Revealing the Tall Ones: Examining the Reality behind the Myth of the North American Giants
(Portions of this article are adapted from content on paradigmcollision.com)
In January of 2018, it was my pleasure to be interviewed by Barbara Delong to discuss the book Ages of the Giants: A Cultural History of the Tall Ones in Prehistoric America (Serpent Mound Books and Press, available on LuLu.com), which I co-authored with Sarah Farmer. Barbara had actually bothered to read Ages of the Giants before the interview, which enabled us to dialogue in depth regarding the subject matter. During our discussion, Barbara mentioned that the book had destroyed many of her preconceived notions about the ancient people that are usually referred to as “the ancient giants” of North America. When she asked me to assemble a piece for her website illuminating the reality behind the mythology that has grown up around the subject of the Tall Ones, I was pleased to oblige.
At the time of this writing (2018), there are several decades’ worth of literature, documentary films, and even one television series, which either focus on the “ancient giants” or otherwise incorporate them into any one of a multitude of proposed alternate histories. Unfortunately, since one of the primary sources used to prove the existence of the Tall Ones has been the archive of thousands of newspaper reports describing the discovery of large remains throughout the United States since at least the 1800s, there are many aspects of this mystery which have become accepted as legitimate, but which in reality were the results of misreporting or outright exaggerations.
While researching Ages of the Giants, we obtained numerous official archaeological reports, Antiquarian records, and Smithsonian documents for many of the same sites, which show up in the press archives and local histories. As such, we were able to cross reference what was actually found with what the secondary sources reported. This process lead to the debunking of many often-repeated discoveries supposedly made with the Tall Ones (i.e., bronze coins and armor), while alternately verifying or discrediting the large skeletons themselves.
The reliable accounts describe the remains of individuals ranging between 7 and 8 feet in height, with large, thick crania and bones. There are a lesser number of reliable sources, which describe skeletons between 8 and 9 feet in height. It was by no means the entire population, which possessed these unique characteristics, but rather a distinct segment thereof. Ages traces the history of these unique individuals through 4,000 years of ancient history, from 3,500 B.C. to around 500 A.D. While several major cultures associated with the Tall Ones are discussed in the book, two of the best known are the Adena and Hopewell burial mound and earthwork building traditions of the Ohio Valley, which together span roughly 1000 B.C. to around 500 A.D.
In 1883 and 1884, P.W. Norris of the Smithsonian investigated 50 Adena mounds and 10 earthwork enclosures, located on both sides of the Kanawha River at Charleston, West Virginia. On November 20th, 1883, The New York Times reported the following details from Norris’ excavations:
“Prof. Norris, the ethnologist, who has been examining the mounds in this section of West Virginia for several months, the other day opened the big mound on Col. B. H. Smith’s farm, six or eight miles below here. This is the largest mound in the valley and proved a rich store-house…It was evidently the burial place of a noted chief, who had been interred with unusual honors. At the bottom they found the bones of a human, being measuring 7 feet in length and 19 inches across the shoulders.”
The mound in question is known as the Great Smith Mound, and measured around 35 feet in height, formerly located in modern Dunbar, W.V. According to the actual report filed by the Smithsonian (1), Norris found an elaborate timber vault within the Smith Mound. The structure was 13 feet long and 12 feet wide, reaching as high as 9 feet with a sloping roof (1). Six burials were discovered in the vault. The first of these was “a very large human skeleton” with two copper bracelets on the left wrist, placed in a bark coffin against the southern wall (2). The following description of the next burial discovered comes from the official Smithsonian document:
“Nineteen feet from the top…in the remains of a bark coffin, a skeleton, measuring 7 ½ feet in length and 19 inches across the shoulders, was discovered. It lay on the bottom of the vault stretched horizontally on the back…Each wrist was encircled by six heavy copper bracelets…” (1)
The actual field journal of P.W. Norris includes the following entry for the same burial:
“At 19 feet and the bottom of this debris we find together with the fragments of a rotten bark coffin, a gigantic human skeleton 7 feet 6 inches in length…” (2)
(In the list of discoveries from this mound that Norris included in his field diary, this skeleton is referred to as “human skeleton, gigantic” (2).)
