Ancient Cosmology Seen at Prehistoric Ohio Site
A curious prehistoric site on a hilltop in Ohio may reflect the spiritual cosmology of hunter-gatherer people.
A curious prehistoric site on a hilltop in northern Ohio may reflect the spiritual cosmology of the ancient hunter-gatherer people who built the site around 2,300 years ago, according to a new study.
The so-called Heckelman site, located near the town of Milan, in Ohio's Erie County, is on a flat-topped bluff above the Huron River. There, people of the "Early Woodland" period of North American prehistory erected tall, freestanding wooden poles as part of the group's social or religious ceremonies.
Archaeologist Brian Redmond, a curator at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, said the location of the site appeared to echo a conception of the cosmos common to many Native American peoples. [See photos of the prehistoric Heckelman site]
"We know that Native American and many different tribal groups had a very specific vision about the world as a three-layered cosmos: the upper world, the middle world that we live on and an underworld," Redmond, author of a new research paper on the earliest occupants of the Heckelman site, told Live Science.
The site is bordered by water, which ancient people could have seen as symbolic of the underworld, Redmond said. The wooden poles on the bluff may have been constructed to reach up to the sky, in the direction of the upper world, he added.
"So this could have been seen as a spiritually powerful landscape where you connected the three worlds together, with the poles as an ‘axis mundi' (axis of the world) or ‘tree of life' type of thing, which is global in the way that cultures looked at these things," Redmond said.
The Heckelman site is unique among Early Woodland sites in the region because there are no signs of human burials or preparations for burials, Redmond said. Instead, the site seems to have been used for rituals or festivals associated with the living, rather than the dead, he said.
"From everything we're seeing, we're very certain it was some sort of ceremonial location. The fact we found no human burials, we found no evidence of mortuary treatment or mortuary ceremonialism - this site really stands out because we really didn't find any direct evidence of that," Redmond said. "So it's a different kind of ceremonialism, a ritualism related to the living - it represents that these people had a rich ceremonial life, a religious life, that wasn't just involved in burying people." [Top 10 Weird Ways We Deal With the Dead]
The unusual site features two parallel ditches that enclose the top of the bluff, and an oval ditch that encloses a flat area measuring about 87,000 square feet (8,080 square meters), where the wooden poles were erected.
None of the poles remain, but their locations can be determined by what's left of the "post molds," or pits, that were dug to hold the poles upright, researchers said. Judging by the size of the holes, the poles would have stood about 10 to 12 feet (3 to 3.7 m) tall, the researchers said.
"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," Redmond said. "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."
About six clusters of poles have been identified at the site so far. Each cluster may have been part of ceremonies held at the site at different times or by different groups of people, Redmond said.
"It really is very different than we've seen before," he added. "You do see poles in some Adena sites in southern Ohio, such as the circular arrangements of posts called a ‘woodhenge‘ - sometimes these are found beneath Adena burial mounds. But that sort of regular pattern is something we're not seeing up here."
The Heckelman site, named after its private landowners, has been known since the 1950s, thanks to a large number of prehistoric artifacts found there by the landowners and amateur archaeologists. Those objects included pottery, spear points and knife blades. [In Photos: Human Skeleton Sheds Light on First Americans]
Excavations in the 1960s and 1970s found one of the parallel ditches on one side of the bluff top, and a geomagnetic survey in 2008 revealed the second ditch and oval enclosure.
Archeologists from the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and the Firelands Archaeological Research Center, in Amherst, Ohio, excavated parts of the site each summer from 2009 to 2014.
In addition to evidence of the freestanding poles, researchers found pits filled with pottery shards and burned rocks, which were likely the remnants of food that had been prepared as part of the ceremonies at the site, Redmond said.
"With analogy to historic Native American groups and others, it seems like these ceremonies would have also involved preparing food and communal meals, or feasting," he said.
The Early Woodland people were hunter-gatherers who lived in communities of a few families, and many of these groups likely used the Heckelman site, Redmond said.
"Their habitations were based on small groups of related families, but they did congregate in much larger groups for rituals or seasonal festivals," Redmond said. "It was probably a very social thing. They would come together to exchange information, to talk about where to get the best flint, or where did you see geese or ducks last season?"
And there may have been other social benefits, too, he said.
"They needed to interact, to get together and develop their social organizations and relationships, and these places were probably used for that," Redmond said. "So it is probably social , not just religion, going on at these places."
Redmond said the discoveries at the Heckelman site underline the importance of preserving archaeological resources in the United States. In many cases, doing so depends on the help of private landowners, he said.
"The father and son who maintain this property are very supportive of what we do. They have even gone so far in some years to not even plant parts of the field that we wanted to excavate in," he said. "So we really just want to spread the word that there is really good evidence of the past all over North America, and that it is really important to preserve these sites."
The study was published earlier this year in the Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology.
Original article on Live Science.
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A hilltop site in Milan, Ohio, located on a bluff overlooking the Huron River, was likely a prehistoric ceremonial site for "Early Woodland" people 2,300 years ago.
