Map of Mississippian and Related Cultures - History
Corn, squash, and beans. The three most important crops for Mississippian cultures.
Formations made of earth that were used as foundations for Mississippian culture structures.
The Mississippian Period lasted from approximately 800 to 1540 CE. It’s called “Mississippian” because it began in the middle Mississippi River valley, between St. Louis and Vicksburg. However, there were other Mississippians as the culture spread across modern-day US. There were large Mississippian centers in Missouri, Ohio, and Oklahoma.
A number of cultural traits are recognized as being characteristic of the Mississippians. Although not all Mississippian peoples practiced all of the following activities, they were distinct from their ancestors in adoption of some or all of the following traits:
- The construction of large, truncated earthwork pyramid mounds, or platform mounds. Such mounds were usually square, rectangular, or occasionally circular. Structures (domestic houses, temples, burial buildings, or other) were usually constructed atop such mounds.
- Maize-based agriculture. In most places, the development of Mississippian culture coincided with adoption of comparatively large-scale, intensive maize agriculture, which supported larger populations and craft specialization.
- The adoption and use of riverine (or more rarely marine) shells as tempering agents in their shell tempered pottery.
- Widespread trade networks extending as far west as the Rockies, north to the Great Lakes, south to the Gulf of Mexico, and east to the Atlantic Ocean.
- The development of the chiefdom or complex chiefdom level of social complexity.
- A centralization of control of combined political and religious power in the hands of few or one.
- The beginnings of a settlement hierarchy, in which one major center (with mounds) has clear influence or control over a number of lesser communities, which may or may not possess a smaller number of mounds.
- The adoption of the paraphernalia of the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex (SECC), also called the Southern Cult. This is the belief system of the Mississippians as we know it. SECC items are found in Mississippian-culture sites from Wisconsin to the Gulf Coast, and from Florida to Arkansas and Oklahoma. The SECC was frequently tied in to ritual game-playing.
Mississippian Cultures. There were a number of Mississippian cultures, with most spreading from the Middle Mississippian area.
Although hunting and gathering plants for food was still important, the Mississippians were mainly farmers. They grew corn, beans, and squash, called the “three sisters” by historic Southeastern Indians. The “sisters” provided a stable and balanced diet, making a larger population possible. Thousands of people lived in some larger towns and cities.
A typical Mississipian town was built near a river or creek. It covered about ten acres of ground, and was surrounded by a palisade, a fence made of wooden poles placed upright in the ground. A typical Mississippian house was rectangular, about 12 feet long and 10 feet wide. The walls of a house were built by placing wooden poles upright in a trench in the ground. The poles were then covered with a woven cane matting. The cane matting was then covered with plaster made from mud. This plastered cane matting is called “wattle and daub”. The roof of the house was made from a steep “A” shaped framework of wooden poles covered with grass woven into a tight thatch.
Platform Mounds. Mississippian cultures often built structures on top of their mounds such as homes and burial buildings.
Mississippian cultures, like many before them, built mounds. Though other cultures may have used mounds for different purposes, Mississippian cultures typically built structures on top of them. The type of structures constructed ran the gamut: temples, houses, and burial buildings.
Mississippian artists produced unique art works. They engraved shell pendants with animal and human figures, and carved ceremonial objects out of flint. They sculpted human figures and other objects in stone. Potters molded their clay into many shapes, sometimes decorating them with painted designs.
Mississippian Underwater Panther.
The Nashville area was a major population center during this period. Thousands of Mississippian-era graves have been found in the city, and thousands more may exist in the surrounding area. There were once many temple and burial mounds in Nashville, especially along the Cumberland River.
Discover ancient cultures and engaging history on the Great River Road
To travel the Great River Road is to travel through the history of the people and cultures of the Mississippi River. Marvel at a once-massive ancient city created by the mound-building people of southern Illinois, see the agricultural settlement where a young Johnny Cash spent his formative years, and learn about an important battle in Civil War history.
Reminder: Local and state safety regulations may lead to reduced hours or changes in operations. Please contact specific businesses or attractions for more information before you visit.
