The Adena Giant Revealed: Profile of Prehistoric Mound Builders
In the 1800s, reports began to surface of the discovery of very large skeletal remains in the burial mounds of North America. These skeletons were described as reaching seven to eight feet (2.4 meters) in length, with a lower frequency of discoveries spanning nine to 11 feet (3.3 meters) in length, and having very large skulls and gigantic lower jawbones.
Historians often detailed these remains in early local historical records, such as the following from Cass County, Michigan:
“It was a mound about thirteen feet high…. the diameter of its base was about fifty feet…Portions of the skeletons were in a good state of preservation. The femur, or thigh bone, of one of the males, which Dr Bonine has now in his possession, is of great size and indicates that its owner must have been at least seven feet in height”
-Alfred Matthews, History of Cass County, Michigan 1882
The Criel Mound in South Charleston West Virginia, photo courtesy of authors © Jason Jarrell and Sarah Farmer. The 35-foot (11 m) high and 175-foot (53 m)-diameter conical mound, is the second largest of its type in West Virginia.
Accounts of Exceptional Burial Mounds
Antiquarians also wrote about the anthropology of the tall ones in prehistoric mounds. The following is an account from Chillicothe, Ill. from American Antiquarian, Vol 2 No 1 (1879):
“A recent exploration of a mound near this place resulted in some interesting discoveries…The form was large, the jaws massive, and the teeth perfect.”
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As is well known, 19 th and early 20 th century newspapers frequently ran stories of gigantic skeletons found throughout the country. The following report from Portsmouth, Ohio was run by the News Herald on January 3, 1895:
“Bridge Carpenters on the N. & W. R. R. found a gigantic skeleton while excavating, three miles east of Portsmouth, a few days ago. The skeleton measured, 7 feet, 4 inches…”
In the 1880s, the Eastern Mound Division of the Smithsonian discovered a number of gigantic skeletons in their wanton destruction of North American tumuli. The 12 th Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology documents numerous gigantic skeletons found by Smithsonian agents:
“Near the original surface (of the mound)… lying at full length upon its back, was one of the largest skeletons discovered by the Bureau agents, the length as proved by actual measurement being between 7 and 8 feet.”
“In the center (of mound 11), 3 feet below the surface, was a vault 8 feet long and 3 feet wide. In the bottom of this…lay a skeleton fully 7 feet long…”
“The length from the base of the skull to the bones of the toes was found to be 7 feet 3 inches. It is probable, therefore, that this individual when living was 7.5 feet high.”
Pre-excavation view of the Adena Mound, located in Chillicothe, Ohio, United States, northwest of downtown. The type site for the Adena culture, the site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, even though the mound was removed decades ago. It was excavated in 1901. ( Public Domain )
Extraordinary Skeletal Features
The twentieth century saw the rediscovery of the ancient giants by mainstream archeologists. Working with Charles Snow, William S Webb (University of Kentucky) positively identified the unique skeletal features noted by the early sources with the people of the Adena Mound Building Culture. Webb and Snow’s analysis of the anthropology of Adena was described in The Adena People Number 1 (1945) and number 2 (co-written with Raymond S Baby, 1957):
“The forehead is typically a prominent one, bordered below by fairly prominent brow ridges….The characteristic bulge of the upper and lower jaws (alveolar prognathism) is moderate in projection…Usually the cheek bones are not only of large size in themselves but they have a forward and lateral prominence…” (Webb Snow and Baby, 1957)
In addition to these strong features, Webb Snow and Baby (1957) remarked upon the “great width of the bony chin, formed by bilateral eminences”.
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The typical Adena crania were extremely high vaulted (brachycephalic):
“Approximately 89% of the adult males, 92% of the adult females are brachycephalic.” (Webb and Snow 1945)
In their report on the Dover mound in Kentucky, Webb and Snow noted that the Adena crania to represent the “highest skull vaults reported anywhere in the world” (Webb and Snow, The Dover Mound . 1959) Cephalic indices measured for Adena range from 89 to 100. (Webb, Snow and Baby 1957)