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Prehistoric Native American Site in Ohio Reflects Ancient Beliefs About the Cosmos

Prehistoric Native American Site in Ohio Reflects Ancient Beliefs About the Cosmos

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It is known that 2,300 years ago Native Americans who lived near the Huron River observed the sky above them. The researchers recently discovered a prehistoric site, believed to have been used for celebrations, which appears to echo their conception of the cosmos.

According to Fox News , the team of archeologists from the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, the University of Toledo and the Firelands Archaeological Research Center in Amherst, uncovered the ceremonial site, which is a part of the Heckelman excavation site. The researchers worked in the area of a hilltop nearby the Huron River in Milan, Ohio's Eire Country, United States, for five years.

The curator at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and archeologist who led the excavations, Brian Redmond , summarized the results of the work in the article Connecting Heaven and Earth: Interpreting Early Woodland Nonmortuary Ceremonialism in Northern Ohio , which was published in Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology .

The site consists of an oval ditch that enclosed a flat area of 87,000 square feet (8,080 square meters), which was surrounded by clusters of 12ft (3.6 m) tall poles. The people of the period, called 'the ' Early Woodland people'', erected the group of tall wooden poles as a part of their religious ceremonies.

A post pit at the Heckelman site, showing a large post mold at the base of the basin.

A post pit at the Heckelman site, showing a large post mold at the base of the basin. Credit: Brian Redmond, Cleveland Museum of Natural History

Due to the analysis presented by Redmond, it is known that many local tribes had their own vision of the three-layered cosmos: the upper world, the middle world that we live in, and an underworld. According to the researchers, the site is an echo of a conception of the cosmos, common to many Native Americans.  

Prehistoric sites in Ohio usually focused on burials or mound building. However, the most surprising part of this discovery is that the Early Woodland people had not used the site for mortuary rituals or any other rituals related to death. No burials were found at the site and every indication is that the ceremonies conducted there were celebrations in connection with their concept of a three-layered cosmos.  The site was surrounded by water, which was symbolic of the third-layer, the underworld, while the wooden poles pointed in the direction of the first layer – the upper world.

"So this could have been seen as a spiritually powerful landscape where you connected the three worlds together," Redmond said. It provides evidence that the prehistoric people had a ceremonial and religious life that was much more complex than initially believed.

Block excavation area of an unusual oval enclosure showing Early Woodland pits, post pits and large post molds, offering the earliest evidence of nonmortuary ceremonialism in Ohio.

Block excavation area of an unusual oval enclosure showing Early Woodland pits, post pits and large post molds, offering the earliest evidence of nonmortuary ceremonialism in Ohio. Credit: Brian Redmond, Cleveland Museum of Natural History

Redmond told LiveScience:

"Unlike other sites where we have post molds, these don't represent the walls of a structure or a specific building. They seem to be freestanding, upright poles, which would indicate they had some different kind of function. When I was looking at all the data and maps of the distribution of these poles, it's kind of a habit to try to make them into a structure, to look for rectangles or circles or something like a building, and I was really frustrated by the fact that I couldn't do that in the end. And then I realized, these are something else."

Apart from this, the archeologists discovered hundreds of artifacts, including spear tops, flint knives, pottery, stone tools and food remains. All of them became a part of the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History .

The Heckelman site is a unique place among the Early Woodland sites. Before the Europeans appeared in this area, the site was occupied by four different groups of Native Americans: the Early Woodland group (c. 300 AD), the Middle Woodland (c. 200 AD), the Late Woodland (c. 600 AD), and the Late Prehistoric (c. 1400 AD).  The site had been discovered in 1950s, and it was previously explored by the amateur archeologists and the landowners. The first professional group of archeologists arrived in the 1960s, and continued works in 1970s.

On June 22, 2013, Ancient Origins reported on research published in the Journal Antiquity. It suggested that prehistoric humans had advanced cosmological knowledge which is reflected in their rock art scattered around the Appalachian Mountains in eastern North America. Anthropology Professor Jan Simek of the University of Tennessee made the discovery while examining the engravings and drawings found in open-air sites and in caves throughout the Appalachian Mountains, which was first inhabited by Native American hunter-gatherers over 16,000 years ago. Using a high-resolution laser scanner, researchers found that the depictions, colours, and spacial organisation match the indigenous people’s cosmological world.

The video below describes the latest discovery:

Top image: Hilltop site discovered in Milan, Ohio, located on a bluff overlooking the Huron River. Credit: Brian Redmond, Cleveland Museum of Natural History

By Natalia Klimscak

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