A curious prehistoric site on a hilltop in northern Ohio may reflect the spiritual cosmology of the ancient hunter-gatherer people who built the site around 2,300 years ago, according to a new study.
The so-called Heckelman site, located near the town of Milan, in Ohio’s Erie County, is on a flat-topped bluff above the Huron River. There, people of the “Early Woodland” period of North American prehistory erected tall, freestanding wooden poles as part of the group’s social or religious ceremonies.
Archaeologist Brian Redmond, a curator at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, said the location of the site appeared to echo a conception of the cosmos common to many Native American peoples.
“We know that Native American and many different tribal groups had a very specific vision about the world as a three-layered cosmos: the upper world, the middle world that we live on and an underworld,” Redmond, author of a new research paper on the earliest occupants of the Heckelman site, told Live Science.
The site is bordered by water, which ancient people could have seen as symbolic of the underworld, Redmond said. The wooden poles on the bluff may have been constructed to reach up to the sky, in the direction of the upper world, he added.
“So this could have been seen as a spiritually powerful landscape where you connected the three worlds together, with the poles as an ‘axis mundi’ (axis of the world) or ‘tree of life’ type of thing, which is global in the way that [ancient] cultures looked at these things,” Redmond said.
The Heckelman site is unique among Early Woodland sites in the region because there are no signs of human burials or preparations for burials, Redmond said. Instead, the site seems to have been used for rituals or festivals associated with the living, rather than the dead, he said.
“From everything we’re seeing, we’re very certain it was some sort of ceremonial location. The fact we found no human burials, we found no evidence of mortuary treatment or mortuary ceremonialism — this site really stands out because we really didn’t find any direct evidence of that,” Redmond said. “So it’s a different kind of ceremonialism, a ritualism related to the living — it represents that these people had a rich ceremonial life, a religious life, that wasn’t just involved in burying people.”
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