A Short Survey of Ohio Prehistory

Many different people have lived in Ohio over the past 15,000 years. The people that lived in the area we now call Ohio before the European explorers first visited left no written records. Historians refer to these early people as prehistoric (which means "before written history"). Although they left no written records, they did leave behind large mounds and embankments of dirt, fragments of pottery, stone tools, and the remains of fire hearths. Sometimes archaeologists find evidence of structures used by people for homes and temporary camp sites. We can learn a great deal about these ancient peoples from the artifacts (which means "an object made or modified by humans") they left behind.

Since there are no written historical records left by these people, the time periods shown below are just approximations. The divisions between how we classify the time periods are "fuzzy" rather than sharply defined and overlap sometimes. Sometimes there are gaps.


The Paleolithic Period

Paleo Period The Paleo period in Ohio ran from approximate 13,000 - 7,000 B.C.

Thirteen thousand years ago Ohio was much different than it is today. A large sheet of ice called a glacier covered the northwestern part of the state. Only about one third of the state was ice free and the climate was much colder than it is now. The people living in Ohio from 13,000 B.C. to 8,000 B.C. hunted the now extinct Wooly Mammoth and Mastodon. They lived in rock shelters, caves. and in simple windbreaks made of a stick frame covered with brush or animal hides. Moving frequently to keep up with the grazing herds of Mastodon meant they needed to take only their weapons and tools with them. Everything else they left behind. Archaeologists have found man made flint tools and fire hearths from this time period.


The Archaic Period

Archaic Period The Archaic period in Ohio ran from approximately 8,000 - 500 B.C.

As the climate became warmer and the glaciers shrank, new plants and animals began to enter the area. Glaciers, Wooly Mammoths, and Mastodons were replaced with forests and animals such as deer. The tools people used changed as well. The long spears used for hunting Mastodon and Mammoth were replaced by shorter spears with a detachable handle (called an "Atlatl"), the axe for woodworking, and a polished stone knife (called an "Ulu") for working hides. The people were still living in temporary houses similar to those used in the Paleolithic era. Archaeologists have found small fire hearths surrounded by circular stains that represent temporary camp sites from the archaic period.


The Adena Period

Adena Period The Adena period in Ohio ran from approximately 1,000 B.C. - 100 A.D.

The Adena people are best known for their conical shaped burial mounds. Other Adena Mounds are shaped like animals and were probably used for cermonial gatherings. They still hunted wild game but also began to grow gardens of squash, tobacco, gourds, and sunflowers. Archeologists have found small village settlements with post stain patterns for circular houses. Archaeological evidence shows that the houses were made of wooden poles and willow twigs covered with bark. The Adena made pipes, axes, and pottery and traded for goods such as shell, copper, and mica from other areas of the country.


The Hopewell Period

Hopewell Period The Hopewell period in Ohio ran from approximately 100 B.C. - 500 A.D.

The Hopewell people were also traders and mound builders like the Adena that came before them. The earthen structures they built included geometric shapes as well as earthern walls that surrounded ceremonial and community activity centers. Artifacts found by archaeologists at Hopewell sites show that the Hopewell traded with people from the Rocky Mountains, the Upper Great Lakes, the Gulf of Mexico, and the southern Appalacian Mountains. They lived in farmsteads situated along rivers, lakes, and streams in bark covered wigwams. They farmed native plants such as goosefoot, gourds, squash, and sunflowers.


The Ft. Ancient Period

Ft. Ancient Period The Ft. Ancient period in Ohio ran from approximately 1,000 - 1,650 A.D.

The Fort Ancient people were the first people in Ohio to farm maize ( corn). They lived in well organized permanent villages near streams and rivers and hunted for game with the bow and arrow. Their houses were rectangular with a gabled roof. Houses such as those seen at the SunWatch site were constructed of a wooden frame, daubed walls, and thatched roofs. The most popular items they acquired by trade were shells from the Gulf of Mexico. The Fort Ancient were the last of Ohio's prehistoric peoples.

Learn more about the Fort Ancient culture. Play the SunWatch Game.

For free downloadable patterns for paper models of the Native American homes associated with each of these Ohio periods, visit the teacher's resources page of my website by clicking here.


Susan K. Nelson has a Master of Arts degree in Archaeology Education from the McGregor School at Antioch University.

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