The Native People of North America

Southeast Culture Area

Introduction | Historical Overview | Defining Features
Reading Assignment | Resources

 Fishing from canoes in the southeastern region of North America


The Southeast culture area is not a sharply bounded region, either culturally or environmentally. Most scholars regard Louisiana as its western boundary, but the northern boundary is in dispute: some researchers regard Tennessee as the northern limits of southeastern climate culture while other scholars include the modern states of Missouri, Iowa, Illinois, Kentucky, and the two Virginias. TheAtlantic Ocean is its eastern boundary and Florida its southern one. Culturally and socially this area is more homogeneous than the Northeast Woodlands, and its peoples had more elaborate forms of sociopolical organization. However, there was some regional differentiation, and cultural patterns, like climate, shifted by small degrees from the climax cultures of the relatively densely populated, complex societies of the semitropical Gulf coastal belt, northward to the more scattered villages of the colder states. Most Southeastern cultures were characterized by agriculture (although not all groups practiced agriculture; some, such as the Calusa in southern Florida, were gatherers and hunters, obtaining most of their food from the ocean) and complex political and social organizations (at least at the chiefdom-level, some perhaps approaching the state-level, or organization) and large, sedentary populations (estimates run as high as 1,250,000 persons 500 years ago).

The vegetation of the Southeast was dominated by pines, which were maintained by regtular firings of the underbrush to provide good browse for the prime game, deer. Oak and other deciduous tress, many bearing edible nuts, cover the uplands. Cypress trees flourish in the extensive swamps that, with tidal marshes and lagoons along the coast itself, ring the region on the east and south. Many geographers divide the Southeast into three major environmental zones:


Historic Overview

The Paleo-Indian Period (before 10,000 years ago). Humans appear in the Southeastern culture area during the closing millennia of the Pleistocene when the region was clothed in parklands of mixed forests and grassy prairies and harbored a richer variety and greater density of animals than would be found by the time of European colonization. Mastodons, giant ground sloths, and deer were common, while along the Gulf coastal area the South American capybara, the world's largest rodent, and a giant form of armadillo flourished. Little is known concerning the lifeways of the earliest humans in this region, the so-called Paleo-Indians, who first began occupying the Southeast around 10,000 or more years ago.

The Archaic Period (10,000 to 3,000 years ago). Between 10,000 and 8,000 years people in particularly resource-rich areas of the Southeast were living in fairly large villages and using a wide variety of resources: land mammals, fish, shellfish, many species of plants (especially hickory nuts).

Between about 8,000 and 6,000 years ago, people in some regions of the Southeast began to narrow their subsistence base, concentrating on the use of riverine resources. About 7,500 years ago somewhat stable settlements developed in the western inland-plateau portion of the region. One site located in western Tennessee contained evidence indicating the hunting of turkeys, deer, and other medium-size game animals, along with fishing, and the harvesting and processing of nuts and seeds. The remains of domesticated dogs often appear at sites of this age, some of whom were buried as if they were human.

It was during this period that we see the beginning of some from of sedentism, most clearly expressed in the number and size of formal cemeteries. Two of the most spectacular sites from these early times are the waterlogged Windover and Little Salt Springs village sites. Both sites were located adjacent to sloughs and both contained fairly extensive cemeteries: at Little Salt Springs more than 1,000 burials, all well-wrapped in grass, were recovered; at Windover, several hundred, wrapped in cloth, were found. Additionally, the Windover cemetery is one of the most intact cemeteries of 8,000 years old that has ever been discovered. Analysis of the food remains removed from the stomach of one Windover female, about 35 years of age at death, indicated that her last meal consisted of fish, seeds from grasses and berries, and bits of nuts. Analysis of the stomach contents of other individuals indicated that a variety of foods were eaten, including river-dwelling animals and terrestrail plants, rather than land or marine mammals.

The brains of many of the Windover burials were so well preserved that it was possible to extract some DNA from them and compare it with that of living native Americans, with surprising results: the DNA of the Windover people is more like that of some South American Indian populations rather than modern North American native people.

The Early and Middle Woodland Period (between 3,000 and 1,000 years ago). At the beginning of the Woodland, three important innovations took hold in many eastern societies: pottery manufacture, deliberate cultivation of native plants, and interment under funerary mounds. Some time around 3,000 years ago, agricultural technology diffused into the Southeast and was incorporated along side the older subsistence patterns of gardening, gathering, fishing, shellfish collecting, and hunting. People also begin to experiment with the cultivation and domestication of native plants, including gourds, sunflowers, sumpweed, amaranth.

At some habitation sites, large earthen mounds begin to be erected and there is an increase in the quantity and diversity of trade items; and it's at this time that trade may have expanded to include contact with cultures in southern Mexico. These changes, along with the beginning of the use of pottery, the appearance of elaborate burials in cemetery mounds, and the first appearance of maize (corn) agriculture, mark the change-over from archaic lifeways to Woodland ones.

The two most important socio-cultural traditions to emerge in the Woodland Period were the Adena and Hopewell. Neither of these were a single culture; rather the term covers dozens of Early Woodland societies, societies that were contemporary, often close neighbors, interacting with one another continuously, sharing a certain level of sociocultural complexity, and participating in a ceremonial complex, at the center of which stood (both literally and figuratively) the burial of each society's elite in large earth mounds.

