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They're all dead now. But sometimes, in the early morning, when the fog is still hovering there in the valley and the ground is wet with dew, one can almost make out the ancient encampments of the Hopewell there in the shifting, changing mist. Other times it happens at night, when shadows from the fire flicker and dart about like wandering ghosts from some ancient, forgotten burial ground.
Spirits of the Old Ones who lived here? Powerful warriors or medicine men who once knew this land as their home? No-surely such images are tricks of the brain, illusions of the mind's eye....
Still, this is the land of the Hopewell-Native Americans whose powers of mind and spirit reached deep into unexplored realms. Indeed, the Hopewell were a special people who, to a greater extent than any of the peoples in eastern North America who preceded them, unlocked the secrets of geometry, developed a sophisticated system of measurement, and even came to understand the great cycles of the sun and moon. These were tremendous accomplishments of the mind and spirit that have almost been forgotten, almost lost in the shadows of time.
Sometimes, especially in some of the earlier literature, one finds the Hopewell referred to as the "Mound Builders." The term "Mound Builder," however, can also be used to refer to the earlier Adena Indians as well as the later Mississippian Indians - all of whom also built mounds. And so, throughout this book we will refer to the people who we are concerned with as the Hopewell.
In chronological terms, it has been about fifteen hundred years since the Hopewell people lived. Their time on this earth was brief, from sometime around 100 B.C. to about A.D. 400 or 500. From what we can tell, the Hopewell lived in small, scattered hamlets that surrounded their great ceremonial centers. Most likely, each hamlet was made up of one or maybe a few extended families.
The Hopewell were hunters and gatherers. But they were also agriculturalists. In fact, to a greater extent than any other people in eastern North America, the Hopewell were responsible for accelerating the change from food gathering to food producing economies.
The foods the Hopewell grew were not the same as what we eat. Their cultivated foods included marshelder, maygrass, goosefoot, knotweed, and sunflower-mostly seed crops, although gourds and some small amounts of corn were also grown.
The Hopewell were farmers. But that does not mean they were parochial or provincial. Quite the contrary. The Hopewell were wide-ranging in their contacts, with a resource network that reached for hundreds of miles in all directions-north to Lake Superior, south to the Florida Gulf Coast, east to the Carolinas, and west to the Rocky Mountains. From these distant places, the Hopewell imported huge quantities of precious materials that included copper, silver, mica, obsidian, quartz, and even alligator and shark teeth. The Hopewell then fashioned these materials into some of the finest examples of craftsmanship ever seen-beautiful creations that include delicate musical panpipes, effigy smoking pipes, copper breastplates, rings and bracelets, pearl-covered blankets, ornate headdresses, and other rare works of art.
We know that the Hopewell were accomplished in agriculture and fine craftsmanship. Only now, though, are we beginning to appreciate the full extent of their accomplishments in other areas, such as plane geometry, measurement, arithmetic, and observational astronomy.
Such were the golden days of the Hopewell. As happens with all things, however, the Hopewell disappeared. Like fireflies in the night, their individual points of consciousness burned bright for a moment, only to merge again with the transcendental. Most likely, we will never know the life histories of those individual points of light. But from what the Hopewell left behind, it may be possible to gain some sense of their worldview or their vision of the universe. Indeed, that is my purpose here.
In the pages to follow, we will probe the boundaries of the Hopewell worldview. We will bring to life ancient symbols that held deep truths for their creators, and in so doing, touch a way of life that is now forever lost. In the pages to follow, we will travel to a time and place where things were explained by myth and where the otherworld was as close as the imagination.
For our own part, we have come close to answering the big questions-the origin of life, the nature of consciousness, the creation of the universe. Quantum physics, relativity, and biochemistry have given us a deep understanding of the world around us. Self-organizing complex adaptive systems, superstring theories, neurochemical driven consciousness-these are some of the ideas that make up much of today's worldview. So why then, the skeptic might ask, should we study the worldview of an ancient people long dead? What possible value or relevance can there be to such a study?
One answer is that such inquiries provide us with a point of reference. Like all people, including those who have gone before us, we have a fundamental need as a species, I think, to know how we fit into the scheme of things. Studies of ancient people like the Hopewell, therefore, help us to better define our place in the universe.
Additionally though, there is a more immediate and more pressing reason to study the worldview of a long-ago people. Hopewell culture as we know it came to an end sometime around A.D. 500. In Ohio, the building of the great geometric earthworks stopped. The vast Hopewell trade network fell apart. The manufacture of exotic goods ceased. With the collapse of these components the golden days of the Hopewell were over.
