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Tour ancient American civilization

If you think American history started with Christopher Columbus' travels or a tea party in Boston, Roger Kennedy wants to open your eyes a little, pique your curiosity. Kennedy, director of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History, would like you to understand that there are centuries and centuries of ancient American history barely examined by scholars, much less embraced by the rest of us.

He wants to challenge what he believes is common thinking _ that ancient civilizations were "only hunters and gatherers," primitive people not capable of high living and thinking and therefore not really important to learn about.

As writer and host of a new hourlong television special, Rediscovering America _ which debuts tonight at 9 on The Discovery Channel _ Kennedy introduces the Hopewell Indians.

The Hopewells are an ancient American population that lived from 100 B.C. to 500 A.D. _ 1,000 years before Columbus _ in the Ohio River valley.

Their giant earthen architecture in Newark, Ohio, designed as calendars to keep track of the seasons and as religious centers, offers important lessons on the sophistication of these early people, Kennedy said in an interview.

Their travels by canoe from Ohio to southeastern Indiana, where they discovered a rare form of calcium carbonate three-quarters of a mile into Wyandotte Cave, speak volumes, he said. They used the calcium carbonate _ a beautiful, translucent white substance _ to carve figurines for religious practices associated with healing.

This knowledge is important because it humanizes the Hopewells, Kennedy said. It shows how far they commonly traveled and it says they had a very active aesthetic life. "It gives a little greater feeling about them and us. It suggests sublimely that they are real people."

The "real people" part is something with which modern Americans have been slow to come to grips, Kennedy said.

America's founding fathers knew a tremendous amount about the land's ancient history, but in developing the modern world, "we've bulldozed and asphalted the evidence," he said.

In doing that, "we also were eliminating, erasing from our memories, the evidence of the people who had created those wonders."

Most destruction of ancient civilization was done unconsciously by the population, he believes. Still, "we sensed that something profoundly wrong was going on between us and the original proprietors of this continent."

We couldn't bear it, Kennedy said, "and especially we couldn't bear the idea that they could have been capable of very ancient high civilization."

To lessen the pain, Kennedy said, we adopted the thinking that the ancient Americans whose mounds we were destroying were somehow less than we, and very unlike us. That's the crux of what he would like to change.

"They were not hunters-gatherers, they were agriculturists. They were growing crops," Kennedy said. "They were city-dwelling people. They were city-dwelling, architectural, sophisticated people."

Encore dates are Friday at midnight, Saturday at 3 p.m.; June 16 at 2 p.m., June 18 at 10 p.m. and June 22 at 1 a.m.