November is Native American Heritage Month, so we’ll spend the month tracing a part of our region’s history that is often overlooked. For this, it’s best to start at the very beginning.
Possibly as early as 20,000 years ago, but definitely by 13,000 years ago (11,000 BC), humans who’d crossed the land bridge into present-day Alaska migrated further into North America and reached our region. Known as the Clovis Culture due to their distinctive stone points, they were hunter-gatherers and moved frequently, never settling in one place. Those that ventured through our region hunted animals such as Jefferson’s giant ground sloth, mastodons, and smaller animals that were plentiful among the forests, in which they also foraged for plants.
Over the next 8,000 years (up to 3,000 BC), these early hunter-gatherers began to travel less and settled into specific regions. Some archeologists believe this is due to the decline of larger animals like the mastodon, but it isn’t known for certain. Either way, this resulted in more specific, regional cultures. Our area’s is known by archeologists as the Buffalo Archaic Culture, named for a site discovered near Buffalo. They hunted smaller animals like deer and squirrel, fished, foraged for nuts and berries, and cultivated land for growing squash through controlled burns. For the next thousand years, life remained relatively the same.
It was between 2,000 and 1,000 BC that the most important development in Mason County’s prehistory began. In a process that took hundreds of years and numerous generations, the archaic cultures of the Ohio Valley established trade routes and, through the passage of goods and ideas, eventually merged into a single culture that spanned most of Ohio, West Virginia, and Kentucky. These people are known to us as the Adena, named after the site where they were first studied.
These were “the ancient ones,” the first of our region’s great mound builders. Among their remnants are the Grave Creek Mound in Moundsville (the largest conical mound in North America), the Criel Mound in South Charleston, the May Moore Mound in our own Gallipolis Ferry, the mound in Camden Park, the Wolfe Plains Mounds outside of Athens, and hundreds of others. Contrary to popular belief, many of these mounds were not large tombs for single “chieftains.” Rather, the dead and their burial goods were placed in a wooden tomb and cremated. Their ashes were then covered with dirt, and the process was repeated for the next burial. Think of this, and then think of the size of these mounds. Most of their mounds, especially in our area, are relatively small and only a few feet in height. But, if these consist primarily on cremations, they could still hold hundreds of burials. Now, think how many cremations it would’ve taken to make one as large as the Moundsville Mound! Many hundreds, if not thousands! They also built circular enclosures around many of these mounds, likely for religious or ceremonial reasons.
It’s possible that they adopted this practice of burying people in large mounds from the Glacial Kame Culture of northern Ohio, who buried their people in natural hills created thousands of years ago by glaciers (hence the name). They just expanded upon the idea and built their own hills.
Like the earlier cultures, the Adena were also hunter-gatherers, though they didn’t move nearly as often. This allowed them to construct mostly-permanent villages and devote time to agriculture, which led to the domestication of sunflowers and tobacco, among other plants. These were added to the existing food provided by hunting, fishing, foraging, and the growth of squash.
Besides the mounds, the Adena are also notable for their introduction of clay pottery to the Ohio Valley and their trade network that stretched from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. We only know of this sophisticated trade system because copper, mined in the Upper Midwest and fashioned into jewelry by the Adena, and shells native to the Gulf were found at archeological sites.
This combination of agriculture, hunting, and trade allowed the Adena to dominate the Ohio Valley for nearly a thousand years. It wasn’t until around 1 AD that they began to decline, and another culture made its way into the region. We’ll pick up there next time.
Information from the WV Encyclopedia, WV State Archives, and Ohio History Central.
The next meeting of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society will be at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 18 with a location to be announced soon.
Chris Rizer is president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society.