6. The Sacred Game


Speculative as the evidence may be, an intriguing image emerges from ancient North America at the end of the Paleo-Indian period and the in the early years of the Archaic period.   As the glaciers retreated to the north, the landscape was drastically altered by the newly forming drainage systems, no more apparent in the midlands where massive flooding events created the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River drainage basins.1  Further south, as the climate grew warmer,  the Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio drainage basins took their familiar shape as boreal forests of spruce, pine and birch gradually gave way to the deciduous woodlands creeping from the south bringing oak, maple, beech and hickory.  To the west, the prairie grasslands and parklands took shape and spread.

Over the ensuing millennia these changes to the environment also had a profound effect on the ecosystems including the humans inhabiting them.  At the end of the Pleistocene, over 10,000 years ago, the North American megafauna was in the finals stages of extinction as the climate stabilized to modern levels and the tundra and boreal ecological zones were replaced with the deciduous woodlands and the ecology that resided within those woodlands.  This required adaptive strategies on the behalf of the ancient human populations that depended on those ecosystems for their survival and was likely a major cause for the population migrations that are thought to have taken place during those periods.  Chronicles of these migrations may have been recorded in indigenous oral lore with stories of catastrophic floods indicating that some indigenous people were witness to these ancient events, which were notable enough to record and pass down through countless generations into modern times.

As we noted in the previous chapter, the possibility of the invention of a blunt projectile weapon system was possible in the remote past and may have been developed when the main subsistence pattern of a group of people changed from larger to smaller prey.  The blunt projectile weapon was contemporary with the atlatl spear throwing weapon system and might have been a mechanical innovation of the bolas.  We also noted that the basis for some of the ritual behaviour surrounding the historical game may have had origins in practical preparation for killing events, such as hunting expeditions.   The aspect of frequent bathing and application of special herbal remedies may be construed as the washing away of one’s scent and replacing that scent with something less alarming to the smaller, quicker game.   We can also see the ritual bloodletting to attract predatory game such as bears, wolves or cougars.  And finally we can see the exhortation of fasting and mental focus as a part of preparing the body and mind for a strenuous physical and psychological activity which required the participant to be in tip top shape.

The repetition of these practical preparatory activities could have evolved into accepted common place practices watched over by the hunting experts of the community and passed along to subsequent generations through the telling of hunting tales or re-enactment ceremonies conducted by specialized elders.  Over time these practices were honed to produce the desired result, a successful hunt, and such prescribed preparatory activities would have signified to the participants a ‘guarantee’ of sorts.  The post-hunt activities would also have been based on practical requirements.  Grit, grime and blood from the hunt may have led to unsanitary conditions frowned upon during the consumption of the prey.  Rotting animal blood would have emitted an unsavoury smell and attract insects and other pests and may have also attracted unwanted predators such as the bears and wolves.

Another aspect of the pre-hunt activities would naturally include the preparation of one’s weapons including making the stick and gathering of stone projectiles.  We can well imagine that the creation of a blunt projectile throwing stick involved a great deal of effort, from selecting the correct wood to bending the wood to create a ‘pocket’ to hold the projectile.  There was likely some maintenance of the devices, especially those that were tailored to the throwing capabilities of the user.  As the preparatory practices were honed, so were the implements.  The projectiles themselves may have been simple rounded stones or pebbles suited to be launched at high speed from the throwing stick.  Such stones could be gathered from a sea or lake shore or from creek and river banks.  The post glacial till in the midlands of North America are an ideal source for such objects considered as throwaway projectiles due to their abundance in the environment, although perfected projectiles were retained by the user either for re-use or as ceremonial objects.

We often imagine that the daily life of these ancient people was constantly filled with strenuous effort towards their own survival, that their life was always in a state of emergency against famine and starvation.  However, recent studies show this was not likely the case and that hunter-gather populations have more leisure time than do modern folk.  Along with the preparatory activities noted above, we can suggest that the ancient indigenous people took the time to practice their hunting skills by shooting on targets in a similar way related to the games of pole-and-hoop, chunkey or archery.  Such practice would allow the hunter to fine tune the throwing stick, test the projectiles and become more proficient at the weapon system.

