About 4,000 to 5,000 years ago, the bodies of two women and six girls were buried in a rock shelter overlooking a creek in what is now known as the Salt Creek Valley near Jackson, Ohio. A dog was interred there as well.
Who were they? Did they die at the rock shelter or were they placed there after death by their relatives? And what of the dog — was he a beloved pet or simply in the wrong place at the wrong time? According to Nancy Tatarek, Associate Professor of Anthropology at Ohio University, one of the women was in her late 50’s. Tatarak conducted cranial metrics testing to determine age, health and cause of death on the remains for the U. S. Attorney���s office. She concluded that the women did not appear to have died violent deaths.
The baby girl’s skull showed evidence of cradle boarding; her mother carried her in a cradle board as some of our Native people do today. The elder woman had almost no teeth (unlike me, fortunately). Was she a healer, a respected elder? Since the average lifespan for people of the late Archaic period was about 25 years, her age is remarkable.
It is likely we will never know the answer to any of these questions. We don’t even know what the people who lived during these eras called themselves. The waves of civilizations prior to European contact are described rather by the time periods during which they lived.
The Archaic period spanned 7000 years, beginning 10,000 BP (an archaeological term meaning Before Present) and ending 2,500 BP. Archaeologists and anthropologists, however break up the era into three parts: early, middle and late. It was preceded by the Paleoindian Period which lasted from 14,000 to 10,000 BP. The Paleoindian Period, just after the Ice Age or Pleistocene was a time of rapid climate change.
By the late Archaic period, between 3,000 to 5,000 years BP, the climate became similar to what we know today. According Ohio Archaeology, a book by Bradley Lepper, curator of archaeology for the Ohio Historical Society, the people of the late Archaic period opened “a Pandora’s Box of sedentary farming life,” thus setting off a series of rapid and diverse (archaeologically speaking) changes that continued until about 400 years ago. Lepper writes,
“With the debut of agriculture, the population became more settled and swelled rapidly. Game and wild foods were plentiful and folks found time to bury their dead with greater care and decorate their hunting tools, home goods and other tools.
“The Late Archaic folks traded with distant peoples for copper and sea shells; these items must have been prized for they are found in some burial sites, perhaps those of leaders or other people of importance. By contrast, the Paleoindians, with little time for ceremony, are said to have cremated their dead.”
The Early, Middle and Late Woodland periods, 2,800 to 1,100 BP followed quickly on the heels of the late Archaic period.
People during this era built huge burial mounds and gave great attention to spirituality. Remains from this period have been found buried in elaborate ritual garb, including images and animal masks.
The Hopewell culture emerged during the middle woodland period, named after Confederate veteran Modecai Hopewell who owned a farm in Ross County Ohio with many groups of mounds and earthworks. These are the folks who built elaborate earthworks that were not used as burial mounds. Although many have been destroyed, Ohio is rich with elaborate earthworks and burial grounds today including the Mound City group in Chillicothe, the Newark Earthworks in Licking County, and many more.
The late Woodland period, 1,500 to 1,100 BP witnessed the collapse of the previous two eras. Creation of large art projects and earthworks ceased and conflict arose that led to the building of stockades around villages.
At last during the Late Prehistoric Period, 1,100- 400 people began to grow maize and engaged in far less trade with other groups. These are the people who built Serpent Mound effigy in Adams County and other effigies such as the Alligator Mound in Licking County. The effigy mounds did not serve as burial sites and were created between 850-990 years ago, yet their purpose remains one of the great archaeological mysteries in America.
The Indians of the late Prehistoric Period likely also created the many petroglyphs carved into rock in Ohio depicting animals, humans and other designs. Interestingly, the Leo Petroglyph State Memorial with its fantastic depictions of horned creatures that appear to be part human part animal is located less than one mile from the burial site of the eight women from the Late Archaic period whose remains were looted by the Skeens brothers and their associates in the Salt Creek Valley. Although separated by a span of at least three thousand years, this area has clearly held great significance for the indigenous peoples of Ohio for a very long time.