Photo credit: Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage & Tourism
Built in 1859, Lakeport Plantation sits just a short distance from the banks of the Mississippi River in Lake Village, Arkansas. It’s the last remaining Mississippi River plantation home in Arkansas and is considered one of the state’s top historic structures. Exhibits in the home tell the stories of the people who lived and worked on the plantation, as well as how the home was restored to its original condition. Tours are available Monday through Friday year-round and also on Saturdays in the winter.
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(Photo courtesy of the Illinois Office of Tourism)
Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site
Drive to Collinsville, Illinois—just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis—and you’ll find one of the two UNESCO World Heritage Sites along the Great River Road. Cahokia Mounds was inhabited for about 700 years from 700 to 1400 AD, and it its peak, was home to 10,000 to 20,000 people. The inhabitants built more than 120 mounds on the site, which covers more than 6 square miles. An interpretive center and tours help visitors learn more about this fascinating site.
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Photo credit: Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage & Tourism
Historic Dyess Colony
The Dyess Colony in northeastern Arkansas was created as a federal agricultural settlement as part of the New Deal in 1934, giving a new start to hundreds of poor farming families in the state. One of those families, the Cashes had a son, Johnny, who went on to become one of the most notable names in American music. Several of the colony’s buildings have been restored and are open to visitors, including the Johnny Cash Boyhood home.
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Columbus-Belmont State Park
This 156-acre site in Kentucky is the site of a Confederate fortification, and the Battle of Belmont—fought here in 1861—marked the beginning of the Union’s Western campaign. The battle for the fort, which had blocked the Union forces looking to travel south on the Mississippi River, was the first real action for Union Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant. The site is also home to a Civil War Museum, and visitors can see the massive chain and anchor that was meant to prevent Union ships from passing.
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Photo credit: Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage & Tourism
Delta Cultural Center
The Arkansas Delta has made immense contributions to American culture, blues music and more—hear the stories of Delta residents at the Delta Cultural Center in Helena, Arkansas. Exhibits and guided tours educate visitors about the people and history of this region. The Delta Cultural Center is also home to “King Biscuit Time,” a live daily blues broadcast that has been on the air for nearly 80 years.
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Wickliffe Mounds State Historic Site
Discover the history of the Mississippian—or mound-building—native culture that called this area home at Wickliffe Mounds State Historic Site in Kentucky. This site was home to a Native American village from about 1100 to 1350, and visitors to the historic site can walk interpretive archaeological trails, learn about the culture that lived here and see artifacts and tools at the Wickliffe Mounds museum, which has been open to the public since 1932.
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Fort de Chartres State Historic Site
This French fort was constructed nearly 300 years ago on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River, south of St. Louis. It served as a base for French soldiers during their occupation of what is today Illinois.. Interpretive signage guides visitors around the site, and on weekends, costumed interpreters offer additional information and reenactments.
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Fort Jefferson Hill Park and Memorial Cross
Fort Jefferson was established in 1780 on a hill overlooking the Mississippi River a mile south of the present-day city of Wickliffe, Kentucky. The fort, which was only occupied for a short time, was intended to protect the western border of the then-newfound United States. The cross towers 95 feet high above the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers andcan be seen from three states. Fort Jefferson is also a Lewis and Clark Expedition historic site.
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THE DELTA ECONOMY
The Mississippi River first served the Delta region as a transportation corridor for Indians who used dugouts and canoes to conduct trade and travel up and down the liver. Trappers and hunters then brought the European fur trade to the Delta in the late 1600s. The Delta region supplied naval stores such as timber, tar, pitch, and other raw materials to the European colonial powers. Europeans, primarily the Spanish and French, and later the Americans, followed their lead and used the river for moving people and goods. By the 1720s, New Orleans was rapidly developing as a center of international commerce.
From the earliest days of settlement, the natural bounty of the continent’s interior included cotton, rice, sugar, tobacco, indigo, and whiskey. Keelboats, rafts, canoes, and other assorted craft made their way to Natchez and New Orleans from the north. Former Kentuckian Abraham Lincoln developed his first impressions of slavery when he made a flatboat trip to New Orleans in the late 1820s. New Orleans became an early center for small craft construction, and even more importantly the point of transfer between small rivercraft and oceangoing ships.