Besides the practice of the weapon system, it was highly probable that running was also practiced and used as a key part of the ancient hunting method.  Foot races were very common among indigenous people in the historical era and we can conclude that they played an important role in prehistoric cultures.  One of these roles is the requirement for running during the hunt.  A form of persistence hunting may have been the norm.  In persistence hunting, the hunter may chase the prey down to the point of exhaustion.  Humans have the capability of cooling off by sweating while all other animals must stop and periodically rest.  So while a creature may be faster than the hunter, they do not have the stamina to go long distances as humans do.  Persistence hunting has been observed in modern times and is very effective under the right conditions.

These earlier practice sessions likely took the form of a ritualized hunt where the hunters took their roles in the hunting group and acted out a successful hunt.  This behaviour is common in the anthropological and historical literature of hunter gatherer people from all over the world.  , children were likely to have been taught the skill of this weapon system from an early age and honed their skills in practice and loosely structured play.  Besides practicing the use of the weapon system such ritualized re-enactments would have also been used to pass along key messages about the hunt such as where to hunt, what to look for, how the hunting party should deploy and so on.  Maybe during these times there was a ranking of hunter and skill to form a leadership hierarchy and some specialization.

So the intriguing image that emerges is of a group of hunters in very ancient times, who have developed a blunt projectile weapon system to hunt smaller game mammals from moose, elk and deer to wolves and bears to rabbits and beavers.  This weapon system could be one part of the entire hunting toolkit which may have also included spears or the atlatl spear throwing system used to apply the killing stroke to larger game wounded or stunned by being hit with a blunt projectile.  However, under the right conditions, a hunter with the proper aim could have easily killed larger game with one or two well-placed shots especially if that game has been exhausted through a persistent hunting method.  If the hunter was part of a group effort, it is highly likely that a creature as large as a moose or bear could be brought down with several accurate shots in succession.  (see Appendix A)

It is difficult to pinpoint the exact location of where the blunt projectile weapon system originated.  Ideally, the throwing stick would have been made of hardwood of some sort, pliable enough to be worked and bent, but strong enough to withstand heavy  and repeated use.  In historical times, lacrosse sticks were made of hickory or ash, two ideal wood types for the use requirements of  the device.  Both hickory and ash were present in the southeast of the continent during the period of the quaternary extinction event when humans were present between 12,000 and 10,000 years ago.

The projectiles would ideally be large pebbles or small cobbles, 50-100 millimetres (roughly 2-4 inches) in diameter, made of stone hard enough to withstand impact with thick bones such as the animals skull.  Such projectiles were likely smooth and rounded to provide for a stable trajectory when launched.   Sources of potential projectiles could be from any area that provided weathered stone such as beaches, fast creeks and rivers or glacial deposits.  Surface collection of such projectiles would be ideal and between 12,000 and 10,000 years ago, the midlands and northerly southeastern areas of the continent would have provided this condition.  If climate and environment change drove the extinction event, we can surmise this event happened earlier in the south as the temperate deciduous forest biome expanded northward.   We can suggest that the blunt projectile weapon system may have originated in the southeastern quadrant of the continent, especially in those areas subject to the effects of glaciation where cobbles would have been plentiful in the till or where rivers and creeks could provide the properly formed river stone.  This suggests that place of origin lies roughly somewhere between the southern parts of Illinois, Indiana and Ohio to northeastern Arkansas, across Tennessee to the Carolinas.

Hunting Game

Meat was an important part of the ancient indigenous diet, but as the climate moved towards  more temperate and stable levels, the environment changed to something that was more suitable for edible plant life.  In the Archaic period, lasting from about 8,000 BC until the adoption of farming, hunter groups also was more reliant on gathering, which saw the eventual emergence of a more sedentary lifeway, followed by the spread of the rudimentary knowledge of cultivation of food plants and then gradual introduction of horticultural and agricultural practices.  As populations grew and expanded, this may have placed pressure on particular areas for game animals and obtaining animal protein became an activity to be treated with all seriousness.  We can imagine that over time the preparations and practice for the skilful use of the weapon systems became as equal a serious affair and the thoughtful guarantee of the early preparatory pre-hunt ritual re-enactments moved into superstition and the practice sessions themselves took on a more intense dynamic which eventually evolved into something resembling ritualized competitions.  Perhaps such contests were to sort out the leadership and positional capabilities of those in the hunting party.

