Category Archives: Late Prehistoric archaeology


The following guest blog post was written by Robert Fletcher, currently a staff archaeologist/anthropologist for the Historic Preservation Division of the State of New Mexico. A substantial part of his early archaeological career, however, was devoted to elucidating the age and purpose of Serpent Mound.

Although I’ve somewhat lost touch lately with current happenings in Ohio archaeology, being occupied with archaeology in Egypt and the American Southwest for the past couple of decades, I recently came across the exciting news that new dates had been obtained for Serpent Mound. This caught my attention since I was the lead investigator of the research team whose excavations at Serpent Mound in 1991 led to a peer-reviewed publication of the results in the Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology (Spring 1996). This investigation was part of a ten-year effort begun in 1986 by Terry Cameron, his father, and myself to first, make an accurate map of Serpent Mound. Later, as our knowledge and interests expanded, we attempted to understand more of the prehistoric significance and, possibly, the construction era of the effigy. Ultimately we were fortunate enough to recruit Dr.’s Bradley Lepper and Dee Anne Wymer (our esteemed paleobotanist), and field archaeologist extraordinaire William Pickard for our actual excavation efforts.serpent MCJA

We employed generally accepted excavation practices and documentation during the project and eventually obtained two charcoal samples from clearly cultural levels, which were submitted for AMS radiocarbon dating. Both samples produced identical dates of 920 +- 70 years B.P. We also encountered charcoal apparently associated with a chert flake well below the base of the mound. This charcoal produced a date of 2920 +- 55 years B.P.  A hill contour projection in one of our figures clearly indicates where the original hill surface should be seen in the profile and it was noted where expected.

Based on the dates, iconography, stratigraphy, and other evidence (including a review of everything in the Ohio prehistoric literature published from 1843 to 1996), all of us came to the conclusion (not without considerable argument) that the Early Fort Ancient period had the best explanatory value as a date for construction. (If anything, the dates were a little disappointing to me – I was secretly hoping for something even earlier than Adena!). There were also numerous discussions, and presentations in various venues, at the time with other members of the Ohio archaeological community. We gave a preliminary version of the paper at one of the Ohio Archaeological Council meetings (in fulfillment of our grant requirement), which resulted in an invitation by the MCJA editor to submit a paper, which we did. The point is our efforts were not conducted in some sort of an archaeological vacuum. Our findings were tentative and clearly stated as such a number of times in the article, which reflected the latest research at the time and the only in-ground excavation conducted into the Serpent Mound effigy since Putnam a century previously.

It is quite encouraging to note that a 2011 CRM project by ASC Group was able to confirm Putnam’s discovery of both Adena and Fort Ancient components in the “Village site” areas south and west of the present museum. Of special interest was the buried ‘A’ horizon found just north of the large conical mound by ASC Group during their investigation of the site. Daniel Weintraub and Kevin Schwarz, the authors of the report, found the date significant because it indicated “the continued use of the area surrounding the conical mound long after Adena occupation of the site. In addition, the possibility of ritual activity associated with the Adena conical mound by the Fort Ancient peoples raises questions about the relationship between the two cultural groups’ occupations and possible continuity in the use of the site.”

I have thought for quite some time now that it is investigations such as ASC’s, focused on non-effigy areas that hold the most potential for advancing our understanding of Serpent Mound’s temporal placement and the prehistoric occupation sequence on the ridge top.

I do have questions about the recently announced Early Woodland dates for Serpent Mound. As I understand it, the charcoal for these dates was derived from core sampling. One well-known issue with core sampling (as opposed to a Phase III data-recovery excavation in metric intervals) is that it is subject to a number of uncertainties, not least of which is sediment compaction in the tube, which can lead to considerable depth skewing and would make the absolute in-ground location of any charcoal samples acquired using this method questionable. Soil coring is generally employed during the preliminary stages of a project to determine the extent of a site, and/or find the most useful areas to excavate so we don’t unnecessarily damage cultural resources. It is not generally used to specifically determine absolute depth and context for any datable material recovered in the core – that kind of precision usually requires excavation.