The steamboat era dramatically transformed the Delta region. In 1811 the sidewheeler New Orleans traveled from Pittsburgh to New Orleans. The next year this vessel entered upon a profitable career of fairly regular service between New Orleans and Natchez. Although the War of 1812 delayed the proliferation of steamboats on the Mississippi River, soon after they carried far more cargo on the river than all the flatboats, barges, and other primitive craft combined. People living along the river often sold firewood and other necessities to the steamboats and much of the labor employed cutting wood was provided by slaves.
As scores of steamboats churned upstream from New Orleans, the goods they transported helped tic the southern and western reaches of the United States to the East, in outlook as well as in economic practice. Besides traveling up and down the Mississippi, people began crossing the river on ferries for jobs and trade opportunities in the early 19th century. During the 1 830s, riverboat gambling developed and such communities as Cairo, Illinois Hickman, Kentucky and Helena, Arkansas, sprang up along the river. Other, more established towns and cities along the river also grew as a result of the steamboat era, such as Ste. Genevieve, Cape Girardeau, Memphis, Vicksburg, Natchez, and Baton Rouge grew.
Starting in the 1830s, the introduction of railroads promoted major changes in the way Americans transported products and people, in turn dictating the success or failure of numerous town and cities throughout the Delta region. Several railroads reached the Mississippi River before the Civil War, many more after. Larger river towns reacted by building bridges to attract the rail networks. In 1866, Eads Bridge in St. Louis was the first bridge erected over the Mississippi. Old river-based towns such as Hickman, Helena, and Cairo, among others, declined in the late 19th century, while the towns that could attract the railroads to cross the Mississippi boomed. Because the Civil War had disrupted and in some instances destroyed traditional north/south lines of commerce and communication, the Mississippi River’s economic importance shifted from that of transportation leader before the war to a supportive role after the war, as the scene of expansion and development movement westward across the Great Plains.
As a promoter of economic change the Mississippi River has rebounded in the 20th century to regain an important role as the transportation backbone of the lower Mississippi Delta region. Powerful tugs that propel large barges are the direct heirs of steamboats, even as thousands of visitors cruise the river on modem recreated steamboats. The barge fleets ship vast amounts of oil-based products, construction materials, and farm products up and down the river. The lower Mississippi River Delta also has a parallel and bisecting system of federally funded interstate highways used by huge trucks to transport goods throughout the region. No community smaller than 50,000 residents is located more than a few miles from this highway grid. In addition, the Delta states made huge investments in highways during the post World War H decades, to link communities and improve farm to market roads, and major highway improvement programs continue to this date throughout the Delta region.
AGRICULTURE: THE REGION’S TRADITIONAL ECONOMIC MAINSTAY
For over two centuries, agriculture has been the mainstay of the Delta economy. Sugar cane and rice were introduced to the region from the Caribbean in the 18th century. Sugar production was centered in southern Louisiana, along with rice, and later in the Arkansas Delta. Early agriculture also included limited tobacco production in the Natchez area and indigo in lower Mississippi. What began as back bending land clearing by yeoman farmers supported by their extensive families, quickly developed into a labor intensive plantation system based initially on Native American and later on African slave labor in the 18th century.
The emergence of the cotton gin in 1793 revolutionized the production of cotton and by the early 1 800s cotton had become the Delta’s premier crop, and would remain so until the Civil War. Though cotton planters believed that the alluvial soils of the Mississippi Delta region would always renew, the agricultural boom from the 1 830s to the late 1 850s caused extensive soil exhaustion and erosion. Yet, lacking agricultural research, planters continued to raise cotton the same way after the Civil War.
