Michael G. Koot recently earned a Ph.D. at Michigan State University with his analysis of leadership and biological status in the Ohio Hopewell culture. His research “examined the relationship between social positions of both leadership and prestige and the biological status of two Ohio Hopewell skeletal collections from the Middle Woodland period (ca. 100 BC to 400 AD).” He determined biological status through “an analysis of skeletal markers of nonspecific systemic physiological stress, dietary nutritional stress, nonspecific infection and/or disease, or trauma to the skeletal system.”
Utilizing the collections held by the Ohio Historical Society, the Field Museum in Chicago, and the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University, Koot compared sets of human remains from two separate regions: Southwestern and South-Central Ohio. The Southwestern region was represented by 46 adult burials from the Turner Mound Group curated by the Peabody Museum. The South-Central region included 91 adult burials from six separate sites: the Hopewell Mound Group, including remains curated by both the Ohio Historical Society and the Field Museum, and the Seip Earthworks, Raymond Ater Mound, Edwin Harness Mound and Rockhold Mound all of which are curated by the Ohio Historical Society.

Koot’s results confirm the now accepted view of Hopewell society as strongly egalitarian with no inherited leadership positions. There certainly were leaders who were honored at their deaths with elaborate burials, but that honor evidently was earned either by the lifetime achievements of individual men and women or by the special circumstances of their deaths. There were no Hopewell kings or chiefs that held their leadership positions simply because of the families into which they were born. Moreover, according to Koot, whatever status differences existed in Hopewell societies, they were “not dramatic enough” to show up at all in an individual’s biological status. So, apparently, the benefits of high status didn’t include access to more and better food or relief from the ordinary labors of the less exalted folks.

Koot was able to show that there were few or no differences in biological status between men and women in either region. This indicates that women were not subordinate to men in Hopewell societies. In fact, at the Turner Mound Group, female leadership appears to have predominated. One exception to this pattern is that women at Turner had a higher frequency of linear enamel hypoplasias (LEH) than did the men. LEHs are growth lines in the teeth that indicate periods of stress during the time that the teeth were growing (before age 7). If women were the important leaders in this region, why would girls have suffered more dietary stress than boys?

When Koot compared all the people from Turner with the people from the South-Central region, he found that the overall frequency of LEH was higher at Turner. Koot interprets these regional differences as relating either to “environmental changes and resulting food shortages” at Turner, or possibly to variations in diet between the two regions.

Finally, based on the differences between Turner and the South-Central Hopewell sites, Koot suggests there may have been no “pan-Hopewellian interaction sphere that resulted in similar cultural features across Hopewell regional traditions, or even in local regions within the same regional tradition. Perhaps calling these groups of people the Scioto Hopewell and the Little Miami Hopewell would better recognize the biological and cultural variation that existed between Hopewell groups from different river drainage areas in Ohio.”

Koot’s important conclusions demonstrate the value of museum collections for archaeology. Data curated in museums can be studied again and again as new analytical techniques are developed or as scholars come up with new questions to ask of the old data. In particular, this study speaks to the importance of curating ancient human remains: ” the analysis of skeletal stress provides insight into Ohio Hopewell interregional differences regarding subsistence and habitation lifeways that cannot be addressed by analyzing archaeological artifacts and material culture alone.”

For further reading:

Koot, Michael G.
2012 Ohio Hopewell leadership and biological status: interregional and intraregional variation. Unpublished dissertation, Michigan State University.

Brad Lepper

Posted September 6, 2012
Topics: Archaeology

Subscribe to Our Blogs