In this instance, not only do the primary sources confirm the discovery of the large skeleton mentioned by the Times, but the stature is measured as 5 or 6 inches greater than reported by the newspaper. In 1897, press reports surfaced describing a gigantic skeleton found by Clarence Loveberry near Chillicothe, Ohio. From the May 31st, 1897 issue of the Daily Public Ledger:
“Ten skeletons were found in two mounds by Dr. Loveberry, curator of the Ohio state university museum, one that of a giant fully eight feet tall.”
In May of 1897, Clarence Loveberry did indeed excavate two mounds on the Briggs farm, four miles north of Chillicothe, in Union township. The following passage is Loveberry’s description of a burial from one of the mounds, republished by the Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society in 1899:
“Five feet deep, in the central part of the structure we found a fourth skeleton. The bones were the largest I ever removed from a mound. All joints were exceedingly massive and the muscular attachments were wonderfully developed. Badly decayed as it was, the longer bones were sound enough for me to make these observations.” (3)
Although Loveberry’s report does not give the specific length of the skeleton, the details certainly suggest that large remains were found. The Smithsonian sources also verify large remains reported by the press from burial mounds of the Mississippian Culture (1000–1700 A.D.). On October 10th, 1885 the Sacramento Daily Record Union ran the following story about the National Museum’s work at the famous Etowah Mounds in Georgia:
“A large Indian mound near the town of Cartersville, Georgia, has recently been opened and examined by a committee of scientists sent out from the Smithsonian Institution. At some depth from the surface, a kind of vault was found in which was found the skeleton of a giant measuring 7 feet 2 inches. His hair was coarse and jet black, and hung to the waist, the brow being ornamented with a copper crown. The skeleton was remarkably well preserved. Near it were also found the bodies of several children of various sizes, the remains being covered with beads made of bone of some kind. Upon removing these, the bodies were seen to be enclosed in a net of straw and reeds, and beneath this was a covering of the skin of some animal. On the stones which covered the vault were carved inscriptions, and these, when deciphered, will doubtless lift the veil that now shrouds the history of a race of giants, that at one time it is supposed, inhabited the American continent. The relics have been carefully packed and forwarded to the Smithsonian, and they are said to be the most interesting collection ever found in the United States.”
The large skeleton from Etowah is verified by the official Smithsonian report (1), which also offers clarification for several other details. The Etowah mounds were explored by Bureau agent John Rogan. In the lower layer of Mound C, several stone cist tombs were uncovered:
“Grave a, a stone sepulcher, 2½ feet wide, 8 feet long, and 2 feet deep, was formed by placing steatite slabs on edge at the sides and ends, and others across the top. The bottom consisted simply of earth hardened by fire. It contained the remains of a single skeleton, lying on its back, with the head east. The frame was heavy and about 7 feet long. The head rested on a thin copper plate ornamented with impressed figures; but the skull was crushed and the plate injured by fallen slabs. Under the copper were the remains of a skin of some kind, and under this coarse matting, apparently of split cane…At the left of the feet were two clay vessels, one a water bottle and the other a very small vase. On the right of the feet were some mussel and sea shells and immediately under the feet two conch shells…partially filled with small shell beads. Around each ankle was a strand of similar beads. The bones and most of the shells were so far decomposed that they could not be saved.” (1, Pp 302-303)
In this case, the “copper crown” reported by the press was actually several copper fragments found at the head of a burial in Grave f. Indeed, the copper had preserved portions of the hair, which Rogan saved and sent to the Smithsonian (1,p. 303). The “inscribed stones” were probably a misreporting of a carved marble bust recovered by Rogan from a small mound at the site (1,p. 306). What is interesting is that in the case of the Etowah Mounds, the large remains mentioned in the media were legitimately found, while other details from the site became confused. In fact, several newspapers at the time even recorded this discovery as being from the wrong State.
