Mississippian Culture - Moundbuilder-Horticulturalists of North America

Native American Farmers of the American Midwest and Southeast

Reconstructed House and Palisade, Town Creek Mississippian Site, North Carolina
Reconstructed House and Palisade, Town Creek Mississippian Site, North Carolina. Gerry Dincher

The Mississippian culture is the name given by archaeologists to the pre-Columbian horticulturalists who lived in the American midwest and southeast between about AD 1000-1550. Mississippian sites have been identified within the river valleys of nearly a third of what is today the United States, including an area from the Florida panhandle westward into Oklahoma, northward to Minnesota and eastward to Ohio.

Mississippian Chronology

  • 800-1100 rise of Cahokia
  • 1100-1350 multiple mound centers arise radiating out from Cahokia
  • 1350-1450 Cahokia abandoned, many other mound centers decrease in population
  • 1450-1539 mound centers regroup, some develop paramount leaders
  • 1539 Hernando de Soto's expedition visits Mississippian polities from Florida to Texas

Regional Cultures

The term Mississippian includes several similar regional archaeological cultures. The southwestern portion of this huge area (Arkansas, Texas, Oklahoma) is known as Caddo; the Oneota reached northward into Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois and Wisconsin; and Mississippian-like towns and settlements in the Ohio River valley are known as Fort Ancient: all of these distinctive cultures share the important traits of mound construction, artifact forms, symbols, and stratified ranking.

Mississippian cultural groups were (broadly speaking) independent chiefdoms, which were primarily connected, if at all, by loosely organized trade systems and warfare.

The groups shared a ranked societal structure, farming technology based on the "three sisters" of corn, beans, and squash; fortification ditches and palisades; large earthen flat-topped pyramids (called "platform mounds"); and a set of rituals and symbols referring to fertility, ancestor worship and war.

Origins of the Mississippians

Cahokia, located in the American Bottom of Illinois just east of the modern day city of St. Louis, Missouri, is an enormous urban settlement belonging to the Mississippian culture. It has by far the largest mound of any Missisippian site, and held a population of at least 20,000 at its heyday. Monk's Mound itself covers an area of six hectares (14 acres) at its base and stands over 30 meters (~100 feet) high, while the vast majority of Mississippian mounds in other places are no more than 3 m (10 ft) high.

Because of its extraordinary size and early development, Pauketat has argued that Cahokia was the regional polity which provided the impetus for the incipient Mississippian civilization. Temporally, the spread of mound center construction radiates outward from Cahokia, beginning first in the central Mississippi Valley, then the Mississippi Delta and Black Warrior in Alabama, followed by centers in Tennessee and Georgia.

That is not to say that Cahokia ruled these areas, or even had direct hands-on influence in their construction. One key to the independent rise of the Mississippian centers is the multiplicity of languages that were used by the Mississippians.

Seven distinct language families were used in the southeast alone (Muskogean, Iroquoian, Catawban, Caddoan, Algonkian, Tunican, Timuacan), and many of the languages were mutually unintelligible. Most scholars support the centrality of Cahokia, and suggest that the different Mississippian polities emerged as a combination of a product of several intersecting local and external factors.

Social Organization

Scholars are somewhat divided on the political structures of the communities. To some scholars (such as Pauketat, Emerson, Welch, Peregrine, Steponaitis, Knight among others), a centralized political economy with a paramount chief or leader appears to have been in effect at many of the societies where burials of elite personages have been identified. In this theory, political control likely developed over the restricted access to food storage, labor to build platform mounds, craft production of luxury items of copper and shell, and the funding of feasting and other rituals.

Social structure within the groups was ranked, with at least two or more classes of people with power in evidence.

A second group of scholars (Blitz, Saitta, Milner, Muller, Powell, Cobb to name a few) are of the opinion that most Mississippian political organization was decentralized, that there may have been ranked societies, but the health and access to luxury goods was by no means as imbalanced as one would expect with a true hierarchical structure. These scholars support the notion of autonomous polities who were engaged in loose alliances and warfare relationships, led by chiefs who were at least partly controlled by councils and kin- or clan-based factions.

The most likely scenario is that the amount of control held by elites in Mississippian societies varied considerably from region to region. Where the centralized model probably works best are in those regions with clearly evident mound centers such as Cahokia and Etowah; decentralization was clearly in effect in the Carolina piedmont and southern Appalachia visited by 16th-century European expeditions.

Mississippian Lifestyles

Sources

Beck RA, Jr. 2003. Consolidation and Hierarchy: Chiefdom Variability in the Mississippian Southeast. American Antiquity 68(4):641-661.

Blitz J. 2010. New Perspectives in Mississippian Archaeology. Journal of Archaeological Research 18(1):1-39.

Childs HT. 2008. The Little River sites, Poinsett and Mississippi counties, Arkansas. North American Archaeologist 29(2):145-156.

Harle MS. 2010. Biological Affinities and the Construction of Cultural Identity for the Proposed Coosa Chiefdom. Knoxville: University of Tennessee.

Hudson C. 1997. Knights of Spain, Warriors of the Sun: Hernando de Soto and the South's Ancient Chiefdoms. Athens: The University of Georgia Press.

Milner GR, and Chaplin G. 2010. Eastern North American Population at CA. A.D. 1500. American Antiquity 75(4):707-726.

Monaghan GW, and Peebles CS.

2010. The Construction, Use, and Abandonment of Angel Site Mound A: Tracing the History of a Middle Mississippian Town Through Its Earthworks. American Antiquity 75(4):935-953.

Pauketat TR, and Emerson TE. 1997. Cahokia: Domination and Ideology in the Mississippian World. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Wilson GD. 2010. Community, Identity, and Social Memory at Moundville. American Antiquity 75(1):3-18.