Prehistoric Indians: Civilization Before Civilization

A couple of weeks ago, I watched an interesting documentary on Netflix called Secrets of the Saqqara Tomb. A group of archaeologists discovered an amazing and untouched tomb complex containing multiple preserved remains. They discovered the first mummified lion cub, the potential first confirmed malaria death and a number of beautiful artifacts. Egypt, and the surrounding area, contains so much history and is endlessly studied. That time in history is taught to students in every school across America. One of the coolest projects I ever completed was making a replica of the Sphinx out of sour dough bread. However, I do not really remember learning anything about the ancient history of my birthplace. The Ohio River Valley (and where I currently live in Colorado) contains evidence of ancient civilizations that are just as interesting and mysterious as any that have been found in the Middle East.

In the western parts of the US, two distinct prehistoric Indian cultures have been discovered; the Clovis and Folsom. In 1929 at a site in Clovis, NM a man named Edgar Howard began discovering these wholly unique spear points and tools amongst the bones of mammoths. These points seemed to have materialized suddenly (in history terms) and spread rapidly. More than 10,000 Clovis points have been discovered in over 1500 locations. Researchers looked to Siberia and artifacts from that region and could not match anything resembling the Clovis points. Clovis, it seems, is a genuine American phenomenon. The oldest known Clovis point is believed to be around 13,500 years old!

The discovery of the Folsom culture is just as interesting and old as Clovis. The discovery is a fascinating story of a former slave, a self-educated naturalist, and his quest for knowledge. After the disastrous flood of 1908, a black cowboy named George McJunkin discovered a cache of fossilized Bison bones protruding from a freshly cut arroyo. Being a self-educated man of science, George realized that these bones were not those of modern Bison, but were at least fifty percent larger. These bison kills are common in all Folsom sites. The find was not investigated until 1926, four years after McJunkin's death, but the discovery would turn the world of archaeology on its head by pushing the presence of man in North America back by at least 5,000 years to 12,000 years before present day.

The intrigue for these two cultures rests on how quickly they spread and how quickly they disappeared. It seems that these two unique styles of tools somehow spread as far south as Venezuela and across much of the continental US. According to all available evidence, these cultures were on the map for 300-500 years and then vanished altogether. There are no written records to interpret like with Egyptian tombs and hieroglyphs. Our knowledge is all conjecture, which is the case with nearly all ancient civilizations. Did they use their tools as weapons to hunt large wild game? Or were they scavengers and predators of opportunity? One theory is that they would harass the animals and make them run over a cliff. The tools that they had were merely a means to collect what meat they could from the animals that died due to falling. Think about it. Woolly mammoths were huge and killing one with modern firearms would not be easy. Imagine doing it with a stick and sharp rock!

The ancient Indian civilizations of the Ohio River Valley are remarkable as well. Again, little is known about these cultures, primarily the Adena and Hopewell Indian tribes. These peoples are thought to be about 3000 years old and settled in Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia and possibly Pennsylvania. The ancient Indian cultures that are found East of the Mississippi are primarily known for their mound building. The mounds that are most prevalent are burial mounds. Simply put, these are large piles of earth that cover the remains of the deceased.

Recently, I had the privilege of speaking with Beth Jenkins from Serpent Mound in Adams County Ohio. Serpent Mound is known as the largest effigy mound in the world. If you've never seen it, Serpent Mound gets it's name from the snake like appearance of the mound. It sits on a site approximately 50 acres in size and the mound itself is over 1300 feet long with some sections being as much as five feet tall. This snake like figure has 6 bends in it's body and a large coiled tail. At the "head" of the snake there is an oval like shape that the snake appears to be eating. What's equally fascinating about Serpent Mound is the fact that no human remains have ever been found buried inside of it. According to Beth, most of the artifacts that have been found include mostly natural materials like stone, clay, etc. There are 3 burial mounds located in the area and human remains have been found in all three. So that begs the question; What was the purpose of such a large mound if nothing was going to be buried in it?

Again, since there are no written records the purpose of Serpent Mound is merely speculative. Serpent Mound may have had a spiritual purpose since many native cultures in North and Central America revered snakes. Additionally, graves and burial mounds near the site suggest Serpent Mound’s builders may have built the effigy mound for some kind of important burial function, such as to guide spirit. The head of the serpent aligns with the summer solstice sunset while the tail points to the winter solstice sunrise. As such, ancient peoples may have used the structure to mark time or seasons. The design of the mound also matches the shape of the constellation Draco, with the star Thuban (Alpha Draconis, which served as the north pole star from the 4th to 2nd millennium B.C.) lining up with the first curve in the snake’s torso from the head. This alignment suggests another purpose for Serpent Mound: a kind of compass that helps determine true north.

With all of these unknowns and questions surrounding our own prehistoric Indian civilizations here in North America, I can't quite understand why it isn't studied more. The ancient Egyptian cultures are more glorious and romantic. It is hard to deny the magnificence of the pyramids, the intrigue of the hieroglyphs and spectacle of burial tombs. Maybe it is a function of simply having more to study. In all honesty, how much information can you glean from an arrow point or burial mound with no written accounts of their purpose? However, these ancient Indian civilizations deserve more attention. There are burial mounds found as far west as the Mississippi River and can be found in various places in the eastern US. Ancient Indian culture is a great unknown and it's influence on the region is undeniable. They are certainly worth our attention.

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