Following the Civil War, sharecropping and tenant farming replaced the slave-dependent, labor intensive plantation system. Sharecropping was a system of social and racial control used by post-Civil War plantation owners (often merchants, bankers, and industrialists). This labor system inhibited the use of progressive agricultural techniques. In the late 19th century, the clearing and drainage of wetlands, especially in Arkansas and the Missouri "Bootheel," increased lands available for tenant farming and sharecropping. Lower Delta agriculture evolved during the 20th century into large farms owned by nonresident corporate entities. These heavily mechanized, low labor, and capital-intensive farm entities, consisting of hundreds and thousands of acres, produce market-driven crops such as cotton, sugar, rice, and soybeans.
During the Great Depression of the 30s thousands of tenant farmers and sharecroppers lost their agrarian-based employment. For example, during the l930s Arkansas lost 36.5% of its sharecroppers Louisiana 19.8% and Mississippi 7.3%. Under the New Deal, Federal policy makers earmarked the South as the nation’s number one economic problem area however, Federal work relief programs were of more benefit to unemployed whites than African-Americans. Although slowed and hindered by traditional racially based politics and governance, the employment of New Deal social engineering, such as the Resettlement Administration (RA) and later the Farm Security Administration (FSA), in the Lower Mississippi River Delta led to the establishment of a few agrarian communities in Mississippi, Arkansas, and the Missouri Bootheel, to assist disposed tenant farmers with public housing, access to medical assistance, and stores. The FSA was one of the few Federal New Deal programs that tried to provide a level playing field for whites and African-Americans alike. It was the first agency to do anything substantial for the tenant farmer, the sharecropper, and the migrant. Those less fortunate, who attempted to organize against the local power structure, were forced to the open road in southern Missouri and Arkansas in the mid-1930s. Dorothea Lange’s poignant photographs of the displaced chronicles those troubled times.
During the 1920—1930s, in the aftermath of the increasing mechanization of Delta farms, displaced whites and African-Americans began to leave the land and move to towns and cities. It was not until the Depression years of the 1930s that large scale farm mechanization came to the region, but farm mechanization did not occur overnight in the Delta. In 1945 the percentage of U.S. farm operators reporting tractors was 30.5%, yet in Louisiana there were only 6.9% in Arkansas 6.6% and in Mississippi 4.1%. The mechanization of agriculture and the availability of domestic work outside the Delta spurred the migration of Delta residents out of the region. Farming was unable to absorb the available labor force and entire families moved together. Satellite communities comprised of Delta emigrants arose on the south and west sides of Chicago, for example, and families and cultures went back and forth.
During the succeeding war years, many Delta residents followed the lure of the burgeoning defense industry to the north and far west. The Delta region lost thousands of residents in the 1930s—1950s, as rural-based people left for economic opportunities in other regions. In the 1940s over 7,000,000 southerners left the South permanently. The greatest period of emigration of southerners occurred during the four years of World War II, when 1,600,000 southerners moved north and west or left for the military, about a third of this number African-Americans. A similar population movement also occurred in the Lower Mississippi Delta Region.
From the late 1930s through the l950s, the Delta experienced an agriculture boom, as wartime needs followed by reconstruction in Europe expanded the demand for the Delta region’s farm products. Unfortunately this boom period was also marked by extensive soil erosion, particularly in Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri, and Illinois. As the mechanization of agriculture continued, women continued to leave the fields and go into service work, while the men drove tractors and worked on the farms. From the 1960s—1990s, thousands of small farms and dwellings in the Delta region were absorbed by large corporate-owned agribusinesses, and the smallest Delta communities have stagnated. Scattered remnants of the region’s agrarian heritage are scattered along the highways and byways of the lower Delta. Larger communities have survived by fostering economic development in education, government, and medicine. Other endeavors such as catfish, poultry, lice, corn, and soybean farming have assumed greater importance. Today, the monetary value of these crops rivals that of cotton production in the lower Mississippi Delta.
OTHER ECONOMIC ACTIVITY
The hardwood timber industry developed before the Civil War but boomed during the late 19th century. Midwestern timber companies exploited the forests almost to extinction and by the early 20th century the cypress forests were virtually depleted. The timber industry continued to be an important segment of the lower Delta economy until the mid-20th century, but single species tree farms on upland areas provided most of the timber output.