These competitions originated within, and were played against, members of the same community.  The most successful of the competitors may also have been the more skilled and the best hunters and accorded a special status in the community.  In the earlier times, such contests would have taken place within the confines of the smaller social group such as the band or at a gathering of bands at some seasonal settlement.  As the people formed larger, more sedentary communities, the contests may have pitted one community social group, moiety, clan or sodality against another possibly in the ritualized re-enactment of a historic or imagined hunt.   We may get a hint of the form of these early contests by noting how games of pole-and-hoop or chunkey were contested where teams were made up, but the play was between two opposing members only, like a target shoot. (maybe something similar to a hoop or chunkey stone was the target with the blunt projectile weapon system.) This is also hinted at in some early historical descriptions of lacrosse whereby opposing members would line up with each other in pairs, and an effort was made to match skill and strength in these pairings.

We can use the evolutionary model to map out the progress of the knowledge of blunt weapon system and the associated cultural events, such as the ritualized contests,  by using the bow and arrow weapon system as an analogy.  With the adoption of the bow and arrow, we see a weapon system that has been in use for many thousands of years including the knowledge required to make the implements, the projectile points, the bowstrings and so on.  Where the bow and arrow was more useful or successful to hunt, it appears to have replaced the atlatl in the archaeological record.  However, since we do not yet have direct material evidence identified as that belonging to the blunt projectile weapon system, we cannot say if the bow and arrow replaced it.  Regardless, as we have seen, preparatory hunting practices using the bow and arrow were similar to those used for lacrosse, at least in a few notable instances.  So it is very possible for the practices surrounding the hunt to be entrenched within a culture as a normal course of experience for the people of that culture in something we would recognize as ‘tradition.’

We see that a successful means to hunt is adopted on a fairly widespread regional scale and although each culture may have their own preferences regarding how and when such a weapon system will be used, using the system remains fairly uniform over that large area.  The keyword here is ‘successful.’  There is no sure way of knowing how the knowledge of the bow and arrow was transmitted from one population to another, but the demonstrable success of such a weapon system would have been evident enough for a people to want adopt or adapt the traditions of that system also.

If the blunt projectile weapon system was a successful hunting method, it is very possible for it to have become a widespread practice that crossed regional and cultural divides as far back as 10,000 years ago during early Archaic times.  We might imagine that the knowledge of this system included how the throwing stick was created, what form of projectiles were used and what ancillary activities had to maintain the system to ensure success.  Using the bow and arrow as the example, if one person from a particular culture that possessed the bow and arrow were to observe archery games in another culture, they would have a good idea what was being accomplished.  If a Menominee lacrosse player were to observe an Iroquoian lacrosse game, even though the stick styles were different, the Menominee lacrosse player would know the object of the game.

In that way then would the rituals and contests of the blunt projectile weapon system be passed along as part of the knowledge of the entire means to use it.   No doubt that each culture that received the knowledge of the system had their own tweaks and changes to suit their circumstances, but it wouldn’t be unreasonable to suggest that the core knowledge of this weapon system remained intact since it was a part of the idea  – the guarantee – of success it brought by its use.  We have the transmittal of the instructions and knowledge for the blunt projectile weapon system and, where the preparatory ritual practices were also adopted or adapted, we have the beginning of the ‘rules’ for the use of the system such as the taboo of touching the projectile with one’s hands which may leave a scent and scare away other animals in the vicinity of where the projectile came to rest.

As suggested earlier, if the knowledge of the extinction event was maintained and passed along to subsequent generations, some would include the conservative attitude toward the environment.   This conservatism would be included in the guarantee implied within the adoption or adaptation to the weapon system.  That if one were to indiscriminately take game without regard to maintaining the supply of that game, one would imperil the hunt for future generations including one’s own children.  This is a fairly straight forward ethic for our modern times, but could it also have been present thousands of years ago in the ancient North America and, if so, could it be related to the game of lacrosse?