While verification is frequently found in the primary sources, there are other routinely reprinted press stories of large skeletons from burial mounds that are actually debunked. For example, on September 3rd, 1930 the Binghampton Press ran a story on the excavation of the Beech Bottom mound in Brooke County, W.V., reporting the central burial as “the skeleton, which was that of a man about eight feet in height”, and also mentioning the discovery of “copper and bronze coins having undeciphered inscriptions.” In fact, the femur measurements for this burial as given in the complete version of the official excavation report (4) indicate a stature range of 5’ 11” to 6’ 3”, if we use height estimates such as the regression formula of Trotter and Gleser (5) and absolute ratios like those of Feldesman, et al. (6) The “coins” reported from the mound are obviously explained by the numerous copper beads mentioned in the official report.
The misreporting of large remains associated with bronze or copper armor seems to have been a common occurrence. Variations of the following story appeared in numerous press articles and magazines in the 1890s, describing a burial uncovered during the excavations at the famous Hopewell Mound group in Ohio:
“…the excavators found near the center of the mound, at a depth of 14 feet, the massive skeleton of a man encased in copper armor. The head was covered by an oval-shaped copper cap; the jaws had copper moldings; the arms were dressed in copper, while copper plates covered the chest and stomach, and on each side of the head on protruding sticks were wooden antlers ornamented with copper.” (7)
The burial in this story is number 248 from Hopewell Mound 25. The following description is from the official report by Warren K. Moorehead, who explored the Hopewell Farm Mounds in 1891 and 1892 in pursuit of artifacts to display at the World’s Fair:
“The skeleton which was badly decayed, was 5 feet, 11 inches long. Associated with it were some very remarkable objects…A copper plate lay on the breast, and another on the abdomen, while a third lay under the hips…Cut, sawed and split bears’ teeth covered the chest and abdomen, and several spool-shaped ornaments and buttons of copper were found among the ribs…The head had been decorated with a remarkable head-dress of wood and copper…The mass of copper in the centre was originally in the form of a semi-circle reaching from the lower jaw to the crown of the head…The antler-shaped ornaments were made of wood encased in sheets of copper, one-sixteenth of an inch thick.”(8, p.107)
Copper plates, beads, gorgets, earspools, and headdresses are all well known finds from many Hopewell sites, and the collective deposit at Hopewell Mound 25 obviously resulted in the misreport of “copper armor”. These facts, along with a stature of 5 ft 11 inches for the skeleton, should obviously discount the use of this account as evidence of “copper armored giants”. Alternately, there are several instances recorded in Ages of the Giants when reports of copper or bronze armor are debunked, but the large remains reported from the same sites are actually verified. In spite of the availability of this type of information, accounts of gigantic skeletons with bronze artifacts, coins, and other misreported objects are still often considered factually correct.
Another popular misunderstanding is that the people who buried the large individuals in the prehistoric tombs are somehow separated from our knowledge by a veil of obscurity, leaving modern speculations and theories as the only sources of insight. Actually, the cultures that had the Tall Ones among them are the subjects of ongoing and intense archaeological research, and a primary purpose of Ages is to shed light on the ritual practices and life-ways of these ancient people.
For example, current research indicates that the socio-economic system of the Adena Culture was most likely heterarchical. While individuals may temporarily assume important social roles in a heterarchical society, they do not consistently maintain power over others following the situation, which requires their expertise, such as a hunt, divination, or a ceremonial event. In fact, “chiefs” did not appear in the cultural continuum of eastern North America until around 900 A.D. with the emergence of the Mississippian Culture, and even then, the chiefly tombs do not contain large skeletal remains frequently enough to indicate a “race of giants” ruled over the population at large.