Back in the Beginning
To put a human face on our ancestors, scientists from the Senckenberg Research Institute used sophisticated methods to form 27 model heads based on tiny bone fragments, teeth and skulls collected from across the globe. The heads are on display for the first time together at the Senckenberg Natural History Museum in Frankfurt, Germany. This model is Sahelanthropus tchadensis, also nicknamed "Toumai," who lived 6.8 million years ago. Parts of its jaw bone and teeth were found nine years ago in the Djurab desert in Chad. It's one of the oldest hominid specimens ever found.
With each new discovery, paleoanthropologists have to rewrite the origins of man's ancestors, adding on new branches and tracking when species split. This model was fashioned from pieces of a skull and jaw found among the remains of 17 pre-humans (nine adults, three adolescents and five children) which were discovered in the Afar Region of Ethiopia in 1975. The ape-man species, Australopithecus afarensis, is believed to have lived 3.2 million years ago. Several more bones from this species have been found in Ethiopia, including the famed "Lucy," a nearly complete A. afarensis skeleton found in Hadar.
Meet "Mrs. Ples," the popular nickname for the most complete skull of an Australopithecus africanus, unearthed in Sterkfontein, South Africa in 1947. It is believed she lived 2.5 million years ago (although the sex of the fossil is not entirely certain). Crystals found on her skull suggest that she died after falling into a chalk pit, which was later filled with sediment. A. africanus has long puzzled scientists because of its massive jaws and teeth, but they now believe the species' skull design was optimal for cracking nuts and seeds.
The skull of this male adult was found on the western shore of Lake Turkana in Kenya in 1985. The shape of the mouth indicates that he had a strong bite and could chew plants. He is believed to have lived in 2.5 million years ago and is classified as Paranthropus aethiopicus. Much is still unknown about this species because so few reamins of P. aethiopicus have been found.
Researchers shaped this skull of "Zinj," found in 1959. The adult male lived 1.8 million years ago in the Olduvai Gorge of Tanzania. His scientific name is Paranthropus boisei, though he was originally called Zinjanthropus boisei -- hence the nickname. First discovered by anthropologist Mary Leakey, the well-preserved cranium has a small brain cavity. He would have eaten seeds, plants and roots which he probably dug with sticks or bones.
This model of a sub-human species -- Homo rudolfensis -- was made from bone fragments found in Koobi Fora, Kenya, in 1972. The adult male is believed to have lived about 1.8 million years ago. He used stone tools and ate meat and plants. H. Rudolfensis' distinctive features include a flatter, broader face and broader postcanine teeth, with more complex crowns and roots. He is also recognized as having a larger cranium than his contemporaries.
The almost perfectly preserved skeleton of the "Turkana Boy" is one of the most spectacular discoveries in paleoanthropology. Judging from his anatomy, scientists believe this Homo ergaster was a tall youth about 13 to 15 years old. According to research, the boy died beside a shallow river delta, where he was covered by alluvial sediments. Comparing the shape of the skull and teeth, H. ergaster had a similiar head structure to the Asian Homo erectus.
This adult male, Homo heidelbergensis, was discovered in in Sima de los Huesos, Spain in 1993. Judging by the skull and cranium, scientists believe he probably died from a massive infection that caused a facial deformation. The model, shown here, does not include the deformity. This species is believed to be an ancestor of Neanderthals, as seen in the shape of his face. "Miquelon," the nickname of "Atapuerca 5", lived about 500,000 to 350,000 years ago and fossils of this species have been found in Italy, France and Greece.
The "Old Man of La Chapelle" was recreated from the skull and jaw of a Homo neanderthalensis male found near La Chapelle-aux-Saints, in France in 1908. He lived 56,000 years ago. His relatively old age, thought to be between 40 to 50 years old, indicates he was well looked after by a clan. The old man's skeleton indicates he suffered from a number of afflictions, including arthritis, and had numerous broken bones. Scientists at first did not realize the age and afflicted state of this specimen when he was first discovered. This led them to incorrectly theorize that male Neanderthals were hunched over when they walked.
The skull and jaw of this female "hobbit" was found in Liang Bua, Flores, Indonesia, in 2003. She was about 1 meter tall (about 3'3") and lived about 18,000 years ago. The discovery of her species, Homo floresiensis, brought into question the belief that Homo sapiens was the only form of mankind for the past 30,000 years. Scientists are still debating whether Homo floresiensis was its own species, or merely a group of diseased modern humans. Evidence is mounting that these small beings were, in fact, a distinct human species.
Bones can only tell us so much. Experts often assume or make educated guesses to fill in the gaps in mankind's family tree, and to develop a sense what our ancestors may have looked like. Judging from skull and mandible fragments found in a cave in Israel in 1969, this young female Homo sapien lived between 100,000 and 90,000 years ago. Her bones indicate she was about 20 years old. Her shattered skull was found among the remains of 20 others in a shallow grave.