The petroleum industry developed in the South as early as 1902, first at Spindletop in Texas and later spreading to the east Texas oilfields in the early 1930s. It was not until 1946 that the first offshore drilling rig brought in a successful well south of Morgan City, Louisiana. Offshore oil drilling proved so successful that it began supplanting the more traditional economic pursuits of fishing and farming. Initially, the offshore oil industry employed predominantly whites, but in succeeding decades African-Americans and Indians have also found employment there.
The petrochemical industry came to the Delta region during the 1930s, as refineries sprang up along the Mississippi River, a major transportation corridor. The petrochemical industry has significantly changed the Lower Mississippi Delta region. In addition to bringing many external corporations to the region, the petrochemical industry spurred the growth of local infrastructure to support its production, research, and development activities.
An array of petrochemical plants dots the river between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. This strip is known by its critics as Cancer Alley, for the environmental impact such concentrated petrochemical production causes. However, this industry has generated thousands of jobs for lower Delta residents.
During the preceding decades, the lower Mississippi Delta region sought to increase the region’s industrial base. Memphis became one of the lower Delta region’s few industrial centers with the establishment of Ford and International Harvester plants. Mississippi initiated a state-sponsored program in 1936 to attract new industry. From 1936 to 1955, 138 industries located in Mississippi as a result of the state’s active recruiting and willingness to fund bond initiatives, such as the $4,750,000 made available in 1951 for the construction of the Greenville Mills. The Armstrong Tire and Rubber Company located a large plant at Natchez as a result of a generous subsidy. This company gave a new look and a new economic stimulus to the old cotton and river city. Other industries in Mississippi produce clothing, furniture, paper, glassware, light bulbs, building supplies, and farm implements.
In the 1990s the pursuit of gaming as a new form of economic endeavor is transforming both the river towns and landscapes of the lower Mississippi Delta region, as the spread of gaming can he viewed along the entire river corridor. While communities such as New Orleans and Natchez have long been tourism promoters, small towns and even rural areas are now also sharing in the apparent economic bonanza. For example, Tunica County, Mississippi, once known as the nation’s poorest county, now boasts seven major casinos, which have also sparked local economic development with new roads, jobs, and an enhanced tax base. This economic windfall resulted from the high levels of disposable income contemporary Americans possess, as well as, the desire for leisure time activities. Although gaming is becoming a significant piece of the Delta region’s service economy, the long-term socioeconomic impacts of the industry have yet to be evaluated.
The Five Civilized Tribes
The terminology of a ‘civilized Tribe’ began back in colonial times representing those Native Indians who were willing to assimilate and adapt to European Society rather than remain “wild’ or ‘Savage’ Indians. The Five Civilized Tribes were simply the first Tribes the Europeans encountered in the Eastern U.S. who met this criterion. They are the Cherokee, the Chickasaw, the Choctaw, the Muscogee (Creek) and the Seminole.
These Tribes are all closely related and were descendants of the early Mississippian Culture that flourished in the region some 1,500 years before the Europeans ever arrived. This culture includes agriculture, trade, cities with roads, permanent houses, and buildings. Some of these cities had populations in the tens of thousands. It was a sophisticated society long before the Europeans came and decided their own perspective of who was civilized and who was not.
Generally being civilized to these new Americans meant that the Indian would need to take on the attributes of Christianity, centralized governments with written constitutions, literacy, market participation, intermarriage with whites and plantation slavery practices. They became the first Civilized Tribes because they were willing to adopt the colonist lifestyle. In the end, however, as we know now, this would not be enough to prevent their ultimate forced removal from their ancestral land. All of the Five Civilized Tribes were eventually sent to Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma, though at different times through the years.
The Cherokee is the largest of the five tribes and the second largest tribe in the U.S. with more than 300,000 members. They maintain a headquarters in Tahlequah, OK. Most of the Cherokee were forced to Oklahoma due to the Indian Removal Act of 1830 by Congress. This tribe suffered greatly during the Trail of Tears when forced to march on foot 1,000 miles in the dead of winter to Oklahoma. Several thousand Indians died in this dark chapter of U.S. History. The Cherokee at one time lived all throughout the Southeast U.S.
