A Tradition of Giants: More Questions Than Answers

A Tradition of Giants: More Questions Than Answers

Originally published in Ancient American magazine.

by Ross Hamilton

Long ago in central North America, there was a great civil war. It was a war owning many battles, and had an incredible loss of life. It wasn’t the North versus the South, although it sponsored a confederacy against a union. It probably spanned the geography of a number of present day states—commencing from the area that is the boundary line of the ancient Mississippi. There, the great tribes of the west encountered for the first time the great nation of the east, and the resultant history—or shall we say prehistory, ultimately shaped the pre-Columbian world far more than can ever be understood. Our archaeological record holds relatively limited data of this time period, much less this proposed event, and thus we are dependent to some extent on the invaluable resource of Native American transmission.

Our related science’s present understanding of the pre-Adena (Archaic) inhabitants of the greater Ohio River valley is yet somewhat sketchy, what to say of the Adena themselves. However, many pieces to the puzzle are now thought to be in place. The timeline for the Adena begins around 1000 B.C.E. according to the carbon dating of Dragoo and others. The Archaic populace is not believed to have constructed mounds in the Ohio Valley region, although this is not known for certain due to several factors, including widespread destruction of the earthworks, without content cataloging, over the last 250 years. Most understanding is based upon the dating and trait-grouping of materials found in the diminished number of mounds and village sites yet existing after a formal discipline in archaeology and anthropology finally took over excavation and detailed record keeping.

There are Archaic era mounded structures, often intricate and complex, in the deep southern U.S., including Watson Brake, Poverty Point, Fig Island, and Sapelo. For this reason, theories have been put forth that the moundbuilding tradition came into the Ohio Valley around the time of the Adena from the southern Mississippi, thereby tentatively associating the Adena people with older cultures from the south. In one way of looking at this idea, it supposes that moundbuilding was a phenomenon peculiar to only one geographical source, necessarily having been passed on. Unlike the Adena mounds however, the more ancient southern earthworks did not poignantly suggest a very specialized “cult of the dead.”

By their skeletal remains in the earlier studies, the pre-Adena people were known to have had slender or thin bodies, and been “long-headed,” with “narrow” skulls (dolichocranic), i.e., having a breadth of skull small in proportion to length from front to back. The Adena people weren’t physically akin to these Archaic people. Generally the Adena had more massive bone structure, according to these same studies. The pre-eminent theory of Adena origin at the time was that their ancestry had come from Mexico or even further south. However, the Adena body bone structure type was unusually difficult to trace with surety south of the Rio Grande—where another distinguishing Adena-resonant trait was found practiced from earlier times. That practice was “cradleboard” head deformation.

Head of a statue found near the Ohio River
Outline of the head of a statue of a woman found in the bottom land of the Ohio River near Tolu, KY.

The Adena were, as a group, more “short-headed” (brachycranic), i.e., the skull breadth was at least four-fifths its length from front to back. Shaping was an addition to this already distinguished skull type. This practice of skull deformation was part of the prehistoric Peruvian, Middle American, and Mexican people’s customs. However, it was discovered in later studies that in North America, the Archaic period’s regional Shell Heap People as well as fully one-half the Archaic Indian Knoll population practiced a form of skull-flattening. Thus this “art” was part of the local lore when the Adena made their first appearance. Their subsequent and perhaps more ‘evolved’ version of cradleboarding had the effect of giving the skull a more round dome, and is thought by some to have been strictly for class distinction in a hierarchical society. Their skull type has the highest cranial vault ever found anywhere in the world. In this, Adena folk are sometimes referred to as “round-headed,” for they had the roundish skull to begin with, further shaping the vault to a dome.

Needless to say, these findings cast doubt on any exclusive Mexican head binding connection. That coupled with new studies suggesting the tough Adena skeletal type arriving not from Mexico, but from the southern margins of the Great Lakes, and the old pet theories were melting faster than the glaciers. New questions were being posed.

Since few or no other recognizable Mexican-type traits appeared among the Adena grave goods until the centuries-later Adena burials, why, after a many centuries lapse, did the traits indicating Central and South American influence appear in the Ohio Valley?

Mexican emperor and attendants
Mexican emperor and attendants taken from Humboldt. (Delafield, 1839)

It was beginning to seem that everything distinguishing the Adena, with the possible exception of mounds for the dead, was already in the region for a very long time. It was no longer solid ground to theorize the direct ancestors of the first Adena moving out of Mexico and, after a time, up the Mississippi watershed just because there was skull shaping in ancient Mexico, and earthworks in the deep south.

Like a real mystery, there were more questions than answers. Investigators began asking whether a fresh, new scenario should be considered to explain the origins of the Adena.

Popular Theories

In about 800 years, and after Adena villages and towns became established throughout what is now Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania, a new stock or breed of people is, by inference, thought to have begun the process of transforming that culture very probably from within. So in a sense, after the Adena seemed to supplant an older culture in the Ohio Valley, another culture succeeded them in relatively linear fashion. Ultimately, this new culture redefined the older Adena. This proposed phenomenon of transformation and replacement characterized what is known as the “Hopewell” era, which term, like Adena and Indian, had been assigned by the inheriting whites. Anthropologists as archaeologists therefore ask these questions. How did the Adena begin, and why did they end, and, in the same vein, how and why are they so intimately related to the Hopewell? Why did this supposedly “hybrid” Hopewell culture achieve such distinction and domination over their Adena predecessors, then, like small colonies of the Adena before them, seem to simply fade out from the Ohio valley?

Ancient homeland of the Adena and Hopewell Cultures
The ancient homeland of the Adena and Hopewell cultures covers five present day states. Were the previous tenants of this region the Alleghany People?

