It takes a moment to wrap one’s head around the fact that Ohio’s first inhabitants hunted now long extinct animals such as mastodons, mammoths and giant sloths (leftover bones of which from someone’s meal can be seen at the Firelands Historical Society Museum in Norwalk, Ohio). These earliest people, who archeologists call the not especially creative name Paleo-Indians, also ate natural fruits, nuts and plants, making them hunter-gatherers. As the climate warmed, these Paleo-Indians, who thrived from about 8000 to 1000 b.c., also traded with people from far away places to get items such as marine shells and copper. Sometimes we think of people in what was effectively the stone age as unsophisticated, but just because they had limited technology didn’t mean they lacked the same brainpower and capacity to develop a complex civilization.
The SunWatch Indian Village/Archeological Park from which I gathered the above information wasn’t specific about whether the Paleo-Indians were replaced by those of the next era, the Early Woodland or Adena people, or if their civilization simply evolved into a new phase of sophistication. The Early Woodland People left no written records, so we have no idea what they called themselves. Certainly it wasn’t the Adena. This was the name of a nineteenth century estate owned by Thomas Worthington in Chillicothe on which remnants of this people were found. The Woodland People also traded from places afar and interned their dead in burial mounds. Their era stretches from about 1000 b.c. to 50 c.e. They may have constructed Serpent Mound in Peebles, Ohio.
The next humans to live in the area, the Middle Woodland people, did so from 50 to 450 c.e. and were known for building elaborate mounds. These people are called the Hopewell, who are named after Mordecai Hopewell, the man on whose land their mounds were excavated by Warren K. Moorehead. A museum information sign about them says, “Their settlements were not villages, but rather small hamlets.” Good to know except it doesn’t explain the difference between these two kinds of settlements, so I will. Hamlets have less than 100 people and rarely if ever have a central public building such as a church. Villages have central public buildings and usually a population between 100 and 1,000. Hopewell hamlets often had a mound in the center.
The next era of human habitation in Ohio is the Late Woodland period. It lasted from 450 to 1000 c.e. People of this time upgraded to villages, abandoned mound building, and started using bows and arrows. Well settled, they farmed and may have erected walls or dug ditches around their villages for defense. Corn was a staple of their diet, and their propensity for trade was far less than their predecessors.
The final prehistoric era in Ohio lasted from 1000 to 1750 c.e. and is the Late Prehistoric Period. During this time in the area that is now northern Kentucky and southern Ohio, a culture related to those in Mississippi called Fort Ancient flourished. This name derives from a place near Cincinnati called Fort Ancient that is made up of earthen walls but probably wasn’t used as a fort. No matter. The name has stuck. One subgroup of the Fort Ancient people were those who created what is now known as SunWatch Indian Village in Dayton. They lived here from about 1150 to 1450 c.e., though whether continuously or intermittently isn’t known.
The SunWatch museum’s information sign titled “What is Fort Ancient Culture?” has this to say about them: the “Fort Ancient culture … is defined by large villages, maize agriculture, and achieved social status. The Fort Ancient people did not build large mounds like the Adena and Hopewell but constructed small burial mounds near their villages. Evidence suggests that they built Serpent Mound.” Observant readers probably have noticed the last sentence in the quote contradicts the preceding one. Serpent Mound isn’t especially tall or wide, but it is long, making it indisputably large. Also, you may recall I mentioned Serpent Mound might have