Until we can see a peer-reviewed publication on the latest dates, the jury remains out, and in any case, the findings may or may not necessarily demonstrate any compelling need for a dramatic reinterpretation of the currently-postulated Serpent Mound construction date. None of us who were part of the 1991 excavation team has any particular emotional attachment to a Fort Ancient construction date – it is simply where the evidence pointed. Being but another milestone in the on-going saga, our results are subject to reinterpretation – or confirmation – by (hoped for) future investigators with new and better technologies. Things change and science marches on. Our 1991 investigation was another chapter in a story that began at least a thousand years ago and continues to this day.

Robert V. Fletcher


npr blogNational Public Radio’s All Things Considered came to Serpent Mound last week in the person of Noah Adams. His story, “The Ohio Snake Art That’s Been Mid-Slither For A Millennium,” was broadcast on today’s program. It’s a relatively short segment and the story wasn’t focused on the science of Serpent Mound. (In fact, one of my sound bites refers to my decidedly UNscientific feelings about this magical place.)

In the time allowed, there was no opportunity for a discussion about the complexities of the ongoing debate over the age of Serpent Mound. Noah refers to my current judgement that the effigy mound was built by people of the Fort Ancient culture and, as regular readers of this blog will know, that is my view in spite of new radiocarbon dates for the site that suggest it’s a millennium older than that.

Regardless of the story’s brevity, Noah does a wonderful job of conveying the essence of the place and why you should want to come and experience it for yourself. If you’ve never been to the Serpent, I hope listening to the story convinces you that it’s time to make the trip. And if you’ve been there, but it’s been years since your last visit, then maybe it’s time to see it again with a new sense of appreciation for this wonder of the ancient world.

Maybe I’ll see you there.

Noah Adams (left) and Brad Lepper standing in front of the Serpent Mound
Noah Adams (left) and Brad Lepper standing in front of the Serpent Mound

Brad Lepper


int women dayIn honor of International Women’s Day, we present an effigy pipe depicting a woman from ancient Ohio. She is shown in the act of either making a pottery vessel or perhaps cooking something in that vessel. The artist has cleverly used the pot to serve as the bowl of the pipe.

The pipe was made during the Late Prehistoric period, somewhere between about A.D. 1000 and 1600.

Who is she? Does she represent an ordinary woman engaged in an everyday domestic task? Is she a character from what was then a well-known story? Is she a supernatural being?

What do you think?

Female effigy pipe (A4721/001). Approximately 3 1/2 inches tall.
Three views of a female effigy pipe (A4721/001). Approximately 3.5 inches tall.

The Archaeoastronomy of Alligator Mound

Thoughts on the Archaeoastronomy of Alligator Mound

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Alligator Mound crouched atop this bluff overlooking the Raccoon Creek Valley in Granville, Ohio.

by Guest Blogger Jeff Gill

On a hilltop overlooking the valley within which sit the Newark Earthworks, there perches an earthwork over 200 feet long, an effigy of sorts with a name that is a mystery in its own right, and a one-time stone mound with stories all its own now missing, but hidden in plain sight nearby.

Alligator Mound, if it were the only ancient monument in Licking County, Ohio, would probably get more attention. The work of curator of archaeology Brad Lepper  has shown the likelihood that the name connects back to a creature from Eastern Woodland American Indian traditions, the “Underwater Panther” known as Mishepishu to the Ojibwe: a creature whose jaws are strong and don’t let go, living in the pools and slackwater eddies of the rivers and creeks where American Indians fished and gathered, but with connections to whirlpools stirred up by the long curling tail it brandished, and to the “lower world” beneath the surfaces of our everyday lands.

This creature, this “Underwater Panther,” described to early European settlers, would have evoked a creature never seen in these northern waters, and not really well outlined in our mound’s shape, but the common mythic description might have sounded like an alligator to pioneer people, and the native interlocutors would have likely shrugged and said “sure, an alligator” if asked if that was what they had described.

The Squier and Davis (1848) map of Alligator Mound compared to the constellation Scorpio, which has been linked to the Underwater Panther in some American Indian traditions.
The Squier and Davis (1848) map of Alligator Mound compared to the constellation Scorpio, which has been linked to the Underwater Panther in some American Indian traditions.