The main theory holding interest for many years has been simply that after these round-headed people arrived in the Ohio Valley, they gradually (though not at first) interbred with the existing long-headed people, and over a few centuries slowly generated what we call the Hopewell culture. The Hopewell are believed, though not fully proven, to have evolved agriculture and art further than the Adena, and some of the accomplishments in the latter category amaze us yet today. What has kept our science most intensely interested about the Adena however, is that they constructed mounds for honoring the dead, and were selective about how they went about it. Then, like some sort of magnificent catalyst, the Adena graciously seem to have wandered away, followed into lost history not long after by their believed progeny Hopewell.

It should be stated that until now, DNA testing has found no specific match between the Adena-Hopewell and any existing Native American group. Thus has the mystery deepened immeasurably, leaving our anthropological science with its logic, wits, and sometimes questionable carbon-14 analysis. Who were these people?

There may be alternative explanations, however conjectural, for the Adena origin and exit. Based first upon the physical analysis, speculations and summations of Webb, Snow, Dragoo, and their colleagues and predecessors, the thoughtful entering of Native American legend into the analysis provides some clear fuel for that soon to be mentioned lamp shedding light on what has too long remained a dim prehistory.

As inferred, it is believed that the traits related as Hopewell began to show up around 200 B.C.E. or so. No Hopewell traits have been found in Adena tombs, and thus it has been suggested that Adena chronologically preceded and were culturally anterior to Hopewell. It required some time before the archaeological analyses discerned the Adena as separable from the Hopewell who themselves finally left the region about the middle of the first millennium of the Common Era. It was determined that within just a few centuries after Hopewell began to appear, the purely Adena traits were virtually gone from the Ohio Valley.

The Hopewell thus had the valley to themselves for a few hundred years. During this time they yet practiced some limited cradleboard shaping, once almost universal among the Adena. Moundbuilding continued, but changed internally, emphasizing single individuals more. There was evidence of the Adena skeletal type, though in a diminished capacity. Yet artifact evidence of the Adena showed up in points to the south (the Copena Culture), and far to the east, such as the St. Lawrence and Delaware areas, before becoming extinct. The absence of Adena traits in the mounds of the later times ascribed to the Hopewell has prompted a few interesting theories, including a forced exclusion of the Adena by the Hopewell. But this may or may not tell the true story, if we are to rely at all upon the traditional history or legend of a certain elder tribe, who now are called theLenni Lenape.

The Legend

From Henry Schoolcraft, noted scholar on the subject, we have this reference to a most antique and mysterious tribe or nation:

The oldest tribe of the United States, of which there is a distinct tradition, were the Alleghans. The term is perpetuated in the principal chain of mountains traversing the country. This tribe, at an antique period, had the seat of their power in the Ohio valley and its confluent streams, which were the sites of their numerous towns and villages. They appear originally to have borne the name of Alli, or Alleg, and hence the names of Talligewi and Allegewi. By adding to the radical of this word the particle hany or ghany, meaning river, they described the principal scene of their residence—namely, the Alleghany, or River of the Alleghans, now called Ohio. The word Ohio is of Iroquois origin, and of a far later period; having been bestowed by them after their conquest of the country, in alliance with the Lenapees, or ancient Delawares. (Phi. Trans.) The term was applied to the entire river, from its confluence with the Mississippi, to its origin in the broad spurs of the Alleghanies, in New York and Pennsylvania; and the designation, to its sources, is still continued in use by that people.

From the traditions of the Lenapees, given to the Moravian missionaries, while the lamp of their traditionary history still threw out its flickering but enlivening flames, the Alleghans had been a strong and mighty people, capable of great exertions and doing wonders.

Schoolcraft, referring to the entire Appalachian chain as the Alleghenies, is believed to have secured his information specifically from the writings of John Heckewelder, assistant to the Moravian missionary David Zeisberger, himself from Moravia. Together Zeisberger and Heckewelder founded the town of Shoenbrun, near present day New Philadelphia, Ohio. They successfully converted as many as 400 Delaware to the Christian faith through peaceful persuasion, doubtless making many close allies during the work. Heckewelder’s account may not be the only one concerning prehistoric America, but it is surely reliable for the conveyance of the tradition of the Delaware, who were derived, however indirectly, of the venerable Lenni Lenape.

John Heckewelder
John Heckewelder

Heckewelder writes regarding the Allegewi:

Many wonderful things are told of this famous people. They are said to have been remarkably tall and stout, and there is a tradition that there were giants among them, people of a much larger size than the tallest of the Lenape.

Many centuries ago, the Lenni Lenape, for some undisclosed reason, moved en masse from the western half of the present day United States, toward the east. As the legend goes, these people found themselves at the shore of the Mississippi—the white man’s enunciation of their Namesi Sipu, River of Fish. There they met up with the Mengwe, who had come from a bit further north and closer to the source of the Namesi Sipu, perhaps the present-day Missouri. It was a meeting of destiny, and was, at that time, a peaceful one. The Lenape sent out their scouts across the broad current.

James A. Jones, another writer of the time, relates of the occasion of the safe return of these “spies” for the Lenape, having reconnoitered the eastern side of the Mississippi:

They told, that they had found the further bank of the River of Fish inhabited by a very powerful people, who dwelt in great villages, surrounded by high walls. They were very tall—so tall that the head of the tallest Lenape could not reach their arms, and their women were of higher stature and heavier limbs than the loftiest and largest man in the confederate nations. They were called the Allegewi, and were men delighting in red and black paint, and the shrill war-whoop, and the strife of the spear. Such was the relation made by the spies to their countrymen.