The large skeletons, which are documented in the actual archaeological literature, are often found with zero to few exotic artifacts, and sometimes even in group burials with no special emphasis on the individual. In contrast, other large skeletons from Adena tombs (such as the Great Smith Mound in Charleston, mentioned above) were discovered with an abundance of goods made from special materials—such as copper, shell, or mica. This situation clearly suggests that while the Tall Ones were sometimes important people in Woodland society, they by no means inherited status in a consistent and static fashion. In some instances, Adena mounds contained large skeletons with no artifacts suggestive of important roles or status, while individuals of normal height in the same mounds were buried with numerous exotic objects. For example, at the Dover Mound in Mason County, Kentucky, a male 5 ft 5 inches tall was discovered with numerous artifacts indicative of an important shamanic role, while another skeleton 7 feet in length was simply placed with no personalized objects in a group burial.
The foundations of the Late Archaic and Woodland cultures was an ancient “cult of the dead”, which reached its ultimate expression in the monumental earthworks and burial mounds of the Adena and Hopewell cultures. Current archaeological theory suggests that the burial of the dead in both natural and artificial mounds could have been intended to reference the Axis Mundi or World Tree. The Axis Mundi connected three primary realms consisting of an earth plain situated between an Above Realm and a Lower Realm or underworld (9). Through mortuary ritual, ceremonial leaders may have sought to facilitate the travel of the souls of the dead between realms. The burial of the dead from multiple communities together in the Axis Mundi likely represented the adoption of a common ancestry and mythic origins, concepts that solidified ties between multiple dispersed communities (10). The symbolism of elaborately carved stone and clay tablets found in Adena mounds in Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia, as well as several Hopewell copper artifacts suggests that the shamans or ritual specialists themselves traveled the Axis Mundi in trance states, interacting with the spirits or Manitous inhabiting the cosmos.
These are just a few of the subjects that we have attempted to illuminate in Ages of the Giants. The book also delves into the ancient ritual sites, settlement systems, subsistence patterns, and socio-political structures of the ancient cultures that had the Tall Ones among them. Another contribution of note is made by artist Marcia K. Moore, who created the first ever life like recreations of living Adena and Hopewell people for the book, based on photographs and measurements of actual skeletal remains (11).
It is hoped that this work will serve to add clarity to a subject that has remained obscure for far too long.
Co-author of Ages of the Giants: A Cultural History of the Tall Ones in Prehistoric America (2017)
1.12th Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, ed. Cyrus Thomas, Washington, 1894.
2.P.W. Norris Mound Excavations, Smithsonian Manuscript 2400.
3.Presented by Warren K Moorehead in “Report of Field Work”, Ohio Archaeological and Historical Publications, Vol. 7, Columbus, 1899.
4.Charles Bache and Linton Satterthwaite, Jr., “Exploration of an Indian Mound at Beech Bottom, West Virginia”, University of Pennsylvania, Museum Journal, Vol. 21, pp. 132-187.
5.Mildred Trotter and Goldine C. Gleser, “A Re-evaluation of Estimation of Stature Based on Measurements of Stature Taken During Life and of Long Bones After Death”, American Journal of Physical Anthropology 16, 1958, pp. 79-123.
6.M.R. Feldesman, J.G. Kleckner, and J.K. Lundy, “The femur-stature ratio and estimates of stature in mid- to late-Pleistocene fossil hominids”, American Journal of Physical Anthropology 83, 1990, pp. 359-372.
- Reproduced here from The Dental Register Volume 46.
- Warren K. Moorehead, The Hopewell Mound Group of Ohio, Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, 1922.
9.Christopher Carr, “World View and the Dynamics of Change: The Beginning and the end of Scioto Hopewell Culture and Lifeways”, The Scioto Hopewell and Their Neighbors: Bioarchaeological Documentation and Cultural Understanding, ed. D. Troy Case and Christopher Carr, Springer Science and Business Media, 2008, pp. 289-333.
10.Christopher Carr, “The Tripartite Ceremonial Alliance among Scioto Hopewellian Communities and the Question of Social Ranking”, in Gathering Hopewell: Society, Ritual, and Ritual Interaction, ed. Christopher Carr and D. Troy Case, Springer, 2006, pp. 258-338.
- See Adena and Hopewell recreations on www.paradigmcollision.com, and www.marciakmoore.com.