Mishepishu, the “Underwater Panther,” was also associated with the summer constellation we call Scorpio: claws to the west, a curl of long tail behind dangling easterly. Summer is when this assemblage of stars, with Antares the glowing red heart, peers above the southern horizon, and summer is when American Indians would have been out wading and fishing and collecting in the watercourses, warning the young of caught feet and undertow in swirling currents.

The shape of Scorpio is dramatically echoed in this bluff-top mound, another connection. The head of this creature, whatever the name, points to the southern end of what today is Mount Parnassus in Granville, to the southwest. The axial alignment of head, shoulders, spine, and most of the tail points to a spot on the southwest horizon which is astronomically not terribly significant, a point that is sunset about a month before, and a month after the winter solstice, a universally significant marker for ancient peoples anywhere in the world.

axial alignment
The solstice and equinox sunrises and sunsets align with the spiral at the tail’s east end and the four footpad platforms. In this image the setting sun casts a shadow across the Alligator at axial alignment minus two or three days. Photograph by Jeff Gill

The main axis of the Alligator does not appear to be aligned to anything in particular, but it’s at least interesting to note that when the sun begins to rise to the south of the head’s orientation, you are in the darkest, shortest days of the year; whereas when it starts to rise back to the north, or to the right of the centerline, you have no doubt at all that daylight is longer even though there are cold nights and snowy ice-laden days ahead. Is the meaning tied to that visceral reality?

And then there is the eastern end of that long tail. The tail is long, and like Scorpio, it curves around. Some suggest that a possum is one analogue to this mound, because they also have prehensile tails and a pouch within which their young are hidden… and branching out from the midsection of the “Alligator” is a ten foot wide ridge leading to the remnants of a stone platform. The story goes that most of the stones from this altar were sledged down past today’s St. Edward’s Catholic Church to become the foundations of Tannery Hill, a private home near Clear Run that may be the oldest standing structure in central Ohio, let alone Licking County, going back to 1806 or so.

Possums aside, that spiral draws the eye, and evokes comparisons. Ohio’s other effigy mound, the better known Serpent Mound in Adams County, ends in a spiral, and to the east as well. And if you stand at the end of the spiral, whether your own shadow or a staff in hand, you cast a line on the Vernal Equinox that at sunrise arcs across the body of the Alligator, south of the former stone altar, and cuts right across the northwest, right front forepaw of the effigy.

In fact, the same exercise at sunrise will show a very rough alignment from the spiral center to the right rear paw “platform” at the winter solstice sunrise, or to the left rear paw “platform” at the summer solstice sunrise. And you get equally intriguing results at sunsets, as is astronomically always the case, echoing back in the opposite directions.

Appropriately enough, the “lost” paw at the southwest corner, which collapsed after it was undermined by a stone quarry dug below it in the mid 1800s, does not seem to have any alignment of clear astronomical significance… but then again, neither does the central axis of the figure, unless you presume a meaningfulness to this ancient work in the first place.

In those classic words of scholarly archaeology, “further research is needed”!sign

Jeff Gill is a program assistant at the Newark Earthworks Center and interpreter for sites around the Licking County region.


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Sketch of the Barnesville Track Rocks made by Charles Whittlesey (1872).

The Barnesville Track Rocks are a panel of rock art located in Belmont County, Ohio. They are owned and protected by the Archaeological Conservancy.

According to the National Register nomination, the petroglyphs  were carved by the Adena culture, but James Swauger, author of the definitive book Petroglyphs of Ohio, argued persuasively that all of Ohio’s rock art was carved “later rather than earlier during the eight hundred and fifty years of the Late Prehistoric Period, say during the five hundred and fifty years from A.D. 1200 to about A.D. 1750.”

In recent years, there have been reports of depictions of mammoths, mastodons or elephants at Barnesville. This would be surprising for two reasons. First, these creatures would have been unknown to the American Indians of the Late Prehistoric Period so, if authentic, they must date to an earlier period — perhaps the Paleoindian Period when people lived alongside both mastodons and mammoths.