The legend moves very quickly then. In the words of Heckewelder:

… They sent a message to the Allegewi to request permission to settle themselves in their neighborhood. This was refused them, but they obtained leave to pass through the country and seek a settlement farther to the eastward. They accordingly began to cross the Namesi Sipu, when the Allegewi, seeing that their numbers were so great, and in fact they consisted of many thousands, made a furious attack on those that had crossed, threatening them all with destruction, if they dared persist in coming over to their side of the river. Fired at the treachery of these people, and the great loss of men they had sustained, and besides, not being prepared for a conflict, the Lenape consulted on what was to be done; whether to retreat in the best manner they could, or try their strength, and let the enemy see they were not cowards.

While one should always be aware that history as related by the victorious side may not be history as it actually occurred, never the less the resultant war is related as eventually becoming an overwhelming loss for the Alleghans. Whether the Lenape were considered deceitful in not disclosing their vast hoard is perhaps irrelevant. While one account says the Allegewi were extirpated, another relates of their escape down the Mississippi. The Lenni Lenape, having made an alliance with the Mengwe, took many years, and through a great loss of people, claim to have finally defeated the Alleghans through force of arms. As noted again later, these Mengwe followed after the Lenape in war, staying back to avoid injury as much as they might. Perhaps this was on account of their agreement, that upon the defeat of the Alleghany people, the Lenni Lenape would take for themselves the heartland of their adversaries, while the Mengwe would be awarded the lands to the north, nearer to the Great Lakes, and the latitude whence they came.

As the legend completes itself, the two triumphant tribes lived together in peace and cooperation for many centuries. But having done this, it is related that the lands to the east were found to be uninhabited by any enemies, and that they were rich and beautiful, the destiny of the Great Spirit for the people. On this account, they ultimately moved eastward, leaving again the Ohio country comparatively vacant.

The settlements of the Middle Adena correspond precisely to Heckewelder's accounts of the prehistoric Lenni Lenape
The settlements of the “Middle Adena” correspond precisely to Heckewelder’s accounts of the prehistoric Lenni Lenape.

Out of these ancient people of the Lenape (who are assumed to have bred with the Mengwe only to a lesser extent at the beginning), no less than 40 tribes are said thereafter to have arisen. In hindsight, not only would this have required a great number of generations, but also it may explain the difficulty in DNA pattern matching with an ancestral people living millennia before. As for the Mengwe, their destiny as the Iroquois is well known, being that of the Confederation of the Five Tribes, and then the Tuscorora. Later of course, the Lenni Lenape, as the Delaware, became bitter enemies with the Iroquois.

David Cusick, a Tuscorora by birth, writes in 1825 that among the legends of the people of the ancient stock, there was a powerful tribe called Ronnongwetowanca. They were giants, and had a “considerable habitation.” He says that when the Great Spirit made the people, some of them became giants. The giants were said to have had a “silly” mode of attack, waiting until their intended victim was not expecting anything. After a time, and having endured the outrages of these giants, it is said that the people banded together, and through the final force of about 800 warriors, successfully annihilated the abhorrent Ronnongwetowanca. After that, it was said that there were no giants anywhere. This was supposed to have happened around 2,500 winters before Columbus discovered America, i.e., around 1000 B.C.E.—the time that the Adena seem to have arrived in the Ohio Valley.

There appear to be coincidental links, combining legend and archaeology, between the possible existence of a great nation having giants among their people, their struggle in war, and the beginning time of the Adena in the Ohio Valley.

The Mound Builders

It is no great stretch to reason the possibility that mound construction, especially mortuary, was not necessarily transferred to the Ohio region from the southeast region. In point of view, there may be logic in it.

Heckewelder writes:

Having thus united their forces, the Lenape and Mengwe declared war against the Allegewi. And great battles were fought, in which many warriors fell on both sides … An engagement took place in which hundreds fell, who were afterwards buried in holes or laid together in heaps and covered over with earth.

Such an after-battle chore would be the warriors’ choice. Mound building of this type is as ancient a practice as can be imagined. It was not only clean, but was practical, and probably respectable as well.

Then from where the Mengwe are thought to have come before they joined the Lenni Lenape, i.e., from the region of the Mississippi’s source confluence at the Dakota Missouri, we have this, originally entitled “A Prehistoric Cemetery:”

Two miles from Mandan, on the bluffs near the junction of the Hart and Missouri Rivers, says the local newspaper, the Pioneer, is an old cemetery of fully 100 acres in extent filled with bones of a giant race. This vast city of the dead lies just east of the Fort Lincoln road. The ground has the appearance of having been filled with trenches piled full of dead bodies, both man and beast, and covered with several feet of earth. In many places mounds from 8 to 10 feet high, and some of them 100 feet or more in length, have been thrown up and are filled with bones, broken pottery, vases of various bright colored flint, and agates. The pottery is of a dark material, beautifully decorated, delicate in finish, and as light as wood, showing the work of a people skilled in the arts and possessed of a high state of civilization. This has evidently been a grand battlefield, where thousands of men … have fallen. Nothing like a systematic or intelligent exploration has been made, as only little holes two or three feet in depth have been dug in some of the mounds, but many parts of the anatomy of man and beast, and beautiful specimens of broken pottery and other curiosities, have been found in these feeble efforts at excavation. Five miles above Mandan, on the opposite side of the Missouri, is another vast cemetery, as yet unexplored. We asked an aged Indian what his people knew of these ancient graveyards. He answered: “Me know nothing about them. They were here before the red man.”

Scientific American, 1883

Mandan, North Dakota
Mandan, North Dakota. Map courtesy Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection.

