The Ohio Valley Mound-Builders Were Algonquian
Modern realization that the principal mound-builders of the Ohio Valley (those usually referred to as “Adena” and “Hopewell”) were of the Algonquian ethnolinguistic group began early and has only grown stronger with time. The polyglot genius Constantine Rafinesque – the first systematic cataloguer of the mounds – was first to make the association in the 1830s, though his scientific arguments were masked by his chosen form of presentation: a fake “sacred text” of the Lenape called the Walam Olam. In parody of the Book of Mormon, the Walam Olam portrayed the works of the Ohio Valley as the ruins of epic battles between the Algonquian Lenape and the Cherokee, with the Lenape playing the role of the more “advanced” civilization building precision works – the role later attributed to the newly named “Hopewell.”
Despite the dramatic ruse, real science and ethnology underlay Rafinesque’s identification, which included a complete early theory of how the Algonquians had crossed North America after fording the Bering Strait, correct in all of its essentials. Rafinesque took much of his ethnology from the Moravian missionaries John Heckwelder and David Zeisberger, who had written of the genuine Lenape oral tradition that their ancestors had defeated a people called “the Snake People.” Rafinesque connected this legend to the many snake effigies, large and small, found among the works of the mound-builders, and obligingly filled his invented Lenape sacred script with serpent shapes borrowed from Algonquian iconography, reinforced by the real tendency of historic Central Algonquians to name their tribal divisions after snakes. Thus, though we must recognize the Walam Olum as fakery, it did intuit the genuine science yet to come.
There are eight categories of argument that demonstrate that the Mound-builders of the early and middle Woodland Period were indeed Algonquian. And by this I mean full-fledged Algonquians who spoke an Algonquian language (not Proto-Algonquian) and who descended from an Algic stock that probably constituted a separate migration into North America from Beringea. By saying that they were Algonquian, of course I do not exclude that there was influence or incorporation of other ethnolinguistic elements, but the general Algonquian identification is strong and clear.
Here I will briefly summarize each of the eight arguments, some of which I will expand upon separately. It should be born in mind that the overall identification depends not on any one or two arguments but on all eight. Potential objections to individual points should not obscure the strength of the multiple types of evidence and the fact that no rival theory can come close to displacing the Algonquian ID.