The Hunter’s Game

The Archaic period is deemed to have ended in a particular region when the inhabitants of that region cultivated or domesticate plants resulting in horticultural and eventually agriculture.  The process of societies moving from the hunter gatherer lifeway to that of horticulture took a long time and the adoption of horticultural practices was not a uniform phenomenon in North America.  In some regions – on the Plains for example – the Archaic period never ended as some populations relied on hunting and gathering as a means of subsistence into historical times.

Recent archaeological discoveries of what appears to be cultivated plant foods in squash, sunflower, marsh elder and lambs quarters dates the introduction of horticulture into eastern North America about 5,000 years ago.  While we may associate the horticultural or agricultural practices of the ancient indigenous population with maize corn, introducing this plant did not happen until several thousand years later.  Maize – a food to become a staple in eastern North America in later times – was simply introduced as another useful crop into existing horticulturalist societies.

Horticulture and agriculture had a profound cultural impact upon the populations that adopted the practices.  While foods such as squash, sunflower, etc., were part of the normal hunter gatherer diet for thousands of years, the knowledge of cultivation allowed populations to become more sedentary forming permanent or semi-permanent villages and towns with the crop fields near-by.   This sense of permanence allowed for more specialization of labour in such communities and helped develop cultural practices devoted to the maintenance of the ethics of cultivation.  Even though plant food could account for the majority of protein in the ancient indigenous people’s diet hunting  was still widely practiced and meat was still valued.  The lifeway of those populations could be said to be ‘hunter-cultivator.’  Hunting, as an entrenched cultural practice was still a hedge against crop failures or times of need and continued into modern times.

The effect of horticulture/agriculture can be observed in the archaeological record of practically every region of Eastern North America and one of the most fascinating records of such an effect lies in developing materially complex societies in southeastern North America.  This refers to archaeological cultures collectively known as ‘Mound Builders.’   From early beginnings in the middle of the Archaic period over 5,000 years ago, the mound building cultures effloresced about 2,000 years later with developing the Adena Culture in southern Ohio, through the elaborate trade networks of the subsequent Hopewell, culminating in the Mississippian cultures that built large earthwork ceremonial centers in the southeast of the continent ending about 500 years ago.

There appears to be little awareness of the Mound Builders in popular North American culture even though the evidence of their astonishing art and architecture is plentiful enough.   While most mound sites were humble and only spanned a few acres, some sites – such as the spectacular site of Cahokia in southwestern Illinois – enclosed over hundreds or thousands of  acres and are ceremonial and habitation centers for a region.  Sadly, through past centuries of looting and site destruction from urban development, we may never know the extent to which the Mound Builders existed.

The Mound Builders are not considered a single unified culture or ethnic group even though there appears to be distinct material relationships between the regions and periods in which they lived.  They were indigenous cultures, but we cannot say for certain what language they spoke or the specify the exactness of their customs.  We know they were hunters and cultivators, but to different degrees in different region and times.   The picture that archaeology has developed is one of various indigenous cultures over the vast expanse of eastern North America sharing similar ritual and mortuary ideologies resulting in elaborate ceremonial or burial spaces.

One of the earliest mound sites discovered is Watson Brake in northeast Louisiana dating to 5,400 years ago.  To illustrate a sense of age, Watson Brake precedes building the Egyptian pyramids by about 1,000 years and is several thousand years older than the Mayan pyramids in Mesoamerica.  Watson Brake may be the site of a transitional stage of a people moving from hunter-gatherer to hunter-cultivator and comprises earthworks ranging from 1.5m – 7.5m high, connected by low ridges for form an oval shape approximately 370m long by 280m wide.   The interior of the site is flat and at one time may have served as plaza.  Watson Brake appears to be a seasonally occupied site used for about 600 years until it was abandoned about 4,800 years ago.  Small rounded stone objects are included within the assemblage of artefacts of Watson Brake and although their use is ultimately unknown, they would make ideal blunt projectiles.

