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Native copper nugget from glacial drift, Ontonagon County, Michigan. An example of the raw material worked by the people of the Old Copper Complex

The Cult of the Dead in Prehistoric America


Long ago, a type of ritualized worldview spread throughout a broad expanse of north-eastern America, described in the archaeological literature as the ancient ‘Cult of the Dead’ or the ‘Eastern Burial Cult’. Emerging at around 1500 BC from even older cults associated with the prehistoric Great Lakes Copper Industry, the new culture expanded into southern Ontario and the Ohio River Valley in rapid fashion. At this time ornamental copper artifacts began to appear in graves, which implies that a new way of life had emerged in which individuals - if not entire lineages - were attaining some type of status in their respective communities.

Great Lakes District of North America. (Public Domain)

Great Lakes District of North America. ( Public Domain )

Such leaders also seem to have managed long-distance trade, as exotic artifacts from the Great Plains and the Gulf Coast were imported into Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, southern Ontario and the Ohio Valley, where they served as prestige goods deposited with the dead. Large regional cemeteries also became more common, as dispersed bands of hunter-gatherers organized to bury their dead together at predetermined seasonal events. Promoting all of these transformations and integrating larger and larger numbers of dispersed peoples into the emergent network, were a series of beliefs and rituals, which left their mark at some of the most remarkable archaeological sites in North America.

Red Ocher and Glacial Kame Burials

In the 20th century, archaeologists formulated two theoretical cultures, which were part of the Late Archaic Cult of the Dead—known as the Red Ocher and Glacial Kame traditions. As authors have elaborated recently, Red Ocher and Glacial Kame are now widely considered ‘twins’ or variations of the same tradition, due in no small part to the discovery of diagnostic artifacts in the tombs of either culture. The Chronological expanse of Red Ocher/Glacial Kame ranges from 1500 BC to roughly 400 BC.  Red Ocher burials are usually found in sandy knolls or small artificial burial mounds, where the dead and artifacts are liberally covered in red ocher. An important aspect of Red Ocher ceremonialism is the placement of several types of bifaces with the deceased or in ritual caches near burials. These include ‘Turkey-Tail’ bifaces, leaf shaped and lanceolate blades, and ovate-base Adena blades. The Turkey-Tail varieties are named for their resemblance to the tail of a turkey when plucked of its feathers.


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Jason Jarrell and Sarah Farmer  are investigative historians and avocational archaeologists. They study many subjects including depth psychology, Biblical mysteries, political science, and comparative mythology. They’re also authors of the book,  Ages of the Giants: A Cultural History of the Tall Ones in Prehistoric America  (2017). |  ParadigmCollision.com

Top Image : Native copper nugget from glacial drift, Ontonagon County, Michigan. An example of the raw material worked by the people of the Old Copper Complex ( Rob Lavinsky  / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

By Jason Jarrell and Sarah Farmer



Jason Jarrell is a student of archaeology, philosophy and depth psychology. 

His first full book is Ages of the Giants: A Cultural History of  the Tall Ones in Prehistoric America, co-written with Sarah Farmer. The book traces the history of... Read More

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