Mississippian effigy vessel

An Introduction to
North America's Native People

Mississippian Period

Major Characteristics | Monumental Architecture
Settlement Patterns | Subsistence
Sociopolitical Organization | Exchange Systems
Urban Centers | The Southern Cult
Endings &New Beginnings

After A.D. 500, the Hopewell star faded, their trade network collapsed, and fewer large burial mounds were constructed, although in some placed people took to building enormous effigy mounds. Also, maize agriculture spread gradually through the Eastern Woodlands, population was slowly but gradually increasing, there was continued inter-community exchange (although on a much reduced scale), and increasing cultivation of native plants by sedentary peoples. These changes culminated in a series of truly remarkable riverine cultures along the valleys of the Mississippi, Cumberland, and Tennessee rivers and their major tributaries. By A.D. 700-900, one of them, the Mississippian (so called by archaeologists), with a population increasing rapidly from the harvests of a new highly productive strain of maize, became predominant.

The Artists depiction of Mississipian townMississippian cultural tradition lasted a long time, almost 900 years [thrived between about A.D. 700/800 and A.D. 1500/1600] and during its heyday, great urban centers arose from the Atlantic to Arkansas and Oklahoma - Ocmulgee, Etowah, Cahokia, Moundville, Spiro, and others. Within these urban enclaves rose earthen mounds the likes of which had never been seen before. Few of these were burial mounds; instead these flat-topped artificial mountains, platforms upon which the communities' temples sat and /or the homes of rulers (secular and /or religious).

Like the Hopewellians before them, the Mississippians also put together great trade networks over which pottery, woven articles, copper (raw nuggets as well as finished products), obsidian, mica &crystals, gold &silver, &conch shells moved. By 1000 A.D. these trade networks linked much of the eastern one-half of the continent together with the Mississippian communities standing at the center.

Major Characteristics
The Mississippian was not a socio-political monolith governed by rulers with absolute power. Instead, it was a culture differentally shared and participated in by hundreds of local societies large and small, each adapted to a multiplicity of diverse resource bases, and each varying widely in their dependence on a mixture of maize-beans-squash horticulture with gathering of wild plant foods, fishing, and hunting. What brought some degree of cultural uniformity over the vast area of the Midwest &the South was long-distance trade and participation in a common religious tradition (seen in shared art styles and certain aspects of mortuary practices).

Monumental Architecture
One of the most visible traits of the Mississippian tradition are their immense, flat-topped "pyramids, " or earthen platform mounds. Some were terraced, or had graded roadways leading to their summits where the society's temples and the houses of their rulers once stood. Some of these mounds are truly gigantic. For example, Monk's Mound at Cahokia rises in four terraces to a height of 100 feet, its base covers 16 acres, and it contains an estimated 22 million cubic feet of earth, making it the largest earthwork ever constructed in the Americas -- perhaps in the world.

Some Mississippian cities were surrounded by extensive wooden palisades. For example, at Cahokia the downtown area was surrounded by a palisade that stood 12 - 15 feet high, required 15,000 logs, and was more than 2 miles long.

Settlement Patterns
The Mississippian adaptation developed in river valleys (large and small), often expanding up small tributaries of major waterways. The people lived in extremely complex and highly diversified environments and developed very flexible adaptations to take advantage of all the resources provided by their riverine valley and adjacent hinterland territories. Agricultural fields were generally restricted to the floodplains because of the ease with which the rich alluvial soils could be cultivated as well as the abundance and concentration of aquatic, game, and vegetable resources.

The Mississippian tradition was based, in part, on the introduction of new strains of maize (perhaps from Mexico, although some researchers have suggested maize may have diffused eastward from the agricultural Anasazi of New Mexico), perhaps as early as A.D. 800. Mexican beans were also added into the Mississippian diets by at least A.D. 1000, providing an important protein supplement as well as releasing populations from density constraints based on the availability of wild animal proteins. However, meat was still an important, and perhaps in some regions, a necessary part of the diet. Some major characteristics of Mississippian subsistence are:

It's important to note that Mississippian farmers did NOT manage water, either through irrigation or field drainage; thus their fields were limited to river floodplains. As populations rose, it was necessary to expand along the bottomlands, eventually leading to armed competition between towns for the best alluvial land.

Although water management was not used for agriculture, the residents at Moundville, Alabama, constructed three ponds which were used to store live fish, a necessary part of the food supply to support the 3000+ people living at the site.