About 100 kilometres northeast of  Watson Brake is a famous archaeological mound site called Poverty Point which dates from several thousand years after Watson Brake.  It is believed that construction at Poverty Point began about 3,500 years ago and was eventually abandoned about 2,500 years ago.  Poverty Point comprises six concentric ridges arranged in a semi-circle around a central plaza that measured about 600m wide.  The opposite side of the plaza from the concentric rings was a river bank.  One small mound was located inside the plaza, while several larger mounds were on the outside, one of them called the ‘Ballcourt Mound’ due to its resemblance to a basketball court.  Among the artefacts of Poverty Point are dozens of spherical clay objects, some decorated with pre-firing incisions.   The prevailing thought on the use of these objects are as ‘cooking balls.’   That is, the objects are heated in a fire and then used in cooking, such as placing them into a container of water or soup to bring the container to a boil.  However, from the perspective of a ritual game, these objects might make ideal game balls or blunt projectiles used for hunting.

There is reason for this discussion of Watson Brake and Poverty Point, which appear to have affinity with a local cultural to that area of Louisiana.  If we generalize, we can see the relation of such mound complexes to gaming as we recognize the great ballcourts at Mesoamerican sites.  We know that in most large Mesoamerican sites, we have areas set aside for gaming, most notably the well-known game of ball enjoyed by the populations in those centers.  Not that, yet, that the Mesoamericans directly  influenced the cultures of northeastern Louisiana and using the dates of the Louisiana sites compared to the later Mayan sites, one could argue for the reverse.  What we are suggesting is that for the Mesoamericans, at least, large ceremonial centers included a component – a feature or structure – for ball games.  It is possible that such mound complexes in North America had similar features.

This argument for a sacred game component to the ceremonial mound sites in North America is convincingly presented by A. Martin Byers in his brilliant, but complex book, ‘Sacred games, death, and renewal in the ancient Eastern Woodlands:  The Ohio Hopewell System of Cult Sodality Heterarchies.’  Before describing Byer’s theory, it will do to briefly illustrate the Hopewell ‘tradition’ that appears to have greatly influenced a large part of Eastern North America roughly from 2,200 to 1,500 years ago.

Sacred Games

Mound building was not an uncommon feature for most of the Archaic period.  Sites like Watson Brake or Poverty Point are remarkable for their level of construction, but hundreds of burial mounds have been discovered and excavated by professional and amateur archaeologists in most regions in the eastern half of North America over the past 150 years.  Mounds were built up over time with subsequent burials on top of previous ones.  However, most were more like small cemeteries than larger complexes, with a few exceptions here and there.  As the mortuary sites became more used and well known to a people in a region, they took on more of a central religious or ideological role.  This is evidenced by the increasing complexity of the mound structures over time, a significant investment in construction labour which suggests high social uniformity.   Besides the mounds, we see an increase in the investment of labour for the crafting of special grave goods from finely made projectile points, pottery, copper plates and headdresses, to caches of chunkey stones.

One of the first expressions of this increased complexity in site creation and use is the Adena ‘culture’ which was centred in the mid-Ohio River region about 3,000 years ago as cultivation began take a foothold.   The Adena are a ‘culture’ because little is known about their language or their ancestral relationship with the indigenous groups that live in that region in historical times.  Again, when referring to the Adena, we are talking in a shared material cultural that may have expressed a uniform ideology throughout a large area of the northeast of the continent.  Distinctive and diagnostic artifacts – mortuary goods, pottery, etc. –  of the Adena can be found primarily in southern Ohio, northern West Virginia and Kentucky and far east as Pennsylvania, New York and west into Indiana.  While we know relatively few Adena sites now,  the actual influence of the culture likely reached far outside of the areas bounded by their known mound sites.

The Adena culture is associated with cultivation in the Ohio River Valley  bringing an end to the Archaic age in that region.  With horticulture we know that the Adena were part of a large exchange or trade network that brought prized exotic goods such as copper from the northern Great Lakes or shells from the Gulf Coast, both regions over a thousand kilometres away from Adena centers.  Maybe this exchange or trade network also hastened the spread of agriculture into the northeast as part of an acculturation process with other indigenous populations in distant regions.

