Adena Culture

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Sunflowers were one of the first plants grown by Woodland tradition farmers.

800 B.C. to A.D. 1

The Adena culture refers to the Ancient Ohioans that lived in southern Ohio and neighboring regions of West Virginia, Kentucky, and Indiana during the Early Woodland Period. They were the first people in this region to settle in small villages, cultivate crops, use pottery vessels, acquire exotic raw materials such as copper and marine shell to make ornaments and jewelry, and bury their honored dead in conical burial mounds.

This transition from a purely hunter-gatherer society to an existence focused on agriculture is sometimes referred to as the "Neolithic Revolution," but in Ohio, the process was more evolutionary than revolutionary. The Late Archaic ancestors of the Adena already had begun to gather intensively many of the plants that would become the staple crops in the Early Woodland Period. In addition they occasionally made pottery and used copper and shell to make ornaments.

The Adena grew a variety of plants in their gardens, including squash, sunflower, sump weed, goosefoot, knotweed, and may grass. This set of native plants often is referred to as the Eastern Agricultural Complex. The Ohio and Mississippi valleys were one of only seven regions in the world where people turned local plants into the basis for an economy based on agriculture. The consequences of this change in how people made a living would be far-reaching.

The Adena lived in small villages near their gardens, but they likely moved frequently as they continued to follow a hunter-gatherer way of life, which they supplemented with the harvest from their gardens. Adena pottery consisted of large, thick-walled vessels that likely were used to cook the ground-up seeds of the Eastern Agricultural Complex into gruel akin to oatmeal.

The Adena cemented their ties to particular regions by burying their dead in prominent mounds that may have served as territorial markers. Sometimes the mounds would be accompanied by small, circular earthen enclosures that surrounded ritual spaces. The Miamisburg Mound, in Montgomery County, is the largest example of an Adena burial mound in Ohio.

A mound would be started with the burial of a principal leader. As more famed tribesmen passed away, they would layer the burial chambers on top of one another, growing the mound. Not all members of a tribe would be buried like this and it is still unknown what the Adena did with their dead who were not entombed in a mound.

The mounds stood between two and seventy feet tall with a circumference that peaked around three hundred feet in diameter. Within the tombs there were ceremonial items significant to the deceased including smoking pipes, jewelry, and shells. Development, farming, and vandalism have damaged or destroyed most of the Adena burial mounds in Ohio, leaving only a handful of sites intact.

By 100 B.C., some of the Adena groups had begun to build larger earthworks and expand their efforts to acquire exotic raw materials. These groups became the Hopewell culture, but many people continued to follow the old ways and in some regions, such as southwestern Ohio, the Adena culture persisted well into the 1st century A.D.

It is important to emphasize that “Adena” is not the name of a Native American tribe. We do not know what these people may have called themselves. Instead, it is a term of archaeological convenience that encompasses similarities in artifact style, architecture, and other cultural practices that distinguish the Adena culture from earlier and later cultures in the region. The name comes from the name of the estate of Governor Thomas Worthington in Chillicothe, Ohio. A large mound on this property was called the Adena Mound. Since this mound site exemplified all the significant features of the culture, it became the "type site" and the name of the site was applied to the entire culture.