Sociopolitical Organization
Mississippian towns typically contained from 1 to 20 or more flat-topped mounds that served as platforms for temples as well as residences for the elite. Society was apparently a ranked one with permanent, perhaps hereditary, offices. Smaller communities were politically (and for some things economically) satellites of larger ones. Scholars usually classify Mississippian societies as chiefdoms, although at several Mississippian centers (such as Cahokia and Moundville) their is evidence that a state organization had emerged. Some of the major features of Mississippian society are:

By the time European explorers, conquerors, and traders reached the heartland of the Mississippian tradition, the truly great centers, such as Cahokia and Moundville were either abandoned (Cahokia by A.D. 1500) or past their high point. But numerous chiefdoms still existed, such as Etowah and Coosa, two important centers in Georgia, and Natchez on the Lower Mississippi, and it's from these that are best data concerning sociopolitical organization comes. For example, when the French first visited the Natchez chiefdom at the beginning of the 18th century they found a rigidly stratified society ruled over by two chieftains, a paramount chief known as the Great Son &his brother, Tattooed Serpent, who was war chief. Relatives of these two were know as Suns and served in various administrative capactities. Below them were the Nobles (or Honored Men), with commoners (known to the elites as "Stinkards") occupying the bottom stratum. The chiefdom was divided into nine districts, each controlled by a local chief, and monthly the local chiefs &their subjects presented tribute to the Great Son.

Some upward social mobility was possible. All members of the elite (including the Great Sun) married commoners, with the children of such unions being Nobles. Also a commoner could achieve Noble rank through prowess in warfare. At the death of a Great Sun, his wives, realtives, and servants were strangled and buried with him.

Exchange Systems

Urban Centers
Most Mississippian communities were small with many of them perhaps grouped into a multiplicity of chiefdoms that were probably in a constant state of political flux. But there were some Mississippian centers that appear to have nurtured more complex social and political structures. The most famous are:

The Southern Cult
From about A.D. 1000 to 1500 there existed over much of the Eastern Woodlands a rather flamboyant complex of very special shared iconographic motifs, themes, and finished goods. Labelled the "Southern Cult" by archaeologists, the complex was interpreted, for many years, as evidence for a pan-Mississippian religious phenomenon composed of a highly variable set of religious mechanisms supporting the authority of local chieftains. Recently, this interpretation has been called into question because of the assumptions underlying it. Postulating a religion on the basis of similar types of burial artifacts may be an erroneous assumption. Instead, the shared elements may be the result of the Mississippian's exchange network which functioned to promote the exchange of prestige goods between hundreds of communities (large &small) with every kind of adaptive strategy imaginable. Such exchange systems functioned earlier among the Adena and Hopewell and similarly accounted for the exchange of exotic goods similar in appearance from site to site. Furthermore, the themes and motifs on these earlier objects can be shown to have general connections with the basic themes of the so-called "Southern Cult."

Iconographic Elements

These iconographic motifs were usually engraved and/or painted on a wide variety of mediums, including whole conches or shell disks, wood, ground stone, chipped stone, textiles, and hammered native copper sheets (they even occur as glyphs on the walls of Tennessee caves).

It's worth noting that many of the iconographic elements, as well as some of the mediums on which the elements appear, can be traced to the belief systems of postcontact Native Americans of the Southeast, and to their folk tales, myths, and religious observances.

Endings and New Beginnings
When the first European explorers penetrated the southeastern U.S. in the middle of the 16th century, some of the great Mississippian centers were in decline, many had been empty for several decades, even several centuries, but several were still flourishing, including the capital of the Natchez. However, diseases introduced by the Europeans, along with the savagery and barbarity of the conquerors, took a fearful toll on people throughout the southeast. Populations fell and the vast majority of Mississippian societies imploded. By the time the conquerors left and the diseases had run their courses, the native population was a miniscule fraction of what it had been. Groups had neither the membership, nor the accumlated knowledge, to maintain their Mississippian lifeways, to build public works, to maintain continent-wide trading networks.

Instead, the survivors created new social and political realities and became those nations known to generations of Euroamericans as the Creeks, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Cherokees, and Muskogee, to name a few.

If you would like additional information on the Mississippian tradition or on Mississippian sites, here are a few Web Sites you might want to visit:


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Updated: 09 Mar 2000