But why did the Hopewell way of life end? Did they suffer a plague, or a succession of droughts, or floods? Did warfare or internal conflict lead to their demise? Or did the Hopewell overexploit the finite resources of their valley homelands? If we can learn what happened to the Hopewell, then maybe we can avoid a similar fate. Maybe it's not too late. Or is it? Anthropologist Loren Eiseley once observed that, "Modern man, the world eater, respects no space and no thing green or furred as sacred. The march of the machines has entered his blood." In our rush toward civilization, we have eroded the ozone layer, destroyed the rain forests, and polluted our rivers and streams. Worse yet, we continue to overpopulate what is really a very small planet with billions of our own species.
Perhaps our greatest evil, though, has been to cause the extinction of thousands of plant and animal species. And it is not just a matter of having destroyed some obscure little plant that might hold a cure for cancer or AIDS. Equally significant is that we have forever lessened the genetic diversity and potential of our world. Extinct life-forms have no opportunity for growth. Now their possibilities are zero.
And how do we justify such behavior toward living beings that share this world with us? Language researcher Susan Savage-Rumbaugh and author Roger Lewin explain, "Man's ability to exploit the planet, to take its resources as he needs, and to usurp entire forests and all living creatures therein, rests upon the unwritten assumption that the chasm between himself and all other creatures is impassable." Contrast this view with the traditional beliefs of Native Americans who tell us of an ancient time when animals and humans could talk to each other-a distant time when animals and humans shared the same feelings, emotions, and thought processes. Perhaps we will one day appreciate the attitude of the Native Americans, as we become more cognizant that self-reflective awareness and consciousness is not unique or possessed only by human beings.
Perhaps, too, by studying the Hopewell, we can bring back something that will benefit our world. Maybe we can bring back something that will help ensure our survival.
Having said all this, we can learn much about the Hopewell from a study of their sacred or religious structures. For reasons I will discuss, it often happens that people will symbolically encode many of their beliefs into their sacred architecture. In the case of the Hopewell, their sacred structures take the form of huge, geometrically shaped enclosures, various kinds of platform mounds, burial mounds, charnel houses, and walled passageways or avenues.
This is not to say that the Hopewell were the only people who built such structures. Indeed, the tradition of earthwork and mound building has its origins deep in the Archaic period of eastern North America, at such places as Poverty Point and Watson Brake. But it was the Ohio Hopewell who, at least in the Middle Woodland period, brought the tradition of earthwork building to unprecedented heights of accomplishment.
Sadly, most of the structures that were built by the Hopewell have long since been erased by time or overrun by our own civilization. But enough remains to tell us that, in their pristine form, the earthworks were built in the shapes of tremendous circles, squares, and octagons. Like the ancient Greeks who built their temples to Pythagorean proportions, or the stonemasons of the Renaissance who built their cathedrals to Vitruvian proportions, the Hopewell had a deep fascination with geometry. And, too, like their contemporaries in the Western world, the Hopewell built their sacred structures to tremendous size.
The Hopewell thought big. They thought big thoughts about a big universe, and their architecture reflects this grandeur. Most often, the Hopewell earthworks enclose dozens upon dozens of acres. Each figure is made up of walls that, even when rediscovered some two hundred years ago, were anywhere from six to twenty feet in height, and twenty to fifty feet in width at their base. These are the famous Newark Earthworks. Located near Newark, Ohio, these earthworks were built by the Hopewell people. And while most of the geometric enclosures are not quite as big as these; some are even bigger, such as the Liberty Large Circle and the Marietta Large Square.
In the territory that was Hopewell, millions of tons of earth and hundreds of miles of embankments were moved and shaped by generations of people-united across time, in a common goal and a shared vision. Throughout the ages, there have been only a few forces sufficient to command such efforts. War is one such force, while religion, with its promise of eternal life, is another.
For the Hopewell, the driving force behind their monumental architecture appears to have been religion. The essence of their religion or worldview was shamanistic. In this shamanistic worldview, time and space could be traversed by telepathy, it was possible to communicate with all that is, and everything was interrelated and connected in a universal field of magic.
Most likely, shamanistic beliefs were carried to North America by the very first visitors who crossed the Bering Strait. What distinguished the Hopewell from their predecessors, however, was that through their shamanic journeys, the Hopewell came to know something very special about the fabric of the universe. What they discovered was that this fabric can be described in the language of plane geometry, arithmetic, measurement, and observational astronomy. Using this knowledge, the Hopewell built tremendous symbols of their universe in the shape of the geometric enclosures. They then tied these symbols into the great solar and lunar cycles of time through a unique alignment system.
The real magic, however, took place inside the symbols. For as I will show, it was within these earthen symbols that the Hopewell engaged in the most important of their ceremonies, ceremonies that were concerned with the deepest of all mysteries, including passage from this world to the next, death and rebirth, world renewal, and creation.
Excerpted from Mysteries of the Hopewell by William F. Romain Excerpted by permission.
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