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 had 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.