Another reason they are surprising is that these elephant carvings were not noticed by Charles Whittlesey and James Salisbury, who investigated the site in 1869. Nor were they recorded by James Swauger who studied the site during the 1970s. It’s possible these rather faint petroglyphs simply escaped the notice of these scholars, but it’s also possible they were added by someone since then.

It’s tremendously exciting to think that they could have been carved by Paleoindians, but a recent study reported in the Winter 2013-14 issue of the Archaeological Conservancy’s magazine American Archaeology indicates the elephant carvings have “a probable age of about one hundred years.” That means they fall into “the period of the other modern graffiti” at the site.

So, Ohio does not yet have a confirmed example of Ice Age art, but this doesn’t diminish the significance of the Barnesville Track Rocks, which are one of the most elaborate and well preserved petroglyph panels in the state.

Brad Lepper


CERHAS rendering of Serpent Mound

Sometimes it seems like everything about Serpent Mound is shrouded in mystery — or at least controversy.

Just about everyone agrees that the mound does, indeed, represent a gigantic serpent, but beyond that the answers to even basic questions, such as who built it, still are being debated.

At the Midwest Archaeological Conference held last month in Columbus, Bill Romain presented a paper entitled “Serpent Mound Project Results 2013.” His co-authors included William Monaghan (Indiana University), Jarrod Burks (Ohio Valley Archaeology, Inc.), Michael Zaleha (Wittenburg University), Karen Leone (Gray and Pape, Inc.), Tim Schilling (Midwest Archaeological Center), Al Tonetti (ASC Group), Matthew Purtill (Gray and Pape, Inc.) and Edward Herrmann (Indiana University).

The results presented by Bill were not limited to a discussion of the Serpent’s age, but since that’s the only aspect of his team’s work that I disagree with that’s the focus of my November column in the Columbus Dispatch and this blog post.

Bill has been arguing for years that the Serpent was built by the Hopewell culture. I have argued that it makes much more sense as a Fort Ancient culture effigy mound.

View of the initial 1991 excavation into a previously disturbed portion of Serpent Mound interpreted as one of Putnam’s trenches. From left to right, DeeAnne Wymer, Terry Cameron, Brad Lepper, Robert Fletcher.

In 1991, I worked with a team of amateur and professional archaeologists that recovered bits of charcoal from the Serpent. The charcoal produced two radiocarbon dates both around A.D. 1120. This roughly corresponds to the age of the vast majority of other effigy mounds in eastern North America, including Ohio’s other effigy mound — Licking County’s so-called Alligator. Also, the art of this period throughout eastern North America is rich in serpent symbolism. So, even without the radiocarbon dates, Serpent Mound fits rather comfortably into the context of what was happening throughout eastern North America at about this same time.

I think it’s fair to say that, over the last two decades, this interpretation has become accepted by most North American archaeologists — but all scientific knowledge is provisional and subject to rejection or revision in the light of new data or better arguments.

In his presentation, Bill stated five principal reasons for thinking the Serpent was built by the Adena culture, circa 600 B.C. to A.D. 100:

1. As part of his team’s 2011 investigation, they recovered several bits of charcoal from soil cores, which produced radiocarbon ages that average around 300 B.C.

2. Serpent iconography is present in Adena and Hopewell art.

3. His team recovered no Fort Ancient artifacts in their soil cores.

4. He expressed the opinion that the radiocarbon dates obtained for the Serpent in 1991 do not relate to the original construction of the mound, because they came from near the surface and were either in a disturbed context or relate to a re-furbishing of the mound in Fort Ancient times.

5. The design of the mound appears to incorporate “Adena and Hopewell metrics.”

I’m not convinced by Bill’s arguments and here’s why:

1. The charcoal was not found in a secure context. The fragments Romain’s team recovered from soil cores may be from the Adena occupation that Putnam discovered at the site. The Fort Ancient builders of Serpent Mound may have dug into the buried remains of Adena cooking fires while excavating for the earth used to build the mound and then accidentally incorporated some of that charcoal into the mound.