The Chickasaw came from lands along the Tennessee River and West of Huntsville, Alabama to Mississippi. They also were victims of the removal Act in the 1830’s however, unlike many tribes they were financially compensated for the land taken from them by the U.S. Government. They were among the first Indians to build banks, schools, and businesses in Oklahoma.
The Choctaw were from Alabama, Mississippi and spoke a Muskogean language. At the time of the forced removal, they numbered only around 20,000 and many died on the way to Oklahoma. Since that time they have made a strong recovery and their tribe now has about 200,000 members.
The Muscogee, also known as the Creek were from Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and parts of Florida. There were also, like the other tribes, forcibly removed from their land throughout the 1830’s on the trail of tears. Like the Choctaw, their members at that time were around 20,000. Oklahoma would be their new home like it, or not.
The Seminole Tribe inhabited Florida before they were forced to relocate to Oklahoma however, only after a series of wars with U.S. troops did most of them surrender. Around 500 Seminole refused to surrender and retreated deep into the Florida Everglades where their descendants remain to this day. The Seminole are believed to have developed originally from renegade and outcast Indians from other tribes as well as escaped runaway slaves. They boast the distinction of being the only Native American Tribe to have never surrendered to the U.S. Army.
So many distinctively different tribes being herded together in close proximity to each other created the immediate need to form some type of coalition to govern themselves and to protect their best interest. The Five Civilized Tribes were the first to recognize this need and formed the Inter Tribal Council in 1842. This Council mandated neutrality between the tribe’s and represented the Indians in political matters with the U.S. Government. It developed into the present day Inter-Tribal Council of the Five Civilized Tribes (ITC). Five Chiefs come together to represent their tribe’s Interests and agendas and to make plans for the future. It continues to be a driving force for the Indians in local, state and federal government issues.
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The Rise and Fall of Moundville: Mississippian Culture in Ancient America
The Moundville archaeological site, occupied from around 1120 CE until 1650 CE, was a large Mississippian settlement on the Black Warrior River in central Alabama. Many archaeologists and scholars believe that the Chickasaws and other tribes from the Southeastern United States descended from the Mississippian-era inhabitants of Moundville . Much of the Chickasaw culture and the economic and political structure—as well as that of dozens of other tribes—was greatly influenced and shaped by the mound-building Mississippian civilization, which is named after the river valley in North America where this culture flourished.
Complex societies emerged during the Mississippian period, which spans from roughly 900 CE to 1400 CE. The hierarchical ranking of clans, family house groups and lineages developed into permanent institutionalized status differences. Burgeoning elites controlled regional chiefdoms and organized warfare, resulting in the displacement of large populations and the abandonment of some river valleys. The mass cultivation of corn began during this era as well, intensively planted and harvested in huge maize fields along rivers where fertile floodwaters enriched the soil annually. The chiefly aristocracy’s domination of sedentary population centers and long distance trade networks emanated from these developing societal changes. This systemic control of trade networks subsequently allowed them to acquire exotic objects such as copper plates with symbolic imagery, mica cutouts, rare feathers, exotic ceramics, stone implements and engraved marine shell art or ornaments.
The Mississippian period marked the height of mound building, and mound-and-plaza architecture proliferated throughout the Mississippi Valley and present-day Southeastern and Midwestern United States. Mound building evolved from round-shaped domes used exclusively for the burial of important tribal members to rectangular to flat-topped mounds that served as platforms to elevate temples or chiefly residences . Some mound sites were the metropolises of their day, with a thousand or more people dwelling within the protection of a log palisade. Others were ceremonial centers where dispersed tribes would gather periodically for ceremonial events and celebrations.
By 1250 CE, Moundville was one of the largest North American settlements north of Mexico and had a population of over 1,000. At its height, the Moundville chiefdom extended for miles throughout the Black Warrior (‘Tashka Lusa’) River valley. The site comprised of 320 acres, was enclosed by a 10-foot tall protective palisade with bastions, and featured a large central plaza with 29 earthen mounds, ranging from 3 feet to 57 feet in height.
