Food, water, life. Two thousand years ago, the inhabitants of the Illinois River valley celebrated these elements in ways that left a spectacular material culture. They participated in what archaeologists call Hopewell, an extensive network of shared stylistic motifs, ceremonial practices, and ritual exchange that reached from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico and from the Appalachians to the Great Plains and beyond. The most elaborate expression was in southern Ohio, where dozens of huge mounds and geometric earthworks containing large caches of obsidian, copper, pipes and other minerals and objects were scattered across the landscape, but the earliest evidence comes from Illinois.
By at least 15,000 BP (before present [=13,000 BC]), the first Native Americans had entered North America, and by the end of another millennium they had spread throughout the continent as the glaciers retreated. As early as 9,000 years ago, people had begun to concentrate in the fertile river valleys of the midcontinent that had been cut by the outwash from the melting glaciers—the Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Tennessee and Illinois rivers and their major tributaries, known collectively as the Mississippi drainage. Sections of these valleys were forager paradises, and this was particularly true of the lower Illinois valley. Fish and mussels were abundant in the river, streams, and backwater lakes. Semi-annually, migratory waterfowl numbering in the millions streamed north or south along the valley, with the same bodies of water providing rest areas and food for the birds. Numerous species of seed-, nut- and tuber-producing plants grew in the open woodlands and marshes of the floodplain. Deer and nuts would have been most densely distributed in the uplands, particularly along the transitional zones between upland forest and prairie. All of these resources were within a day’s walk, and permanent settlements soon became the norm. This region was one of the ten areas in the world where plants were independently domesticated and by 4,000 BP bottle gourd, marshelder, sunflower, two varieties of chenopodium, and possibly squash and little barley were being cultivated. Then a millennium later, global climate change radically altered rainfall patterns in the Mississippi drainage, resulting in a centuries-long period of unprecedented flooding which disrupted the idyllic ecosystems the forager-gardeners had exploited. People left the valleys and dispersed across the uplands of the Midwest and Mid-South, and overall population levels may have declined. It took several more centuries before the river valley hydrodynamics and ecosystems again attained a highly productive stability. Populations that had been scattered for a millennium began to resettle the major valleys of the eastern Mississippi drainage by 2,000 BP.
This is when Hopewell appears. In part, Hopewell was an efflorescence of the exchange of exotica and burial ceremonialism that had been around for millennia and that in part functioned in the negotiation of inter- and intra-community status and relations. These practices were so pronounced at this time because of the scale of demographic redistribution and social contact as people flocked to the resource rich valleys. There were seemingly new elements as well. In Illinois, burial mounds took a form that represented the cosmological structure and origin of the world, such that the construction of a mound was a performance of an origin myth that tells of the Earth Diver. The world was covered in water, and man and various animals floated on a raft. After numerous animals unsuccessfully dove into the water, one of them succeeded in bringing a clump of mud from beneath the water, from which sprung the dry land we now inhabit. The luxurious habitats of the eastern Mississippi drainage had reemerged from the waters. Hopewell material culture represents the social negotiations of coalescing populations, but it also celebrates the recreation of the world.
Douglas K. Charles is a Professor of Anthropology and Archaeology at Wesleyan University.