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Late Prehistoric Period AD 1000 - 1750
The Fort Ancient people had large villages that generally included about 100-500 residents. This number varied with the season as people would leave the village in the winter to live in hunting camps. The villages were substantially larger and more sedentary than the Late Woodland and were occupied for at least 20-30 years.
SunWatch Indian Village is the most thoroughly excavated village attributed to this culture. The village structure was a pattern of concentric circles with a plaza in the heart of the village. Surrounding the plaza was a circular cemetery zone in which deceased villagers were buried. Although some individuals appear to have grave goods and other indications of status, there are also individuals of corresponding lower status and children represented. Around the burial zone, there is a circular zone of storage pits, trash pits, and work/cooking areas. Surrounding the work zone is another circular ring of domestic structures. Houses were rectangular in shape and ranged in size from 16 to 22 ft wide and 19 to 30 ft long. The village was surrounded by a substantial stockade despite a general lack of evidence for warfare.
As the population continued to grow, corn (“maize”) became the primary crop, supplemented with beans and squash. These three plants were grown together and were referred to by historic Native Americans as the “three sisters.” Fort Ancient nutrition was poor, lacking diversity and protein. Approximately fifty to seventy-five percent of the diet was composed of corn alone. The Fort Ancient hunted deer extensively, but also relied on elk, turkey, bear, and small game. Nuts, fruits, and berries were also gathered.
The Fort Ancient people of Southern Ohio are known for the construction of two animal effigy mounds – Alligator Mound in Granville and Serpent Mound in Peebles. These effigy mounds were not burial sites, but were probably more ritualistic in nature, serving as ceremonial sites. The “Alligator” was originally interpreted as an alligator, it is more likely that the mound represents an opossum or panther and the name was a mistranslation by early settlers.
As Europeans began settling North America, they began trading goods with the native peoples. Europeans goods made their way through native hands into Ohio long before Europeans ever crossed the Ohio River. Some later Fort Ancient culture sites include a few European trade goods such as beads, but few if any early European explorers ever saw a Fort Ancient village. Archaeological sites attributed to the Fort Ancient culture disappear fairly abruptly around A.D. 1650. It is unclear what relationship, if any, the Fort Ancient have to the historic tribes encountered by later explorers. Large villages and most of the middle Ohio River Valley may have been largely unpopulated for at least fifty years. The introduction of European diseases may have decimated Fort Ancient people leading to their virtual disappearance, though there is no direct archaeological evidence supporting this popular idea. It has been suggested that the Fort Ancient were driven out by conflict with contemporary groups, also an idea unconfirmed by archaeological evidence.
Historic Period AD 1750 - Present
The natives faced several hurdles and challenges to their way of life as settlers moved into the region. They were confronted with diseases in which they had no natural immunities, trading posts were built within their territories, missionaries tried to convert them to Christianity, liquor was introduced, and settlers were expanding into Ohio. The European settlers forced their way into the Ohio Valley and fought continuously for the rich and fertile land of Ohio. By the end of the War of 1812, most of the native tribes were defeated, both militarily and in spirit. Many moved westward, but a few remained in defiance. In 1830, the United States Congress enacted the Indian Removal Act which forced all natives living in the Northwest Territory, which included Ohio, to move west of the Mississippi to government-designated lands, or reservations.
For a more in-depth discussion of Ohio’s prehistory check out Brad Lepper’s book Ohio Archaeology: An Illustrated Chronicle of Ohio’s Ancient American Indian Cultures available in The SunWatch Store. You can also visit the Ohio Historical Society’s Prehistoric Timeline of Ohio.
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