Mounds wherein the dead were placed and covered with earth to avoid open decay and the diseases associated with it are as easy to accept as yesterday’s news. This is a possible explanation for the origin of mounds for the honored dead—the slain heroes and men sacrificed in discharging the dreadful arts of war. Through the eyes of the participant warriors, such a battlefield practice may have served as a fitting memorial, reminding them of their struggles. Later, it could have been re-enacted in quieter surroundings by the Adena. Such mounds or cemeteries as quoted above, holding the remains of people of above average stature, even giants, possibly pushes the practice of moundbuilding back into an undisclosed period of prehistory.

The inclusion of broken pottery in the above mound is similar to the Adena practice of placing broken pottery in the fill of their mounds (Dragoo, Mounds For the Dead, 1963, p.246). Could this be symbolic of the soul’s “vessel” being broken? Because Webb and Snow (Adena People, 1981 p.314-15) are emphatic that the Adena showed no signs of being engaged in any warfare practice at all, one might assume that the practice was pre-Adena, re-enacted to become as tradition by them.

From History of Huron and Erie Counties (Ohio), we also have this excerpt recorded by W.W. Williams in 1879:

In the township of Milan there were three clearly-defined [sic] fortifications when the first settlers came into the country, and they are still not entirely leveled by the plowshare. All three were upon the high banks of the Huron …

F. W. Fowler, one of the pioneers of Milan, describes these earth-works [sic], as first seen by him, to have been from two to four feet above the surface of the ground. Large trees were growing upon some of these embankments. Near these forts were mounds or hillocks, which were found to contain human bones, promiscuously thrown together, as if a large number of bodies had been buried at one time. The skull bones, when found entire, were shown by measurement to be larger, upon the average, than those of the present race, and all exhibited marks that would indicate that life had been taken in deadly combat. Scattered among the skulls and vertebrae, and arm and leg bones, were stone pipes and fragments of burnt clay.

Could these earthworks and remains have been slightly pre-Adena? The accounts of the Alleghany say that they built strong fortifications. Although the above notices offer some beginning evidence for earlier mounds, according to the twentieth-century archaeological investigations, the Adena seem to have started the practice of moundbuilding for the dead. Curiously, the Adena had “tall members” among their people, extraordinarily tall in fact—and massive in skeletal structure—exactly the way the Allegewi were first described. This however does not mean that the Allegewi were the Adena, for there is no sign that the Adena were makers or recipients of war. This may be important to remember.

Unlike the Allegewi, and in accord with the statistics of Webb and Snow, in the majority of Adena skeletons cataloged, the average height of a man was considerably less than six feet (168.0 cm or about 5’6″), and the women were proportionally smaller (158.8 cm or about 5’3″). But there were also numbers of burials catering to a special class of individuals, wherein the skeletal length of six feet was not uncommon. So while on one hand relatively fewer tall skeletons were discovered by academic archaeological efforts in the last century, on the other enough were found to give rise to special theories concerning these people. Most Adena folk were apparently cremated.

Don Dragoo, in discussing these “honored dead” and referring to this taller Adena stature, says in his Mounds For the Dead:

Two outstanding traits have been noted repeatedly for this group. One is the protruding and massive chin often with prominent bilateral protrusions (Webb and Snow, 1959, p. 37). The second trait is the large size of many of the males and some of the females. A male of six feet was common and some individuals approaching seven feet in height have been found … Not only were these Adena people tall, but also the massiveness of the bones indicates powerfully built individuals. The head was generally big with a large cranial capacity.

“Massive in skeletal structure” perhaps reflects the term “stout” used by Heckewelder. These observances were in the late Adena tombs, and although the earlier Adena graves yielded far fewer measurable remains, large skulls were also discovered among those graves. Webb and Snow suggested the possibility of “sexual and social selection” being factors in the development of the large-chinned Adena type. Thus it is of course generally interpreted that these people possibly bred selectively.

Dragoo agrees, adding:

If only certain … individuals of the total population were members of the “selected group,” genetic factors would also have played an important part in the establishment of the unique Adena physical type found in the late Adena tombs. Any changes (mutations) in the gene pool either dominant or recessive would soon be distributed among all the members of the group.

Dragoo, Mounds For the Dead

It would make sense that such selective breeding would be assiduously practiced, and for several good reasons. The main purpose could have been the creation of a guardian or warrior class made up of physically superior men and women. With any luck, these people would also have an above average intellectual capacity as well. But did the genetic traits for larger, more powerful human beings commence with the Adena? The grave evidence does not suggest it. It would be most difficult to attempt such a selective genetic process if all you had to start with were a handful of unfortunate people owning the conditions of acromegaly and gigantism.

Thus it would seem that these Adena folk already had among their race a very rare ancestral lineage and line of descent. They had, in other words, people of pedigree. Studies have also indicated that, as in the case of the Adena, when a people settle down and have a good nutritional food supply, they grow larger and stronger.

Robert Silverberg, in his well-accepted The Mound Builders, after referencing similarly the appropriate authorities, writes:

This band of people of great size forced its way into the Ohio Valley about 1000 B.C., it seems.

Yes, it seems that way. Shortly after, he adds this interesting note:

Perhaps there was a small elite of round-headed giants dominating and ruling an existing long-headed Ohio Valley population.

It is not difficult to share Mr. Silverberg’s wisdom in the speculation of an elite group of very tall people, perhaps a ruling class, being with the Adena. It might be reiterated as well that such a genetic trait could, in the light of practicality, be pre-Adena.

