Native American Government: Eastern Woodlands

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Native American Government: Eastern Woodlands


Adena cultures. The social organization of native cultures became more complex in eastern North America during the Woodlands era (1500 b.c. to a.d. 700). The climate of the eastern portion of the continent was mild, moist, and lush and capable of supporting communities with large populations. The Woodlands peoples lived in temporary settlements near rivers and tributaries in groups of 25 to 150 people. Most of the Woodlands Indians continued to pursue the same lifestyle and maintained the same informal political structure as their ancestors had done during the Archaic period. However, in one area of eastern North America, Indians developed a distinctive way of life called the Adena culture. The Adena peoples emerged about 500 b.c. and were concentrated in the upper Ohio River valley. While the Adena societies had begun to cultivate a few plants, they primarily continued to obtain the preponderance of their food supply by hunting and gathering. Like the rest of the Woodlands peoples, the Adena Indians lived in small temporary villages and continued to migrate from spot to spot within a broad geographical area. However, the Adena peoples were distinct from their neighbors in that they were evolving toward a more complicated pattern of sociopolitical organization. The best evidence of this increasing complexity were the physical structures they left behind. In an area within about 150 miles of present-day Chillicothe, Ohio, the Adena people built hundreds of burial mounds.

Population Centers

The Following is a list of the estimated populations of Cahokia and some major European cities during the thirteenth century:

City Population

Burial Practices. The Adena societies practiced a sophisticated religion that placed considerable significance on death, funeral ceremonies, and burial practices. Occasionally Adena societies met in large gatherings to honor and bury beloved or respected members of their society. After death the people placed the body of the deceased into a burial lodge. They allowed the corpse to decompose in the lodge until only the skeleton remained. At that point they buried the bones and began depositing baskets of dirt over the grave until they formed a small mound. In some cases the community constructed massive mounds over the gravesite. These mounds were the earliest major public-works projects in North America. These prominent burials suggest that the Adena societies had begun to elevate certain people to a special status. The burial sites of these individuals contained rare and valuable goods that were not indigenous to the region.

These unusual goods were obtained through trade networks that ranged across much of the continent. Some Adena graves contained obsidian and the teeth of sharks and alligators, items that were not natural to the Ohio Valley. Archeologists generally did not find these trade items in the graves surrounding these special individuals. Scholars have concluded that a small group of people held a monopoly over the access to these goods and used them while they were alive to signify or validate their elevated status in the society. Archeologists have also found that Adena cultures sometimes accorded different types of burial to different individuals. The Adena people cremated some bodies and placed them in clay urns. They buried others rather simply, without grave goods. They coated some corpses with the red mineral hematite. Some of the deceased were buried in elaborate tombs. Many of these differences can probably be attributed to simple local variations in custom. However, these distinctions in burial goods and mortuary methods are also evidence of the existence of stratified societies, that is, cultures in which the community divides people into different levels of social importance or value. Social stratification is important in examining the development of government because it suggests that a societys political structure is becoming more complex and hierarchical.

Hopewell. While the Adena peoples lived in a rather limited area, their culture influenced a region that extended from the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes and from the lower Missouri River to the Appalachian Mountains. In some areas the Adena culture continued to evolve toward greater social and political complication. Around the first century a.d., some of these Adena societies developed into what archaeologists refer to as the Hopewell culture. These scholars have identified Hopewell sites in the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys and along the Gulf Coast and in Florida. Hopewell societies carried larger populations than those of the Adena type and were spread over a larger geographical area. The burial mounds of the Hopewell societies tended to be larger and higher and were often formed in the shape of an animal or a geometric figure. Works such as these required community cooperation, engineering skills, and close management. Clearly some individuals during this period were developing specialized leadership abilities beyond those required for hunting and other subsistence activities. Hopewell mounds also included a wider variety of status goods. Some of the Hopewell graves included pearls, mica, quartz, bear teeth, copper, and other sacred minerals. Burial sites contained intricately designed pottery, statuettes, and clay or stone pipes that symbolized animals and spiritual beings. Apparently Hopewell societies cremated most of their deceased and reserved burial for only the most important or influential people. In some archeological sites it appears that hunters received a higher status in the community because their graves were more elaborately constructed and contained more status goods. Again, these distinctions in the way Hopewell societies treated their deceased demonstrated a trend toward social hierarchy. More than likely these cultures accorded certain families a special place of privilege. Some scholars suggest that these societies were marked by the emergence of big-men. These leaders acquired their position because of their ability to persuade others to agree with their positions on important matters. They also perhaps were able to develop influence by the clever creation of reciprocal obligations with other important members of the community. Whatever the source of their status and power, the emergence of big-men was another step toward the development of the highly structured and stratified sociopolitical organization called the chiefdom.


Patricia Galloway, Choctaw Genesis, 15001700 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995);

Alice Kehoe, North American Indians: A Comprehensive Account (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1981).

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