Ancient Burial Mounds of the proto-Iroquois Indians of New York

Ancient Burial Mounds of the Iroquois Indians of New York


The Proto-Iroquois Indians were the northern contingent of the Adena Hopewell empire that stretched from New York to Florida. The "Hopewell" were a confederation of Iroquois in the Great Lakes, Sioux in the Ohio Valley and Cherokee in the Southeast. Burials in a sitting position are found most commonly in the Great Lakes region. 


     According to Mr. Lewis H. Morgan, different customs has prevailed among the Iroquois in relation to the mode of burial. At one period they buried the dead in a sitting posture, with the face to the east. Skeletons are still found in this position, in various parts of the State of New York, with a gun-barrel resting against the shoulder, thus fixing the period of their sepulture subsequently to the first intercourse of this people with the whites. Another and more extraordinary mode of burial prevailed among them. The body of the deceased was exposed upon a bark scaffolding, erected upon poles or secured upon the limbs of trees, where it was left 'to waste to a skeleton. After this had been effected by the process of decomposition in the open air, the bones were removed either to the former home of the deceased or to a small bark house by its side prepared for their reception. In this manner the skeletons of the whole family were preserved from generation to generation by the affection of the living. After the lapse of a number of years, or in a season of ' public insecurity, or on the eve of abandoning a settlement, it was customary to collect these skeletons from the whole community around, and to consign them to a common resting-place. To this custom, which was not confined to the Iroquois, are, doubtless, to be ascribed the barrows and bone mounds which have been found in such numbers in various parts of the country. On opening these mounds the skeletons are usually found arranged in horizontal layers constituting a conical pyramid, those in each layer radiating from a common centre. 


This type of "Spoked Burial" is most predominant in the Great Lakes region, but is also found in southern Ohio, associated with the Adena Hopewell.  

     In other cases they are found placed promiscuously. There were Senecas residing at Tonawanda and Cattaraugus, in 1851, who remember having seen, about sixty years before, at the latter place, these bark scaffoldings on which bodies were exposed. The custom still prevails among the Sioux upon the Upper Mississippi, and among some of the tribes in the far west. The notions entertained by the Iroquois as to the state of the soul when disembodied were vague and diversified; but they all agree that, on the journey, it required the same things as were of use while it dwelt in the body. They, therefore, deposited beside the deceased his bow and arrows, tobacco and pipe, and necessary food for the journey. They also painted his face and dressed his body in its best apparel. A fire was built upon the grave at night to enable the spirit to prepare its food.’