How ancient were the Allegewi? Did the practice of funerary moundbuilding stem from the post war necessity of quick physical interment? Were the “honored dead” buried in the tradition of the warrior class, in the non-cremation style, after the practice of mass mound-graves following great battles? Were the taller, perhaps more accomplished members of the Adena given special rank and privilege? Why did these giants show up with greater distinction in the later Adena burials? How long would it have taken the Adena to build a new tradition from Allegewi stock?

A Tradition of Giants

In Silverberg’s words, Heckewelder’s reference to the Allegewi as giants “touched off a search for a race of giant mound builders in the Ohio Valley.”

Indeed, the pioneering whites and their descendents enthusiastically performed their own examination of the uncounted mound-tombs, leaving relatively few for the archaeologists some years later. Stretching in large part from Pennsylvania to Indiana, the sheer number of raised earthen and stone works boggled the imagination. Upon life’s end, some Adena would be interred right into the floor of their home, the whole covered with earth, making little clusters of mounds at intervals throughout the countryside, preserving the sites of their former hamlets. As it turned out, there were many extra-large skeletons reported in the various records of townships and counties, all independent of one another. Whether Heckewelder and others touched off this search may be irrelevant, because it was virtually irresistible for these early settlers to look inside these ancient earthworks—located in their “back 40” as it were.

Being mostly of Euro-Celtic decent, these pioneering-types enjoyed comparing the giant jawbones of the skulls they found with their own. Says Dragoo:

One of the peculiar features present in at least one-half of the observed examples is the great width of the bony chin formed by bilateral eminences rarely found among the skulls of the much earlier Shell Heap People or among the later Hopewell People.

Mounds For the Dead

From the Ironton Register, a small Ohio River town newspaper, dated May 5, 1892, we found this:

Where Proctorville now stands was one day part of a well paved city, but I think the greater part of it is now in the Ohio river [sic]. Only a few mounds, there; one of which was near the C. Wilgus mansion and contained a skeleton of a very large person, all double teeth, and sound, in a jaw bone that would go over the jaw with the flesh on, of a large man; the common burying ground was well filled with skeletons at a depth of about 6 feet. Part of the pavement was of boulder stone and part of well preserved brick.

Then we found this account from Historical Collections of Ohio in Two Volumes, p. 350-351, Noble County, Ohio:

In Seneca township was opened, in 1872, one of the numerous Indian mounds that abound in the neighborhood. This particular one was locally known as the “Bates” mound. Upon being dug into it was found to contain a few broken pieces of earthenware, a lot of flint-heads and one or two stone implements and the remains of three skeletons, whose size would indicate they measured in life at least eight feet in height. The remarkable feature of these remains was they had double teeth in front as well as in back of mouth and in both upper and lower jaws. Upon exposure to the atmosphere the skeletons crumbled back to mother earth.

And finally this taken from A History of Ashtabula County, (Ohio, 1878), in two separate entries:

In cultivating the soil in the vicinity implements have been found, and in excavating the ground for graves it is said that bones have been exhumed which seemed to have belonged to a race of giants.

This land at one time belonged to a Mr. Peleg Sweet, who was a man of large size and full features; and it is narrated that at one time he, in digging, came upon a skull and jaw which were of such size that the skull would cover his head and the jaw could be easily slipped over his face, as though the head of a giant were enveloping his …

This second entry may be of some interest, for it describes non-mound burials, perhaps characterizing the typical trench burial of the Archaic period, i.e., pre-Adena.

The graves were, distinguished by slight depressions in the surface of the earth, disposed in straight rows, which, with intervening spaces or valleys, covered the entire area. The number of these graves has been estimated to be between two and three thousand. Aaron Wright, Esq., in 1800, made a careful examination of these depressions, and found them invariably to contain human bones blackened with time, which upon exposure to the air soon crumbled to dust. Some of these bones were of unusual size, and evidently belonged to a race allied to giants. Skulls were taken from these mounds, the cavities of which were of sufficient capacity to admit the head of an ordinary man, and jaw-bones [sic] that might be fitted over the face with equal facility. The bones of the upper and lower extremities were of corresponding size.

Certainly there was more curiosity than hysteria among the early settlers however, leading to the conclusion of there being less of a competitive spirit to prove the existence of a lost and superior race. Besides, a fortunate number of mounds were left untouched, possibly because they seemed less interesting, but perhaps through wise foresight. The accounts all seem quite honest and matter-of-fact, some writers not bothering to report the exact lengths of skeletal remains (were it possible). Convinced perhaps that the giant race was a well-established aspect of prehistory for the region, the post-Revolutionary War people took it for granted that the larger stature was commonplace enough to take the bones in stride. Only a few scholarly measures were taken toward the preservation of sites and contents, reflecting such an attitude.

Consequently, and because of the rigorous standards of the later academics, the 19th century accounts and diaries have never been considered part of the professional criterion. In any event, the larger and more interesting shaped mound structures were the first to be excavated, leaving the rest for the analysis of the professionals.

In Muskingum County’s Brush Creek Township, in a document dated March 3, 1880, a mound located on the farm of J.M. Baughman was measured 64 feet in width, 90 feet in length, and 11 feet, 3 inches in height. It was flat on top, an unusual condition for a mound. The mound achieved its odd shape possibly because of the stone altar, owning similar dimensions, found within. The structure was located on the summit of a hill, 152 feet above the Brush Creek In it were discovered the bones of men and women, buried in couples—the length of their skeletons exceeding eight and even nine feet. The excavation was started in early December, 1870. There was another “dig” included as well. This reflected an attitude toward the then-existing archaeologists, whom these people apparently held in low regard.

