Brazilian earthworks eerily similar to Ohio’s Hopewell mounds

Brad Lepper / Ohio History Connection.

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Jacó Sá and Seu Chiquinho sites featuring circular, square, and U-shaped earthworks - Sanna Saunaluoma

The clearing of forests in southwestern Brazil has revealed a series of monumental geometric earthworks, including more than 450 circles, squares, octagons, and ellipses often linked with ceremonial roads framed by very straight, parallel walls of earth.

Built between 3,000 and 1,000 years ago, these earthworks are remarkably similar to the earthworks of Ohio’s Hopewell culture. Could they be connected in some way?

In the current issue of the American Anthropologist, Pirjo Kristiina Virtanen from the University of Helsinki in Finland, and Sanna Saunaluoma from the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil, supplement the ongoing archaeological investigations of these sites with the oral histories of the indigenous peoples of the Amazon River valley in order to shed light on the purpose and meaning of the ancient architecture.

None of these groups has traditions of building earthworks, but Virtanen and Saunaluoma are not “arguing for a cultural continuity between the constructors of the earthwork sites and contemporary Indigenous groups.” Instead, their traditions provide a way to understand the earthworks from the perspective of societies with similar belief systems. Similarly, North American Indian tribes that lack specific traditions of building monumental earthworks might have traditional knowledge that could help us to better understand the ancient cultures that built them.

The Anapurina of Brazil say their elders advised them to avoid the earthworks when possible because they are “enchanted.” This is reminiscent of an Onondaga tradition about ancient earthworks in western New York. Joshua Clark wrote in 1849 that the Onondaga avoided these places because they had been “the theatre of blood.”

Virtanen and Saunaluoma conclude that the Brazilian earthworks “were predominantly used for ceremonial purposes” and might have been “ritual spaces for multi-ethnic gatherings.” The Manchineri have cultural “memories” that may support this conclusion. They recall participating in “ritual festivities” held in special places that were “attended by many participants, including visitors from distant villages.” The ceremonial roads associated with the Brazilian earthworks lead from one geometric enclosure to another or from an earthwork to a nearby river. Such roads also were an important part of the Hopewell ceremonial landscape. In both cases, these roads probably were the paths that pilgrims followed into and through the networks of enclosures.

The Hopewell earthworks often are aligned to the risings and settings of the sun and moon. There have been no published studies of whether the Brazilian earthworks have such alignments, but Virtanen and Saunaluoma report that the Ashaninka “position their plazas so that, at a specific period in the lunar cycle, the moon illuminates the ritual space.”

The similarity between the Hopewell and Brazilian earthworks is amazing — especially considering that they are more than 3,500 miles apart. Could one have inspired the other? They were built at around the same time, although so far, there is no compelling evidence to indicate there was any direct contact between these widely separated cultures. But while the indigenous peoples of America were building these earthworks, an envoy from Rome showed up in China, having traveled more than 4,000 miles, so an Ohio-Brazil connection might not be out of the question.