The mounds are arranged in a bilateral symmetrical pattern reminiscent of the Chickasaw clan camp circle . The largest mounds are found on the northern end of the plaza and repeating pairs of mounds complete the circle with the smallest mounds on the southern end. The most highly ranked house groups occupied the northern end in the Chickasaw camp circle, while the lower ranked house groups were placed on the southern end. These similarities suggest that the monumental earthen architecture of the Moundville site may be a representation of the social structure of its population.
The town was occupied for some time, but the fall of the community was rapid and scholars do not fully understand the rise of Moundville or its swift decline . Between 1300 CE and 1600 CE, Moundville underwent drastic changes. By the late 1500s, the area was no longer a fortified city and only a sparsely populated ceremonial center and burial place remained. Various theories have been advanced to explain the decline, which could have been due to feuding leaders, warfare, the “little Ice Age,” food shortages, diseases or a more general societal shift.
For reasons that are not fully understood, Moundville inhabitants began to migrate away from the city permanently and disperse throughout the Black Warrior River valley. They continued to retain much of the civilization’s material culture, however, and people did return to bury their kin in meaningful locations near the mounds. New archaeological developments that take tribal traditions into account could shed light on the specific circumstances that prompted Moundville’s decline, but what is known is that the Moundville site was all but abandoned in the 16 th century. The various groups and waves of people who deserted Moundville continued to move and resettle throughout the area, possibly becoming parts of the Muscogee, Alabama, Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes.
The Moundville Archaeological Park now rests on the site. The park is comprised of 320 acres and contains prehistoric, Mississippian-era Native American earthwork mounds and burial sites. It was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1964 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1966. The Moundville Museum was erected in 1939 and renovations were completed in 2010. The museum now uses some of the latest technology and showcases over 250 artifacts from one of the most significant Native American archaeological sites in the United States.
To discover more about Mississippian civilizations, Moundville and the site’s connection to Chickasaw history, visit the Chickasaw.tv History & Culture channel .
Featured Image: Moundville Archaeological Site. Credit: Chickasaw TV
Traditional culture patterns
Scholarly knowledge of the Southeastern cultures relies on evidence from diverse sources, including artifacts, historical documents, ethnography, linguistics, folklore, and oral history. Many cultural traditions reported by the earliest European explorers, such as the use of ceremonial mounds, the heavy reliance on corn (maize), and the importance of social stratification in some areas, were clearly developed during the Mississippian culture period (c. 700–1600 ce ). The Mississippians maintained fine craft traditions and also engaged in long-distance trade throughout the Southeast and the surrounding culture areas. The ceremonial centre, Cahokia, was home to many thousands at its climax about 1100 ce (estimates range from 8,000 to 20,000 people). The Natchez are perhaps the best-known members of the Mississippian culture to survive relatively intact into the colonial period.
Native American Government: Mississippian Chiefdoms
Emergence of Agriculture. Between 200 b.c. and a.d. 700 the native people of eastern North America began to adopt agricultural techniques and increased the prominence of harvested plant food like squash and sunflowers in their meals. Between 700 and 1200 the Woodlands cultures began to add cultivated corn and beans to their diets. By 1200 Indians in the east were growing corn almost everywhere that the climate would allow, from the present American border with Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. The availability of a reliable source of vegetable food allowed the population of Woodland communities to expand dramatically. As the population grew, these societies required more complicated systems of government. In some locations these societies developed severely stratified social classes and a hierarchical political structure. These societies were called chiefdoms.