2. Serpent imagery is virtually absent in Adena art. The only example Romain mentioned in his presentation was the vaguely serpentine pattern on the loin cloth of the man on the Adena Pipe. There are serpents in Hopewell art, but just about every other animal that lived in Ohio also is represented. Serpents appear to have been regarded by the Hopewell as, at best, just one among many potential spirit guardians.

Sandstone palette engraved with two intertwined serpent monsters from a Mississippian mound in the state of Mississippi. Ohio Historical Society collections.

In contrast, serpents are a hugely important component of Mississippian symbolism. Especially important examples include rattlesnake palettes, rattlesnake engravings on shell gorgets, and the amazing Birger figurine.

Of course the Fort Ancient is not, strictly speaking, a Mississippian culture, but these people did live in a Mississippian world and to a greater or lesser extent they were active participants in that world and would have shared much of its cosmology.

3. It is unusual to recover artifacts in soil cores generally and anyway, Putnam didn’t report finding any artifacts at all in his excavation of the Serpent. Romain did not say whether his team recovered any Adena or Hopewell artifacts in their cores, but if he had I think he would have mentioned it.

4. The soil samples we recovered in 1991 and from which we obtained the charcoal that gave us the Fort Ancient dates were by no means from near the surface. Moreover, in our excavation profile we observed no evidence of any re-furbishing of the mound other than Putnam’s restorations in the 1880s. There was a distinct boundary between the intact mound deposits and the material added by Putnam, so we’re reasonably sure our samples came from deep within the original mound.

Photograph of the 1991 excavation into Serpent Mound compared to our stratigraphic profile. The darker layer at the top (including both strata I & II) is earth added by Putnam when he restored the mound. The light colored layer (including both strata III & IV) is the remnant of the original mound. The profile shows the locations of the two soil samples, 4A and 5A, from which we recovered charcoal. Both samples produced dates of around AD 1120. Modified from Figures 9 and 10 in Fletcher et al. 1996.
Photograph of the 1991 excavation into Serpent Mound compared to our stratigraphic profile. The darker layer at the top (including both strata I & II) is earth added by Putnam when he restored the mound. The light colored layer (including both strata III & IV) is the remnant of the original mound. The profile shows the locations of the two soil samples, 4A and 5A, from which we recovered charcoal. Both samples produced dates of around AD 1120. Modified from Figures 9 and 10 in Fletcher et al. 1996.

5. The alleged use of “Adena and Hopewell metrics” by the builders of Serpent Mound is an interesting, but controversial claim. Even if true, it would only demonstrate that the mound was built during or after the Adena and Hopewell eras. The modern foot appears to have been adopted in Europe in the early 12th century A.D. and structures incorporating this “Norman metric” are still being designed and built today.

So, who built Serpent Mound? We still don’t know for sure. Given our inability so far to recover and date charcoal clearly related to the construction of the mound, future investigations may attempt to resolve the controversy by using new dating techniques, such as Optically Stimulated Luminescence, to provide a definitive answer. Until that happens, I think the existing data point to the Fort Ancient culture as the most likely builders of the Great Serpent. If it’s an Adena mound it’s a wildly precocious anomaly, whereas if it’s a Fort Ancient mound, it is still an anomaly, but it’s not unprecedented — it fits within a broad, regional tradition of effigy mound building that includes Alligator Mound and the Kern stone serpent effigies located in the Little Miami Valley.

Timeline showing the overlap of radiocarbon dates for Serpent Mound, Alligator Mound and the hundreds of effigy mounds in the upper Midwest. The specific cultural connections between the Ohio mounds and those of Wisconsin and Iowa are not strong, but the people in Ohio could not have been entirely unaware of the revolution in mound-building taking place in the upper Mississippi valley. Graphic from Lepper 2001.
Timeline showing the overlap of radiocarbon dates for Serpent Mound, Alligator Mound and the hundreds of effigy mounds in the upper Midwest. The specific cultural connections between the Ohio mounds and those of Wisconsin and Iowa are not strong, but the people in Ohio could not have been entirely unaware of the revolution in mound-building taking place in the upper Mississippi valley. Graphic from Lepper 2001.