The Adena built large mounds, often conical in shape, some reaching over 20m in height and 90m in diameter.  Often for burial , in which case the mound might contain a wooden vault to hold the remains, the mounds were sometimes part of a larger mound complex planned around a central plaza hundreds of meters in area.  However, because of the sheer level of destruction of such sites in the 18th and 19th century, it is difficult to determine how the site functioned on a larger scale.  And the physical destruction of the Adena mounds, looting and antiquities collection over the past centuries have reduced the artifact assemblages significantly and what is left to be studied is a tantalizing array of finely crafted effigy pipes, mica cut-outs, copper jewellery, pottery with skeletal remains.   Regarding the latter, it might be important to know that from measurements taken from the skeletal remains it has been determined that some populations of Adena people were very tall people .   This aspect of their physiology will crop up again later.

What is missing from the Adena assemblages are objects diagnostic of the blunt projectile weapon system.  There are exceptions – small, disk shaped stones 5 centimetres in diameter.  These objects could be used for a blunt projectile weapon system, however not in the exact stick configuration as we imagine .  Small stones and rounded stone objects have been found in Adena sites, but with the destruction and looting, it is possible that such diagnostic objects were tossed to the wayside as undesirable as treasure hunters looked for more interesting goods.  Another explanation of the paucity of round stone projectiles in the possibility that the hunting game had taken a twist and, instead of using the weapon system to hunt, the ancient ritual had transformed into a game that included the use of non-lethal game balls made of leather or some other organic material that did not survive intact within the ground over the centuries.  If the bow and arrow technology had reached the Ohio Valley in Adena times, it is possible that the blunt projectile technology was abandoned for hunting, but had remained a cherished and sacred medium for ritual.

Like their descendants the Adena, the Hopewell are not considered an ethic group per se, but more of a shared cultural tradition or ideology among the indigenous culture groups that occupied the area of influence.   That the Hopewell  ‘tradition’ developed from antecedent cultural traditions described as Adena.  As an analogy, we might compare this Adena-to-Hopewell transformation to the of the Christian traditions in Western Europe during the Reformation period in the 16th century.   The Catholic and Protestant traditions share common material symbols and ceremonial structures, but there is enough of a difference between the two for us to distinguish between them.

The likely transmission route of these new Hopewell cultural traits was the ever increasing exchange and trade network which transformed from a smaller, local focus in the mid-Ohio River valley to a vast area of influence known as the Hopewell Interaction Sphere.  In archaeological terms, the trade network subsequent to the Adena is the Hopewell Exchange System.

The Hopewell Tradition, roughly occupying the same regional areas as the Adena, flourished from about 2,200 to 1,700 years ago, a 700 year span that saw the expansion of the tradition into most of eastern North America, from the Missouri River to the Atlantic and from Manitoba and the Great Lakes to the Gulf Coast, an area roughly equivalent in size to Western Europe.  The Hopewell are known from their elaborate mound building which resulted in creating hundreds of earthworks and mound complexes in this region.  The most well-known Hopewell sites  are in Ohio, near Chillicothe, although regional variations of the culture existed throughout the entire Hopewell Tradition area.

The remarkable features of any Hopewellian, and subsequent Mississippian, mound complexes were the mounds themselves and they have been given the greater share of study by archaeologists.  Many of the mound sites appear to be a space of a complex mortuary practice in which remains were interred or processed and then either buried in the mounds or returned to a home region where they were buried.  With the human remains, the mounds contain beautifully crafted objects, similar to the Adena – polished effigy pipes and celts made from exotic stone; finely crafted pottery that appear to be the work of a few artisans working under a scheme of export manufacture; objects of copper depicting birds,  animals and anthropomorphic symbolic motifs; stone and copper jewellery and so on.  The range of objects and skill to create them belay any notion that the ancient indigenous people were ‘primitive’ peoples living out a brutish life in the harsh forest of the Woodland period.