The Chiefdom. In a chiefdom a paramount chief of great authority required the population of his adherent villages to provide him with a portion of their crop. Some chiefs also took a percentage of each individual ’ s kill from hunting. This offering to the paramount chief is called tribute. The paramount chief then redistributed some of the tribute to his family. He also redirected the tribute to the towns of the chiefdom through his under-chiefs. These subordinates to the chief were often related to the paramount chief by blood or marriage. The chief also used tribute for public purposes. He conveyed it to other peoples in diplomatic ceremonies or redistributed it to members of the society who could not provide for themselves. The larger chiefdoms were capable of organizing, collecting, and redistributing sustenance for thousands of people. Between the eighth and fifteenth centuries large and powerful chiefdoms dominated many areas of eastern North America. The period of the great chiefdom is called the Mississippian era because most of these societies were located on the major river ways of the Mississippi River watershed. The largest and most powerful chiefdom, Cahokia, was located along the Mississippi itself, just outside of present-day St. Louis. Cahokia ’ s population climbed as high as thirty thousand to forty thousand by the thirteenth century, making it the largest settlement in North America and one of the largest cities in the world at the time. Cahokia was so large and influential that it attracted tribute from towns and villages from several miles away. The hierarchical structure of the chiefdom brought a system of social order to thousands of adherents living in dozens of villages around the central residence of a chief. However, this order originated out of the authoritarian rule of the paramount chief. Consequently, chiefdoms were fragile sociopolitical structures that could collapse from various internal and external forces. Droughts, disease epidemics, and war always had the potential to bring on an implosion of the chiefdom.
Southeastern Ceremonial Complex. The chief held the power of life or death over every member of his chiefdom and over prisoners captured in wars against neighboring tribes. The Mississippian societies were characterized by a similar set of religious beliefs, burial rites, and symbolic artwork that archeologists refer to as the Southeastern ceremonial complex. Most Mississippian societies worshiped a sun god and maintained a fertility cult. Many of the paramount chiefs, such as those of the Natchez, often claimed to be descendants of the sun. The people of the chiefdom therefore treated the chief and his family as divine beings. When the paramount chief died, the people of the chiefdom often killed his wives, children, and servants so that they could join him in the afterlife. Since food production was organized by the chief and his subordinates, some people were free to become specialized potters, artists, and sculptors. At the same time organized agricultural production allowed these societies to use available labor and technological ability to build massive public-works projects such as the temple mounds of Cahokia, Moundville, and Etowah. The largest mound in North America, Monks Mound in Cahokia, covered more than eighteen acres and was over one hundred feet tall. The mounds were used as temples and residences for the chiefs and priests of Mississippian societies. The temple mound was built as a place to honor the god of the sun and was symbolic of the divine power of the paramount chief.
Decline and Collapse. By the time the Spanish began widespread colonization in the sixteenth century, almost all of the major chiefdoms had collapsed and splintered into remnant groups. The specific reasons for the decline and fall of the great chiefdoms is still unclear. Some scholars argue that the populations of the chiefdoms were decimated by diseases brought to the Americas by European explorers, fishermen, and castaways. Depopulation by disease, combined with devastating civil wars, could have caused the collapse of the tributary system of food production and distribution. Other students of chiefdoms suggest that some of them failed because of a crisis in the succession of leadership from one paramount chief to another. Other theorists contend that the simple structure of a chiefdom was inherently unstable and that chiefdoms often developed, disintegrated into smaller groups, and then reemerged again in a natural cycle. Whatever the cause of their demise, the disappearance of the chiefdom resulted in a political and social leveling of the peoples of the Woodlands region.
1. Native American Cultures
Birds are a popular tattoo choice. In Indigenous tribes in the US, bird tattoos had a distinct symbolism. Image credit: M.Photos/Shutterstock
Tattoos have also been a prominent part of some Indigenous peoples' cultures in the Americas. Archeology.org tells of how people from the Mississippian culture in the US from around A.D. 1350-1550 tattooed their face to capture the soul of a person they killed in battle and to help their dead relatives travel into the afterlife. Face tattoos were about celebrating everlasting life. Often these detailed images would take the form of a bird, which was related to the Birdman deity who represented the triumph of life over death with the world being born anew each day with the rising of the sun, and the singing of the birds.
Whether as positive images or as negative markers, tattoos have been around all over the world for centuries, if not millennia. Each culture has its own unique tradition, and tattoo art continues to evolve today, bridging the art of the past with the future.