I look forward to reading the final report of the investigations by Romain’s team, which undoubtedly will include more data and a fuller presentation of their interpretations. Even if I end up still disagreeing with their assessment of the age of the Serpent, I am sure I will learn a lot that I didn’t know before about this amazing mound.

For further reading

Burks, Jarrod
2012 Ohio’s Great Serpent Mound surveyed. ISAP News 32, pp. 6-7.

Fletcher, Robert, Terry Cameron, Bradley T. Lepper, Dee Anne Wymer, and William Pickard
1996 Serpent Mound: a Fort Ancient icon? Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology 21:105-143.

Lepper, Bradley T.
1998 Great Serpent. Timeline 15(5):30-45.

2001 Ohio’s Alligator. Timeline 18(2):18-25.

Lepper, Bradley T. and Tod A. Frolking
2003 Alligator Mound: geoarchaeological and iconographical interpretations of a Late Prehistoric effigy mound in central Ohio, USA. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 13(2):147-167.

Romain, William F.
2000 The Serpent Mound. In Mysteries of the Hopewell: astronomers, geometers, and magicians of the eastern Woodlands, pp. 233-253. University of Akron Press.

Weintraub, Daniel and Kevin R. Schwarz
2013 Long shadows over the valley: findings from ASC Group’s excavations at Serpent Mound State Memorial. Current Research in Ohio Archaeology 2013.

Brad Lepper


oac 1Daniel Weintraub and Kevin R. Schwartz present a summary of the results of the recent archaeological investigations undertaken at Serpent Mound by ASC Group Inc.

Their paper, “Long Shadows Over the Valley: Findings from ASC Group’s Excavations at Serpent Mound State Memorial” is available on the Ohio Archaeological Council’s website.

Kevin Schwartz and the ASC Group team uncovered traces left by the Adena culture, the Fort Ancient culture as well as artifacts from the historic era.

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The ASC Group, Inc. team conducting excavations at Serpent Mound. The large, conical Adena burial mound is in the background.

They conclude that “continued  excavations of the area surrounding Serpent Mound will yield additional discoveries with the potential to influence future interpretations about the mound and the inhabitants of the plateau.”



bow and arrowThe bow and arrow is so powerfully linked to popular stereotypes of American Indians that most people tend to refer to any flint point they come across as an arrowhead. Actually, the vast majority of flint points found across the Americas were spearpoints (or knives). The bow and arrow was a late invention and it didn’t show up in Ohio until A.D. 300 at the earliest. So the only stone points around for more than 90% of prehistory were spearpoints, not arrowheads.

The bow and arrow appears to have rapidly replaced the spear and atlatl (or spearthrower) across much of North America, so the new weapon system must have offered some clear advantages. Just exactly what those advantages were is a matter of some debate.Blitz 1

Regardless of precisely why the bow was preferred, a new theory proposes that its introduction changed just about everything for those ancient cultures who adopted it and, eventually, for those that didn’t. I review this new idea, known as Social Coercion Theory, in my August column in the Columbus Dispatch, but you can read all the gory details in the May/June 2013 issue of the journal Evolutionary Anthropology, which is largely devoted to evaluating the theory.

One of the articles in the issue considers what happened in eastern North America in the light of Social Coercion Theory. The authors, John Blitz and Erik Porth, conclude that the evidence fits the predictions of the theory: “In the Eastern Woodlands, the bow was a catalyst for the important social transformations of the Late Woodland period and a prerequisite for accelerating social complexity.”

Blitz and Porth describe the transition from spearpoints to early arrowheads, which were smaller than the spearpoints, but otherwise not much different, followed by the introduction of a more refined and specialized arrowhead that may have been introduced into the region from elsewhere. In the attached figure, I use flint points from the collections of the Ohio Historical Society to illustrate this sequence.

spearpoint and arrowheads

The Robbins spearpoint (A 82/000003.002) is typical of the late Adena culture, which dates from about 500 B.C. to A.D. 200. The specimen in the figure is 46 mm wide.

The Hopewell point (A 07/000031.002) is a smaller spearpoint typical of the Hopewell culture in Ohio from about 100 B.C. to A.D. 400. The specimen in the figure is 36 mm wide.