The mound complexes themselves were more elaborate and give us the impression that populations lived a somewhat sedentary agricultural life in villages and towns.  With the Hopewell we see a more deliberate mound construction which included more distinct embankments, ditches, ridges and central ceremonial spaces or plazas.  It is with these Hopewell mound sites, especially the ones in the Ohio Valley, that A. Martin Byers gives us a tantalizing view of what those mounds and spaces were used for.

In ‘Sacred games, death, and renewal in the ancient Eastern Woodlands:  The Ohio Hopewell System of Cult Sodality Heterarchies’ Byers reviews the previous archaeological evidence of a few select Hopewell sites in Ohio to develop a hypothesis that is a bit different from his contemporaries.  Instead of viewing the mound complexes as habitation sites with ceremonial centers, he sees them in terms of ceremonial centers used by a dispersed population within a area.  These sites were then used by sodalities – non-kin social groups – for their rituals which included the processing and burial of the dead and their material goods under the guise of a World Renewal Cult.  Byers describes this cult as performing a set of religious rituals with the objective to return the sacred power of nature imbued within people and special objects back to the landscape to maintain the balance between the sacred and the profane.  These rituals, including the labour to build the massive earthworks, were not completed by a single group or society of people, but alliances of sodalities each charged with a subset of the ritual process.  Byers suggests that some included the playing of sacred games or a sacred tournament of games which may have included both chunky and lacrosse.   There is a strong suggestion that the Hopewell Tradition included chunky playing since many discoidal objects, chunky stones, have been found in context of Hopewellian burials and artifacts.  The playing of lacrosse, however, is not a certainty because no Hopewellian objects have yet been assigned to a lacrosse or lacrosse-like game.  Had the lacrosse game developed out of the pre-hunting rituals for a blunt projectile weapon system, it might have taken on the familiar form known in historical times and that means the objects used for play would have been almost entirely organic and not likely to withstand the rigours of spending over a thousand years in the acidic soils of eastern North America.   It is very rare that any organic material is recovered from a Adena or Hopewell archaeological site.

From the Hopewell and other contemporary mound building peoples, the agrarian Mississippian culture flourished around 1,200 years ago and expanded into many regional variants from the length of the Mississippi River region, west to the Missouri  River into the southeast portion of the continent.  It is the Mississippian culture, with their astounding earthwork complexes exampled by Cahokia in Illinois, that the mound building and artistic traditions came to its height in North America.   Built along the same lines as their predecessors, Mississippian mound sites included massive mounds surrounded by smaller utilitarian mounds, embankments and plazas.  We can suggest that if the Adena and Hopewell had a tradition of using these spaces for games, such as Byers sacred World Renewal Cult tournaments, we can presume that the Mississippians also had a similar tradition.  We find evidence of this with the recovery of finely crafted chunky stones, depictions of chunkey players on painted gorgets or ornamental chest plates and with small figurines of chunkey players.   Whether a lacrosse-like game was every played in these areas is, again, uncertain since no lacrosse-like objects have been identified in the archaeological record.  In most Mississippian areas the bow and arrow technology was in widespread use which would have made the blunt projectile weapon system firmly obsolete.  However, for the same reasons above, we cannot rule out some lacrosse game was not played for reasons we will discuss in the next chapter.

From these Mississippian sites, the rich material goods flowed up and down the Mississippi and into the regions of influence.   By this period maize agriculture was firmly entrenched, towns had sprung up and some of this culture was still in evidence by early historic times and noted by the first Spanish explorers.  However, shortly before the Europeans arrived, the mound building tradition declined for unknown reasons, but speculated as epidemics, famines or wars.  Cahokia was finally abandoned a few centuries before the historical period and this abandonment still remains a mystery.  By the time historical records were made and being kept, there was no clear affinity between any indigenous group being ancestral to the mound builders and many regions, from the Adena-Hopewell Ohio areas, to areas in the southeast, were sparsely populated compared to surrounding areas.

Perhaps we will never learn the ultimate fate of the mound builders or their descendants .  If we return to the analogy of Christianity, it is likely that the mound building tradition was a central part of a religion than eventually broke up as separate indigenous culture groups made their own way.  However, if so, then we can use the intriguing idea of lacrosse as a sacred game to examine evidence from historical times.

NEXT: 7. The People’s Game (coming soon)