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Native copper nugget from glacial drift, Ontonagon County, Michigan. An example of the raw material worked by the people of the Old Copper Complex

The Cult of the Dead in Prehistoric America

Long ago, a type of ritualized worldview spread throughout a broad expanse of north-eastern America, described in the archaeological literature as the ancient ‘Cult of the Dead’ or the ‘Eastern Burial Cult’. Emerging at around 1500 BC from even older cults associated with the prehistoric Great Lakes Copper Industry, the new culture expanded into southern Ontario and the Ohio River Valley in rapid fashion. At this time ornamental copper artifacts began to appear in graves, which implies that a new way of life had emerged in which individuals - if not entire lineages - were attaining some type of status in their respective communities.

Great Lakes District of North America. (Public Domain)

Great Lakes District of North America. (Public Domain)

Such leaders also seem to have managed long-distance trade, as exotic artifacts from the Great Plains and the Gulf Coast were imported into Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, southern Ontario and the Ohio Valley, where they served as prestige goods deposited with the dead. Large regional cemeteries also became more common, as dispersed bands of hunter-gatherers organized to bury their dead together at predetermined seasonal events. Promoting all of these transformations and integrating larger and larger numbers of dispersed peoples into the emergent network, were a series of beliefs and rituals, which left their mark at some of the most remarkable archaeological sites in North America.

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