Blitz and Porth would regard the Chesser Notched point (A 1956/000019.003) as an early arrowhead. It dates to the Late Woodland period or between around A.D. 300 and 700. The design is clearly derived from the larger Hopewell spearpoints, but it is significantly smaller. This specimen is 23 mm wide.

The Madison point (A 1013/000015.002) is an example of a Late Woodland to Late Prehistoric arrowpoint. It dates to between A.D. 800 and 1450. According to Blitz and Porth, these refined triangular points have “no obvious indigenous prototypes or transitional forms” in the Ohio region. They speculate that they are derived from earlier triangular points from sites farther west. This specimen is 16 mm wide.

The Fort Ancient point (A 1929/000081.007) dates to between A.D. 1100 – 1450. It is 15 mm wide. According to Blitz and Porth, this point would be representative of a “new diversity of arrowpoint forms” that also seem to originate in the west – perhaps on the Great Plains. The serrations and barbs would have made the point difficult to extract from a wound suggesting it was intended mainly to be used against people. Certainly, there is increasing evidence for violent conflict during this period.

Blitz and Porth also see a link between the adoption of the bow and the increasing importance of maize as a staple food. John shared the following thoughts with me in an e-mail:

“Adoption of the bow gave families greater economic independence by changing hunting strategies so that fewer people were needed to hunt efficiently. This change allowed families to settle permanently in locations that had only been used as temporary foraging areas previously. However, over time, as the landscape filled and populations grew in Late Woodland times, people had to get more resources from smaller territories, or face conflict with their neighbors, made more deadly by the widespread use of the bow (and perhaps more powerful bows). So they began to intensify corn production to fill the need. Erik and I argue that this is why corn was merely a supplementary food for several centuries until rapidly expanded in the Late Woodland period in the Midwest.”

Ultimately, perhaps inevitably, the upward (or downward depending on your point of view) spiral of agricultural intensification and militarization – initiated by the adoption of the bow — resulted in the rise of centralized authority during the Mississippian period. And although there were no Mississippian temple mound centers in Ohio, Rob Cook’s research at SunWatchVillage in Dayton suggests it might only have been a matter of time before that level of socio-cultural complexity developed here, too. Of course we’ll never know what might have been, because the arrival of Europeans with their infamous guns, germs and steel violently derailed American Indian cultural history in the OhioValley.

The Social Coercion Theory is a compelling explanation for the rise of social complexity generally and it seems to work for the Eastern Woodlands. If you’re interested in the topic I recommend to your attention all the articles in the latest issue of Evolutionary Anthropology.

Brad Lepper

Blitz 2


The Dayton Society of Natural History presents a new exhibit at the Boonshoft Museum of Discovery showcasing ancient (and some not so ancient) ceramics. “Impressions of the Past: exploring the cultural properties of pottery” includes examples of Native American ceramic vessels from all over North and South America. It also features a focus on the pottery of Ohio’s SunWatch Village and a case of historic-era European-American ceramics.

The exhibit explores “the dual nature of pottery as both a functional tool and a symbolic representation of people and culture.”

Interspersed with the pottery are pieces from the Dayton Society of Natural History’s other collections, including beautiful samples of the minerals used to make the pigments used on the pots and taxidermy specimens of the animals that are featured as decorations on several of the pottery vessels.

The exhibit is a wonderful introduction to the importance of cermics in the lives of people across the Americas and through time.

Brad Lepper


The Wilderness Center, a non-profit Nature Center and Land Trust, produces the Wild Ideas podcast. I am featured in the latest program discussing the origins of plant domestication in the Ohio Valley.

We frequently are taught that the reason ancient people decided to become farmers was to take advantage of the obvious benefits of being able to grow your own food rather than having to rely on what nature provided. You might be surprised, therefore, to learn that the benefits may not have been quite so obvious to hunters and gatherers.

In fact, the biologist Jared Diamond has written that humanity’s collective decision to shift from hunting and gathering to farming may have been the “worst mistake in the history of the human race.”

Check out the podcast to find out why.

Brad Lepper