If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Ohio Hopewell Culture

The Adena complex, in the middle and upper Ohio valley, is the most significant evidence
Zoned pottery vessel, c. 200 B.C.E. - 100 C.E., Mound City, Ohio, North America, Middle Woodland period, Ohio Hopewell culture, 25 cm high © The Trustees of the British Museum
Zoned Pottery Vessel, c. 200 B.C.E. - 100 C.E., Middle Woodland period, Ohio Hopewell culture, 25 cm high, Mound City, Ohio, North America © Trustees of the British Museum
of an Early Woodlands society in the last millennium B.C.E. The economy was based on hunting and fishing, and from 100 B.C.E. apparently also on the growing of squash, pumpkin, sunflowers, goosefoot and marsh elder. ​Burial mounds were constructed in several stages, with log-lined pits containing burials with fine grave goods, including smoking pipes. Mounds were constructed within large earthworks that were probably built for ceremonial and economic purposes, rather than as defensive strongpoints.
One or two double pots of this type have been recovered from mound sites. They are decorated with figures which represent aquatic and/or raptorial birds, suggesting the ancient Woodlands dichotomy between creatures of the upper and lower worlds.
Excavations in mounds in Ohio have uncovered superbly carved pipes and other exotic trade goods and fine artworks. The pipes may have been smoked for purification during rituals, and to ensure the good standing of the particular form of native government, whether clan, lineage, or larger grouping.
This tobacco pipe was made by the Hopewell people, and is in the shape of an otter's head. Otters were an important religious animal to the Hopewell, because they were equally at home on both land and in water. The tobacco was placed in a hole in the top of the otter's head, and the smoke breathed in through the flat base which is pierced with a hollow tube. 
North American Otter pipe, c. 200 B.C.E. - 100 C.E., Mound City, Ohio, North America, Middle Woodland period, Ohio Hopewell culture, stone, 10 x 5.1 x 3.3 cm © The Trustees of the British Museum
North American Otter pipe, c. 200 B.C.E. - 100 C.E., Middle Woodland period, Ohio Hopewell culture, stone, 10 x 5.1 x 3.3 cm, Mound City, Ohio, North America © Trustees of the British Museum. Excavated in 1846. This is one of the approximately 200 pipes found in Mound 8, most of these pipes being animal effigies, and many of those being animals that either fly, or as is the case with this pipe, swim. The deep carved empty eye sockets would have originally had fresh water pearls, and it is thought that originally there was a fish in the mouth of this otter.
A number of pipes in the form of aquatic mammals were found at Mound City. They were to become important in perhaps the most significant archaeological debate of the mid-nineteenth century: were the mounds built by people related to the present-day Native population? If not, who built them?

The "Moundbuilder Myth"

Most American antiquarians thought that the scale and magnificence of the earthworks indicated that they had been erected by an unrelated people, the "Moundbuilders," whom the Native Indian replaced. To support their theory, they claimed that the otter pipes represented vegetarian manatees, living 1000 miles away in the seas around tropical Florida. The "Moundbuilder Myth" eased nineteenth-century guilt at the rapidly disappearing Indian population. Just as the Indians had replaced the Moundbuilders - perhaps coming from the Old World—so Americans, it was thought, would entirely replace Indians.

Suggested readings
J.C.H. King, Smoking Pipes of the North American Indian (London, The British Museum Press, 1977).
G. Milner, The Moundbuilders: Ancient Peoples of Eastern North America (London, Thames and Hudson, 2004).
S. Rafferty, and R. Mann, Smoking and Culture: The Archaeology of Tobacco Pipes in Eastern North America (Knoxville, The University of Tennessee Press, 2004).
The British Museum logo
© Trustees of the British Museum

Want to join the conversation?

  • blobby green style avatar for user NikkiMarie
    What is goosefoot and marsh elder? I really didn't feel like this article gave me information. I felt like it just skimmed along the top and didn't go into any detail or background history on the Hopewell or other areas.
    (13 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • leafers seedling style avatar for user Cheyann Foreman
    Why do people need to learn about this?
    (0 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • blobby green style avatar for user Starr Stultz
      Because art history and the history of those who inhabited these lands before us is entirely important as is all historically accurate information that we learn from other sources. And mostly because unless you are specifically interested in these topics you will not learn about them in school. My degree and subsequent career is specifically the study of Indigenous Art and Culture and all of this is extremely important to me.
      (10 votes)
  • leafers seed style avatar for user J T Verbeck
    I would like to see a map of the area described as part of the article. And, a little background on the name "Hopewell". Are there "Hopewell" human remains, or coprolitefor DNA samples to compare with Native American groups today?
    (4 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user chajdavid
    A sketch of the Adena would be good.
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • blobby green style avatar for user Neil West
    So I live in Salt Lake City, Utah. Some of the local folks here are using the Hopewell Culture as a new idea to support their book of mormon theories. Is there any evidence of more advanced metal working there? wheels, etc? Their theory of Central America as the location has been debunked. Oh yes, I see the DNA evidence is Asia? Any more info on that?
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      I find that often when physical artifacts or historical documents are produced to validate claims made in sacred books (whether the Bible, the Book of Mormon, or the Holy Quran) the science gets degraded and the sacred texts get downgraded. Sacred texts exist to lift us above our mundane existence. Factuality is less important than how the stories we encounter in the texts form us as human beings. Hopefully they make us better people.
      (2 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user jack.howard
    What would you do if your okay so he said yes would go
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • male robot donald style avatar for user Blake Bidlack
    Who is hopewell and why is he so famous?
    (0 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • duskpin sapling style avatar for user Rashi Tripathi
    what did they mostly eat in the summer and/or the winter?
    (0 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • aqualine sapling style avatar for user melissasibley6
    in the fifth paragraph, who really built the mounds?
    (0 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • hopper jumping style avatar for user Pessler, Connor
    Is there a museum where I can find arctitecture like this?
    (0 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user