Some scholars believe that the Shawnee are descendants of the people of the precontact Fort Ancient culture of the Ohio region, although this is not universally accepted. Fort Ancient culture flourished from 1000 to 1650 CE among a people who predominantly inhabited lands along the Ohio River in areas of southern Ohio, northern Kentucky and western West Virginia. They were mound builders. Fort Ancient culture was once thought to have been an extension of the Mississippian culture. But, scholars now believe Fort Ancient culture developed independently and was descended from the Hopewell culture (100 BCE—500 CE), also a mound builder people.
Uncertainty surrounds the fate of the Fort Ancient people. Most likely their society, like the Mississippian culture to the south, was severely disrupted by waves of epidemics from new infectious diseases carried by the first Spanish explorers in the 16th century. After 1525 at Madisonville, the type site, the village’s house sizes became smaller and fewer, with evidence showing the people changed from their previously “horticulture-centered, sedentary way of life”.
There is a gap in the archaeological record between the most recent Fort Ancient sites and the oldest sites of the Shawnee. The latter were recorded by European (French and English) explorers as occupying this area at the time of encounter. Scholars generally accept that similarities in material culture, art, mythology, and Shawnee oral history linking them to the Fort Ancient peoples can be used to support the connection from Fort Ancient society and development as the historical Shawnee society.
The Shawnee traditionally considered the Lenape (or Delaware) of the East Coast mid-Atlantic region, who were also Algonquian speaking, as their “grandfathers.” The Algonquian nations of present-day Canada regarded the US Shawnee as their southernmost branch. Along the East Coast, the Algonquian-speaking tribes were mostly located in coastal areas, from Quebec to the Carolinas.
Algonquian languages have words similar to the archaic shawano (now: shaawanwa) meaning “south”. However, the stem šawa- does not mean “south” in Shawnee, but “moderate, warm (of weather)”: See Voegelin “šawa (plus -ni, -te) MODERATE, WARM. Cp. šawani ‘it is moderating…”. In one Shawnee tale, “Sawage” (šaawaki) is the deity of the south wind. Curtin translates Sawage as ‘it thaws’, referring to the warm weather of the south. šaawaki is attested as the spirit of the South, or the South Wind, in this account, in one of Voegelin’s tales, and in a song collected by Voegelin.