.
IV. Origin Chronology
It has long been recognized that the mortuary practices associated with classic Adena burial mounds evolved out of Archaic kame burials, principally from the culture called Glacial Kame. The Glacial Kame Culture gradually expanded southward from southern Ontario and Michigan, converting to artificial mounds when it reached terrain below the glacial boundary (around Chillicothe). There is no other coherent theory for the origin of the Adena. Since the Glacial Kame Culture was very clearly Algonquian, with Algonquian themes occurring frequently in Archaic artifacts of the region, it follows logically that the Adena were an Algonquian extension of this culture. Many artifact types such as birdstones and elaborate astronomically-themed plummets cross the late Archaic-early Woodland boundary.
V. Succession Chronology
The old idea that Ohio depopulated after the end of major earthwork construction around 400 CE is no longer tenable and has given way to the realization that most of the Indians did not go anyplace. They stayed right where they were, but simply changed their mortuary practices, opting for styles of disposition of the dead that do not leave traces for archaeologists to find. This included primarily what is called “sky burial” or “life burial” – hanging the dead on scaffolds or in trees to be consumed by carrion-eating birds and perhaps other carnivores. The most extravagant sky-burial practices at time of European contact were employed by the Ojibwe and the Kickapoo, which just happen to be the exact same two tribes that show the closest genetic relationship to the deceased from the North Fork Site. The most plausible mound-builder succession story is that they suffered no great catastrophe but just began to dispose of their dead in a different way, which led with unbroken continuity to the historic Central Algonquian tribes as they were “discovered.” Some specific groups like the Shawnee, whose name means “southerner,” had apparently left on a southern sojourn, only to return to their former homeland in the Ohio Valley.
One thing beyond dispute is that the builders of precise geometric earthworks like High Bank or Newark were extremely adept at geometry if not fetishists of the field. The linguistic theorist Benjamin Whorf noted that Algonquian language is unique among the world’s language families in utilizing “geometric field terms” as the basis for sentence-construction. In other words, native speakers of Algonquian languages categorize the world geometrically, unlike any other human groups, even unlike other neighboring language families. Algonquian sentences when translated literally wind up sounding like a bizarre geometer’s view of the universe; Whorf gives the examples of how “gun” is seen as a “hollow tube,” “ramrod” is seen as a “moving dry space,” etc. From this perspective, we might say that the extraordinary geometric works of Ohio could only have been built by people thinking in Algonquian language. I might note that the earthwork builders displayed a very precise understanding of the distinction between circles and ellipses, with some works combining circles and ellipses in very intentional ways. This kind of geometrical obsession connotes a different type of thinking than that of other prehistoric works around the globe. Of special note, the Algonquian geometric field term "kan," which means of serpentine form, appears to be graphically represented in earthworks like Serpent Mound, and the same stem was later adopted into both Plains Siouan language and Yucatec Mayan as meaning "snake."
As with geometry, the Ohio Valley earthworks display an Algonquian conception of the cosmos. Many of the works exhibit precision location of the north celestial pole, even at a time when no North Star was within three degrees of the pole. Most Native American groups had a vague conception of the north as a direction but did not obsess over true north as a precise point in the sky. The degree of precision indicated by Ohio earthworks strongly suggests the belief that the north celestial pole, even without a star at that location, is the final destination of the soul’s afterlife journey, a belief strongly held by Algonquians and a few other circumpolar peoples of the far north. Other ethnolinguistic groups suspected by lore of having built the mounds (i.e. the Cherokee or the Sioux) either do not share this cosmology or are known to have absorbed the belief from Algonquians in more recent times.
I have argued elsewhere that the principal purpose of the earthworks was to map out a guide-path for departed souls carried by migratory birds, a belief reportedly held by Great Lakes Algonquians at the time of European contact. Historic Algonquians displayed an obsession with mapping out the path of afterlife travel, to the extent that they often included the route of afterlife travel on ordinary terrestrial maps when asked to make them. (Such an inclusion was responsible for confusing French Canadians into a false belief that a “Northwest Passage” existed in the terrestrial world.) No other Native American group demonstrated this obsession with post-mortem cartography.
In sum, the identification of the Woodland Period mound-builders as Algonquian is greatly over-determined by the evidence. The identification has been made by leading lights of Ohio archaeology including Constantine Rafinesque, Charles Willoughby, and Olaf Prufer. One might wonder why other contemporary archaeologists are unwilling to make the identification, given the extent of evidence and the total absence of any plausible rival hypothesis.
Graphic: Ojibwe scaffold burial at Fond Du Lac, 1826