The above report contains nothing but facts briefly told, and knowing that the public has been humbugged and imposed upon by archaeologists, we wish to fortify our own statements by giving the following testimonial …

Brush Creek Tablet
The now lost Brush Creek Tablet was found among skeletons measuring over 8 and 9 feet in length in Brush Creek Township, Muskigum County, Ohio, in the early 1880s.

At the bottom of the three-page account, the signature of six citizens was affixed in an affidavit verifying the truth, correctness, and non-deviation from the facts. It is quite possible that these people reported on something a bit rarer than ever expected. The mounded structure was possibly Archaic Alleghany. If a tradition of giants existed among these ancient people, surely a firm genetic base in people of more than seven feet in height would occasionally produce even taller members.

Needless to say, it is for reasons as the described indifference between the property owners and the archaeologists that discoveries of the remains of giant human beings in North America are questionable to seated academics. This may be especially true currently among those who have never engaged in a more thoughtful reading of the exponents of Adena analysis, especially the summations of Dragoo. The scientific community today has its own tradition fraught with skepticism, academic disapproval, and outright dismissal of the old citizenry’s accounts. A part of the problem may be wrapped up in the politics and policies of the anthropological and archaeological communities. Credibility is always a point of vital interest. Few who bear degrees and use their letters as levers in their theories will step off the beaten path into “alternative” areas of research.

Never the less, gigantic stature among men and women has been known since the beginnings of recorded history, the Bible’s Genesisitself relating of giants. They’re referred to as “sons of God,” and “men of renown.” This seems to echo the words of Schoolcraft referring to the Allegewi as “a strong and mighty people, capable of great exertions and doing wonders.” The Greeks have extensive mythological accounts of such people owning a grand stature as well. They were often held as a reclusive race, perhaps for self-preservation, whose lineage went back to a time of great antiquity, perhaps prior to the last Ice Age.

The odd thing about large men, however, is that in ancient times of warfare, they were the ones selected first—often the “champions” of kings. This practice of taking the big men first is believed to have systematically depleted the gene pool among the older European, Asian, and Middle Eastern stocks, reducing the average height of modern man to something less than it could possibly have been. David slew Goliath, and it was part of a pattern. Could this have been the fate of the Allegewi big men in defense of their homeland against the Lenape-Mengwe?

Heckewelder indeed said that there was a tradition that there were giants among the Allegewi. Tradition is consciously passed down from time to time, generation to generation. Is it coincidence that there was an apparent tradition of giants among the Adena? If one were to conspire to weave legend with archaeology, there are a number of coincidences possibly equating the early Adena with the ancient Allegewi, indirectly at least. The Lenni Lenape seem to be intimately involved, for it is from them that we have the story.

Weaving Legend and Science

Did the Adena simply wander into the Ohio Valley or were they already here, genetically at least, in the form of a race with very dominant genetic traits? Did a severely compromised Archaic Lenape interbreed with the remaining Alleghany inhabitants of the region, in effect continuing the strong characteristic breed of the former Allegewi race, giving rise to the Adena? Were some of the disinterred giant humans representative of actual Allegewi?

It is tempting, in other words, to demonstrate a philosophical matching between transmitted history and hard facts, creating a sort of weave to hold them together. Like the making of a belt of wampum, such a weave may have a practical as well as ornamental purpose.

To start, here are a few additional accounts of giant skeletons found in the 19th century, both in and out of the state of Ohio. This first refers the general character of the human remains found in Logan County, Illinois:

It is sometimes difficult to distinguish the places of sepulture raised by the Mound-Builders from the more modern graves of the Indians. The tombs of the former were in general larger than those of the latter, and were used as receptacles for a greater number of bodies, and contained relics of art, evincing a higher degree of civilization than that attained by the Indians. The ancient earth-works of the Mound-Builders have occasionally been appropriated as burial places by the Indians, but the skeletons of the latter may be distinguished from the osteological remains of the former by their greater stature.

History of Logan County, Illinois, 1886

Similarly this next one from Vermillion Township, Erie County, Ohio:

There are quite a number of mounds, in the township, where the bones, and sometimes the whole skeleton of the human race have been found. The bones and skeletons found are very large, and some of the inhabitants think they must have belonged to a race of beings much larger in size than the Indians found here by the first settlers.

Firelands Pioneer, 1858

In 1829, when the hotel was built in Chesterville, a mound near by was made to furnish the material for the brick. In digging it away, a large human skeleton was found, but no measurements were made. It is related that the jaw-bone was found to fit easily over that of a citizen of the village, who was remarkable for his large jaw. The local physicians examined the cranium and found it proportionately large, with more teeth than the white race of today. The skeleton was taken to Mansfield, and has been lost sight of entirely.

History of Morrow County and Ohio, 1880

In digging the cellar of the house, nine human skeletons were found, and, like such specimens from other ancient mounds of the country, they showed that the Mound Builders were men of large stature. The skeletons were not found lying in such a manner as would indicate any arrangement of the bodies on the part of the entombers. In describing the tomb, Mr. Albert Harris said: “It looked as if the bodies had been dumped into a ditch. Some of them were buried deeper than others, the lower one being about seven feet below the surface. When the skeletons were found, Mr. Harris was twenty years of age, yet he states that he could put one of the skulls over his head, and let it rest upon his shoulders, while wearing a fur cap at the same time. The large size of all the bones was remarked, and the teeth were described as “double all the way round.”

The History of Medina County, 1881

On the Wappatomaka have been found numerous Indian relics, among which was highly a finished pipe, representing a snake coiled around the bowl. There was also discovered the under jaw-bone of a human being (says Kercheval) of great size, which contained eight jaw-teeth in each side, of enormous size; and, what is more remarkable the teeth stood transversely in the jaw-bone. It would pass over any man’s face with entire ease.

