WATERING THE CORN: The Problem of Human Sacrifice Among the Woodland Peoples

The questions of if, when, and for what reason human sacrifice was practiced among the prehistoric peoples of North America has often been raised.  Archeological evidence has not always been supportive, while at the same time also being suggestive that such rites could have been practiced at various times and locations.  In preparing to deal with this very difficult subject as part of the story-line in the fifth installment of The People of the Stone saga, THE CORN MAIDEN'S GIFT, this writer has had to take a look at this controversial subject, both from the viewpoint of a former archeologist and now as a novelist.  While it is often easy for the storyteller to "jump the shark", as they say these days, and go right for the easiest or cleverest plot device to nail a story, the standard for anthropological accuracy that has been set by this author for his important book series demanded a more detailed review of the subject.  Fortunately, there is no shortage of literature on this matter, although even very little reading gives one the impression that some of the so-called eye-witness testimony of early explorers, missionaries, and others may have been deliberately aimed at a more sensationalized account of this problem.  What then are some of the major problems encountered in trying to realistically deal with this subject for a particular time and place, such as the Hopewell or Mississippian phases of the greater Woodland cultures of the Midwest a thousand years ago?


There are many problems with archeological investigations within the Woodland Culture Area.  Not the least of these is visibility of any organic component due to the rapid decay of even recent organic remains in many cases.  Obviously, the primary features of this time period are the large mound structures, both of the early conical form and the later platform mound construction.  While both of these mound types were most often used in whole or in part as burial sites, allowing for the best possible preservation in the wide area over which they are found, many of the interments were cremations, giving little evidence of sacrifice.  There are, however, some documented exceptions.  The Criel Mound of West Virginia (a prominent locale in A DARK WINGED SHADOW, the fourth novel in The People of the Stone series) when excavated under the direction of Fredrick Putnam in the late 19th Century, gave evidence of a primary, high status burial surrounded by thirteen other individuals in a circular pattern radiating out from the body.  Whether or not this may have indicated some form of sacrifice of retainers, prisoners, or some other feature is not clear.  Another of the problems in determining sacrifice versus some other form of death is in the osteological evidence.  When victims are strangled, for example, as has been documented among the later Mississippian peoples such as the Natchez of the early 1700's (Le Page du Pratz,s too often neglected contemporary reports are key here) little direct evidence other than body position remains for the archeologist, even if the bodies are actually discovered.

There has also been no direct evidence of which I am aware of excavated discoveries of specialized ritual knives or other potential sacrificial implements among Hopewell peoples.  There are numerous large obsidian blades in Hopewell mounds (some were recovered at Mound City near  Chillicothe, Ohio) but there is no direct evidence of their use as anything but burial wealth or trade items.  It might be tempting to extrapolate the use of these blades based upon their well-known function in Mesoamerican sacrifice, but there does not appear to be direct evidence for this use among those recovered in Woodland burials.  The absence of stone altars associated with Woodland mound sites is also a negative feature in assuming any large-scale blood sacrifices as were common elsewhere in the Americas in the same timeframe.  Nor is there evidence for non-mound burials or mass graves that would even indicate other significant forms of violence such as warfare.  There is, off course, always the possibility that individual sacrifices were made.  This might include selected young women, children, or the occasional male prisoner, especially one of status, and the bodies were hidden, cremated, or even ritually consumed (See Marvin Harris, Cannibals and Kings for a discussion of this practice, even into historic times among the Iroquois and Huron peoples, obviously descendants of the earlier Woodland peoples). The problem for the archeologist in this region of the country has generally been one of scant remains other than from the great mounds, and the large-scale destruction of so many sites from this time period during the last two centuries continues to be a problem without solution.


Another major impetus for the discussion of human sacrifice during this time period has always been the obvious connections with some of the great cultures of Mesoamerica and the extent to which those connections directly impacted Woodland society.  Hopewell platform mound builders and their Mississippian descendants were clearly in contact with the high civilizations to the south. Those connections, beginning with the platform mounds themselves, are too numerous to mention here.  However, it has always been apparent to researchers from many fields that a major part of the human sacrifice so apparent with these high cultures came about in response to the rise of corn agriculture as a primary subsistence strategy, along with the regionalized over population that often resulted in endemic warfare for control of limited land or other essential resources.  Mayan kings gave their own blood publicly to these rites, young maidens were sacrificed on altars or cast into the sacred cenotes, and untold numbers of male captives and slaves were carved up in the name of the various gods and goddesses associated in whole or in part with the fertility of the Corn.  There is no doubt that the Woodland peoples of N. America received the gift of corn from their more powerful neighbors to the south, and it should not be surprising if some of the most important rituals, including human sacrifice, did not come north with the great gift itself.  Many Mississippian cultic symbols and iconography found throughout the Southeast and even into the Ohio Valley clearly bear the imprint of Mesoamerican contacts just before Europeans arrived and even earlier.  How far back these contacts may go prior to the arrival of the Spanish is unclear, but it is safe to assume that important corn rituals must have been developed out of such contacts early on.  Any elements of human sacrifice that came with those contacts, however, could have been adapted to existing practices of formal execution on an individual basis, as discussed above, and have left little direct evidence.  The absence of any form of written records, even in the form of carved stones, of the type found throughout Central American cultures of the period has also served as a negative argument for those who deny human sacrifice among the Woodland peoples on any scale beyond the occasional individual.  Historical records among the Iroquois and other tribes of the Southeast, however, reveal a clear tendency toward various forms of ritual murder of both males and females at the time of the first Spanish intrusions and later.  There is no reason to believe that these actions were not rooted in some long-standing belief in the powers of the blood of living victims to carry the prayers or the desire to join the human body in some way with the diverse spiritual powers these ancient peoples believed in.

The 'watering of the corn' was clearly but one of many potential reasons for the apparent need that many pre-Columbian cultures felt to engage in human sacrifice.  Everything from population control, to terror over one's enemies, to the need for large amounts of protein for the upper classes have been advanced by Harris and many others as more practical reasons for sacrifices of all types.  However, in trying to draw connections between those cultures and the Woodland peoples of the Mississippi and Ohio valleys one thousand years ago, one keeps coming back to the apparent "Corn Connection".  This remains the most logical and reasonable reason that such ritualistic murders could have, and quite likely, did occur--even if such practices were adapted to some other cultural ethic or ceremony that is as yet invisible to us as easily as are those of Mesoamerica.  As a novelist desiring to deal with this problem as one element of an important story, it is tempting to sensationalize such an event and build a master plot around some romanticized aspect of this form of death, on either a grand or individual scale.  As an archeologist, however, it is necessary to view any such practice as an integral part of the society or institution being portrayed, even in a fictional format, and as one that the people who engaged in the practice would have probably seen as a 'normal', even necessary, part of their spiritual and actual existence.     It is to be hoped that the solution to dealing with this "problem" which this author has selected to pursue in his new novel   (which must be seen as representing the time period comprising a major turning point in native American prehistory) will be both a satisfying one to my fictional readers as well as a "correct" one for those who peruse the novels of The People of the Stone saga for the archeological and ethnological information they also contain.

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