Small mammal

Small mammals called fishers have reappeared in Ohio after being chased from the state by 19th-century hunters. The return of the fishers clears up an old mystery in Ohio archaeology.

One of the most spectacular ancient earthworks in Ohio is the animal effigy in Granville, west of Newark, which was ignominiously named “Alligator Mound” for reasons that remain mysterious and hilarious. Obviously, there were no alligators in ancient Ohio. My theory is that some young white child told her or his daddy that the mound looked like an alligator, the name stuck, and this became alligator baggage that the archaeological authorities still carry.

Brad Lepper, the head archaeologist of the Ohio History Connection, has written of his “theory” that the effigy was meant to depict the mythological “underwater panther,” though the mound sits atop a hill with no big body of water nearby. The earthwork has no features suggestive of an “underwater panther,” which was said to inhabit the depths of Lake Erie, with horns, a rattlesnake tail, fish scales, and copper bones. The “underwater panther” was thought to be an aquatic creature, possibly based on descriptions of sharks that reached Ohio, and there are no reliable Native depictions of it, outside one from the Feurt site that has shark-like features. Lepper has argued that the “alligator” name came from a mistranslation of “underwater panther,” but there is no record of any conversation with Native Americans about the effigy in Granville, which was long covered with trees, nor is there reason to think that modern Native Americans, after cataclysmic displacement, would have any idea what a 2,000-year-old effigy mound was intended to represent. Lepper’s “mistranslation” is an invention.

There have been many serious suggestions over the years for what type of animal the Granville earthwork represents including panther (based on misunderstanding of the underwater panther name), opossum, squirrel, and lizard. The Squier and Davis drawing of the earthwork (upper right picture) shows that it had an umbilical cord represented, meaning it is supposed to be a baby mammal. This eliminates lizard, alligator, and opossum, as opossums are marsupials that don't have umbilical cords.

Umbilical cords are highly cherished in Algonquian cosmology, and by tradition, many Algonquians, including Shawnee and Miami descendants of the Adena, carry their own dried umbilical cords throughout their lives, as the cords are thought necessary for the afterlife journey. That the Granville effigy includes an umbilical cord marks the work as Algonquian, a product of the same Adena Civilization that built Serpent Mound in Adams County, a fact generally overlooked. Serpent Mound and the Granville effigy have very similar construction, with stone skeletons covered by layered earth.

Pondering this situation, I figured out many years ago that the effigy represents a baby fisher, an animal never considered because fishers, related to martens and weasels, were extirpated in Ohio in the early 19th century by hunters. But at the time of earthwork construction, the area was teaming with fishers. The extraordinary news from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources is that fishers are back in Ohio. Between 2013 and 2024 there have been forty confirmed fisher sightings in nine northeastern Ohio counties and numbers are increasing. The ODNR offered the above left photo of a fisher recently in Ashtabula County.

My conclusion that the Granville earthwork represents a baby fisher wasn't random. Like the effigy, fishers are mammals with pointed snouts, wiry bodies, and long tails that can curl (always to the left). Most emblematically, the Grandville effigy has circular paws emulating the “snowshoe paws” of a fisher.  But my identification was based mostly on Algonquian ethnology. Four animals were preeminent in classical Algonquian cosmology: rattlesnake; thunderbird; bear; and fisher. All four are represented in the most conspicuous Adena effigy mounds of Ohio and its border region, though two of those have been destroyed beyond recognition, leaving Serpent Mound as the other survivor. 

Collections of Great Lakes Algonquian folklore often begin with the legend of the Great Fisher, who battled Michabo, the Great Hare, on earth, before ascending into the sky to become the chief northern constellation, which we call the Big Dipper. It may be significant that the Granville effigy is at the northern end of the classical Adena range. Most northern peoples saw the Big Dipper as the Great Bear, but Central Algonquians, apparently including the Adena, changed the Great Bear into the Great Fisher to account for its long tail of stars, with the quadrilateral of the Big Dipper seen as the fisher’s four paws.

That accounts for why the four limbs of the Granville effigy are spread out in a most unnatural position. The Great Fisher is called Gichi-Ojiig in Ojibwe language, Meeci-Aciik in Myaamia language, and Xinko-Wujak in Lenape language. The Proto-Algonquian word for fisher has been reconstructed as *wečye·ka and wejak is a borrowed alternate name for the fisher in English.  We can reconstruct that the Shawnee name would have been something close to Mishi-Ajiik, though that name was lost as the Shawnee moved south.

Every amateur astronomer knows that the way to locate the north celestial pole is to extend an arrow from the front two stars of the Great Bear. Due to the migration of the celestial pole over time, the polar arrow would have extended from the middle of the quadrilateral 2,000 years ago. We can therefore deduce that the stone pile at the maternal end of the umbilical cord in the effigy represented the celestial pole, the goal of the celestial journey in Algonquian cosmology. This actually provides us with the most reliable way to date the effigy, since one radiocarbon date for the earthwork is highly disputed. Assuming the umbilical cord was meant to show the method for finding the north celestial pole from the Great Fisher, at a time when there was no north star, the effigy was indeed built about 2,000 years ago, during the Adena classical period. The fisher effigy probably predates the earthworks of Newark.

The effigy does have a celestial alignment pointing due north, as shown (lower right picture). This alignment is hidden, which I interpret as meaning that the Adena wanted to throw pursuers off the trail. We wouldn't want just any degenerates following our spirits to the north celestial pole. Note that my nodal points correspond to seven internal mounds that were noted by Squier and Davis. The Big Dipper has seven prominent stars.

Undoubtedly, the fishers have returned to Ohio to worship at their idol and set the record straight about what the Granville effigy represents. The name “Alligator Mound” should be retired. The earthwork should now be known as Mishi-Ajiik, the Great Fisher.


Geoffrey Sea is a writer and historian and coordinator of Adena Core, which conducts research and education on the ancient earthworks of the Ohio Valley.