Historical Collections of Virginia, 1845

There are many more suchlike accounts, and all will be published in a book with a title similar to this article.

Could the ancient ancestors of the Lenni Lenape have taken over the lands of the Allegewi, then intermarried with the former subjects of the Allegewi hierarchy, producing the Adena—but with an added twist? That twist would ask whether some of the select Allegewi women were spared of the supposed genocide, becoming participants, willing or not, for the procreation of what was to become the “tall members” of the Adena? Were any alliances made in the course of the long war that allowed a taller Allegewi male to live on? Were the Adena people themselves the result of a “fusion” or commingling of two or even three separate and distinct cultures?

Heckewelder writes:

The war that was carried on with this nation, lasted many years, during which the Lenape lost a great number of their warriors, while the Mengwe would always hang back in the rear, leaving them to face the enemy.

The loss of that many men may very well have inhibited their ability to reestablish a new and thriving generation quickly, and so perhaps the surviving members of the Allegewi, taking the Lenape as their new masters, shared not only their lands, but themselves as well. This might help to explain the strong physical type of those later Adena found preserved in mounds, if the Adena also developed a ceremonial system of selective breeding—even as the Alleghans were supposed to have done. In this, the stronger, more dominant Allegewi gene type may have survived the annihilation of the Allegewi themselves, becoming the children of their conquerors.

The romantic James A. Jones relates how, on the eve of the first armed encounter with the Allegewi, the strong love of a man of the Lenni Lenape for a beautiful maiden of the Allegewi was born:

It was night; the bands of the confederate nations were sleeping in their cabins, dreaming dreams of victory and glory, when Wangewaha, or the Hard Heart, sleeping in his tent, was aroused by the tread of a light foot on the earth at his side, and a voice sweeter than that of the linnet or the thrush. Looking up he saw, by the beams of the moon, a tall and beautiful woman, straight as a hickory, and graceful as a young antelope. She wore over her shoulders a cloak made of the tender bark of the mulberry, interlaced with the white feathers of the swan, and the gay plumage of the snake bird and the painted vulture. Wangewaha started from his sleep, for he knew her to be the beautiful maiden whom he had seen in his dream, ere he quitted the land of his father’s bones—the shape tall and erect, the eye black and sparkling, the foot small and swift, the teeth white and even, the glossy dark hair, and the small plump hand.

The warrior (whose callus name, infers Jones, could have been changed at the sight of the tall beauty), listened to her story of how she was being made to marry one she could never love. Wengewaha, after consoling the young woman, bade her to spend the remainder of the night with his sister, who was nearby.

But the passion of love arose in the warrior’s heart, and he determined that, if the Great Spirit should give him victory in the approaching contest, the beautiful maiden should become his wife.

Thus is related the story of the Lenape commingling romantically with the Allegewi. Cusick carries out this understanding of the mixing of giants with folk of lesser stature—only reversing the sexes. He relates the story of a giant abducting the daughter of a noble chieftain. Her brothers search for her, and are taken unaware when they find she has fallen in love with the giant, becoming uninterested in returning to her family. Interestingly, there is biblical reference to such relations between giants and people of smaller physical type:

And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them,

That the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose.

Genesis 6:1-2

The possibility of the Allegewi having passed on their “tradition” of giants may not be far fetched at all, especially in the understanding that the Lenape folk, in crossing over the Mississippi, likely did so with their woman and children, not suspecting an attack. In the course of the Great War, would it not have been feasible that the Allegewi, as likewise the Lenape, took to themselves, at any given opportunity, the desirable womenfolk of their adversaries? Hence would come an explanation for the selected taller members of the Adena, especially among the later Adena, when enough time had passed to refine the mating ritual of the elite stock. For these children, after all, would have been in the direct lineage of they that had so bravely risked their lives in the defeat the Alleghany warriors.

Adena Fate, Hopewell Destiny

Heckewelder writes:

In the end, the conquerors divided the country between themselves; the Mengwe made choice of the lands in the vicinity of the great lakes, and on their tributary streams, and the Lenape took possession of the country to the south.

So the Mengwe (later Iroquois) took the lands north, and, as we may assume from the account, the Lenape took for their own the Ohio Valley with all its tributaries and streams. In this might we not assume the new masters of the Ohio Valley inherited not only the possessions of the Allegewi, but their lore of the region’s natural resources as well? Being prompted and educated by the extant inhabitants, would they not have quickly developed the supposedly unique arts and crafts of the “Adena?” Unfortunately we cannot discern a possible Allegewi trinket from an Adena one, for if the ancient post war scenario resembled anything like what the white settlers enacted, that would explain less evidence for any perceivable Alleghany legacy.

Heckewelder also notes that many of the Lenape people stayed back on the western shores of the Namesi Sipu, being frightened by the fierce reception of the Allegewi. This might explain the presence of only the stronger and more necessarily hierarchical “Mexican” traditions being applied at the onset of the Adena culture, if they came along at all. That, combined with the possibility of a diminished number of men, and the probable non-admittance of the northern Mengwe in their new local politics, could have manifested itself in the difficult-to-explain origins of the Adena with their skeletal type. But then, as the peace extended itself, and more of the formally diffident Lenape cultural messengers arrived and took root in the region from west of the Mississippi, the effect could have been more of the “missing” Mexican traits appearing in the later tombs. At the same time, and as the old Lenape tradition asserted itself more and more, the stronger diagnostic traits of the early Adena, rich in the possible spoils of the great war, would have exited, leaving evolved and improved versions to be associated with the emerging Hopewell.

Small Adena mound on the Serpent Mound site
Small Adena mound on the Serpent Mound site.

But what became of the Adena? Were they indeed forced out by the Hopewell? In this, Heckewelder recounts this interesting bit of information:

For a long period of time, some say hundreds of years, the two nations resided peaceably in this country, and increased very fast; some of their more enterprising huntsmen and warriors crossed the great swamps, and falling on streams running to the eastward, followed them down to the great Bay River, thence into the Bay itself, which we call Chesapeak [sic]. As they pursued their travels, partly by land and partly by water, sometimes near and at other times on the great Saltwater Lake, as they call the Sea, they discovered the great river, which we call the Delaware; and thence exploring still eastward the Scheyiekba country, now named New Jersey, they arrived at another great stream, that which we call the Hudson or North River.

The “great swamps” are said to be the old wetlands along the west base of the Appalachians. The account then returns some of these men after their long absence to the main body of people, and they tell of the natural resources and the gifts that lay to the east. Heckewelder continues:

Satisfied with what they had seen, they (or some of them) after a long absence, returned to their nation and reported the discoveries they had made; they described the country they had discovered as abounding in game and various kinds of fruits; and the rivers and bays, with fish, tortoises, &c, together with abundance of water-fowl, and no enemy to be dreaded. They considered the event as a fortunate one for them, and concluding this to be the country destined for them by the Great Spirit, they began to emigrate thither, yet in small bodies, so as not to be straitened for want of provisions by the way, some even laying by for a whole year; at last they settled on the four great rivers (which we call Delaware, Hudson, Susquehanna, and Potomack), making the Delaware … the center of their possessions.

Our best Adena scholars have studiously submitted that the Adena, having lived in the Ohio Valley for a number of centuries, showed evidence of outlying settlements, by the appearance of their known traits, in places far to the east. Says Dragoo:

Ritchie’s extensive archaeological studies in the Northeast indicate Adena influence also spread into that region (Ritchie and Dragoo, 1960 p.26-62). Although some Adena traits may have filtered into New York state [sic] from the upper Ohio Valley earlier in Adena, the majority of traits appear similar to those of the late Maryland and Delaware Adena sites. The distribution of Adena materials along the east coast and in the Northeast also indicates that there may have been a migration route from Chesapeake Bay to Delaware Bay, then northward via the Delaware River into New Jersey and beyond. Some Adena peoples also may have moved from the Chesapeake Bay area up the Susquehanna River into New York.

He then adds that in he and his colleague’s opinion, it is more than coincidental that the extensions of these ancient folk occurred about the same time—the time of the middle Adena period. He goes on to say that the presence of artifacts in these outlying areas cannot be considered the result of “the wandering of traders in search of new markets or raw materials.” He then asks the question of why groups of Adena people would find it a necessity to leave their homeland in the Ohio Valley.

Was the later Hopewell, after the loss of the Adena type to migration, dominantly composed of the northern Mengwe ancestral stock? In the words of Dragoo in his summations of Webb and Snow:

The traits shared by Adena and Hopewell were those already present in late Adena and donated by Adena to the new Hopewell culture which formed after the contact of Adena peoples with a long-headed population which had lived north of the area of Adena occupation.

Since Heckewelder’s accounts preceded even the broader knowledge of the Ohio Valley mounds, we may have a series of clues to begin to help answer our better investigators’ questions concerning these mysteries of the Adena. The time of a supposed entry in the Ohio Valley, followed by a few centuries of settlement (middle Adena) and the subsequent movement eastward—virtually identical to Heckewelder’s descriptions—may be valuable considerations in the now centuries long inquiry embodying the mystery of the Adena. A possible movement southward by the Mengwe only reinforces the understanding that the Adena, having recognized themselves as physically and ancestrally different from the Mengwe, chose to move on eastward, maintaining their stock for awhile.

Author’s Note

The notion of whether the Cherokee were in the region of the Ohio Valley in relatively recent times (approximately 1000 C.E. upward) is quite possible, they having inherited the name of “Talligewi” in loose legend. It may well be that history in a sense repeated itself in that the Delaware and (or) the Iroquois still held claim to the Ohio territory, and drove these people out, even as they were squatters claiming the vacated premises, considered still as hunting grounds to the former occupants. Besides that, the Cherokee have never claimed to have constructed mounds, though it is said they built atop existing mounds. In addition, there have never, at any time, been giants among the Cherokee, such as related by the antique legends.

Selected Bibliography

Dragoo, Don W. Mounds For The Dead. Pittsburgh PA: Carnegie Museum, 1963.

Heckewelder, John. History, Manners, and Customs of the Indian Nations. The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1876 (originally published in 1819).

Jones, James Athearn. Traditions of the North American Indians. London: Colburn and Bently, 1830.

Silverberg, Robert. The Mound Builders. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1986.

Webb, William S. and Charles E. Snow. The Adena People. Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky, 1945.

Star Mounds

Star Mounds: Legacy of a Native American Mystery

Ross Hamilton

Extremely important work beautifully written and illustrated.




Great Serpent Mound




The Great Serpent Mound Book of Wonders & Mysteries

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The Mystery of the Serpent Mound: In Search of the Alphabet of the Gods

Ross Hamilton

The mysterious Serpent Mound in the Ohio Valley is a masterpiece of prehistoric architecture. Its enormous size alone inspires awe and reverence. Even deeper meanings may be hidden in the dimensions and lost functions of this ancient religious structure. Researcher Ross Hamilton has uncovered multiple layers of secrets hidden within the earthworks of the Serpent Mound, and his discoveries contribute to a new understanding of prehistoric spiritual science and engineering.