Of the two traditions, the Hopewell stands out as a remarkable cultural phenomenon, both for its flamboyant burial customs and for its complex exchange networks that traded both raw materials and finished artifacts over vast areas of North America. In some regions, especially in Ohio, Hopewell earthworkds assumed enormous proportions, sometimes clusters of mounds and earthen enclosures that covered many acres.

While there were a number of regional variations on the Hopewell tradition, they all shared a number of characteristic artifact styles and exotic raw materials. The former included cymbal-like copper ear spools, copper breast plates, obsidian artifactgs, marine shells used as containers, and mica sheets cut into geometric and representational forms. Exotic raw materials included copper, marine shells, mica, obsidian, shark and alligator teeth, meteoric iron, etc.

Very little is known of Hopewell subsistence, settlement patterns, or daily life. In some areas, Hopewellian peoples congregated in large river valleys near major waterways, settling in sedentary, nucleated communities. Much more is known about Hopewell burial customs, especially their propensity for burying elites in large earthen mounds. Another distinctive feature was the construction of a series of roads linking a number of large mound sites.

For reasons that are not yet clear, the Hopewell tradition began to decline about 1,700 years ago. Then between 1,600 and 1,200 years ago maize agriculture spread gradually through the Southeast, populations slowly increased in size, inter-community exchange systems flourished, and sedentary peoples in river valleys and along sea coasts intensified their cultivation of native plants. These four things (maize agriculture, increasing populations, flourishing trade, intensification of cultivation) culminated in a series of remarkable riverine cultures after 1,200 years ago, the great Mississippian tradition.

The Late Woodland (about 1,000 to 500 years ago). Between 1,200 and 1,000 years ago, there appeared over a broad area of the interior Southeast (from the central Mississippi Valley to the western Appalachian piedmont) more intensive maize (and bean) agriculture along with an efflorescence of sacred ceremonial complexes. It was the widespread cultivation of maize and beans that fostered the Mississippian tradition with its higher population densities, larger food surpluses, enormous earthen platform mounds, more complex socio-political organization, and the emergence of numerous powerful chiefdoms throughout the Southeast.

The Mississippian tradition appeared more-or-less simultaneously across much of the Southeast by 1,000 years ago, developing in both large and small river valleys, and intensively cultivating the alluvial soils of the river floodplains. The Mississipians also exploited fish, migratory waterfowl, terrestrial game (deer, raccoon, turkey), nuts, fruits, and berries, and seed-bearing native plants. In fact, fish and waterfowl together may have contributed at least half of the total protein intake of Mississippian populations living along the bottomlands of the larger river systems.

Like most pre-industrial agricultural societies, those participating in the Mississippian tradition had as their fundamental units of production and consumption the household. However, Mississippian communities were grouped into larger political and social units headed by local chieftains. However, some Mississippian centers appear to have had more complex social and political structures, such as Cahokia in the American Bottom on the Mississippi River opposite St Louis, and Moundville in Alabama.

The Contact Period. The people of the Southeast were severely impacted by Euroopean diseases in the early 1500s and some had been virtually destroyed by the time Europeans revisited the region in the mid-1500s.

The earliest Europeans in the Southeast were the Spaniards: Juan Ponce de León landed in southern Florida in 1513, Hernando de Soto entered in 1539 with a small army. He moved from town to town demanding tribute and women, destroying the economic base of many groups, fighting battles, and inadvertently spreading famine and disease across the Southeast. Several other Spanish expeditions followed, resulting in a severe population collapse and the destruction of many groups.

The French initiated exploration of the Mississippi River in 1673, but by that time most native cultures had already been severely impacted by disease and largely destroyed. The French did encountered the Natchez, a surviving Mississippian culture, but by 1731 they had also been destroyed.

In the late 1600s the English began to encroach into the Southeast, moving westward from Carolina. By the early 1700s they controlled most of the Southeast, had developed an extensive trade in Indian slaves, and English colonists were flooding into the region, warring on the Indians and usurping their land and resources.

In 1783 the U.S. gained control of the region, more colonists moved in, conflicts with the Indians grew and several wars were fought, demands for Indian removal grew, and in 1830 the U.S. passed the Indian Removal Act. According to the Act, all Indians living in the Southeast were to be removed to the newly created Indian Territory (which would become, at the beginning of the 20th century, the state of Oklahoma). The Choctaw were the first to move, followed by the Creeks in 1837 (some of whom had fled to Florida and became the Seminole), the Chickasaw, and in 1838 the Cherokee. Each of these removals (except for that of the Chickasaw) was carried out by armed U.S. federal troops and have come to be known as the Trails of Tears. By 1837, 46,000 Native American people had been removed from their land east of the Mississippi, opening 25 million acres of land to white settlement and to slavery.

This picture, The Trail of Tears, was painted by Robert Lindneux in 1942. It commemorates the suffering of the Cherokee people under forced removal. If any depictions of the "Trail of Tears" were created at the time of the march, they have not survived.

Image Credit: The Granger Collection, New York

Picture of the Cherokee Trail of Tears


Defining Features

At the time of first European contact the Southeast was inhabited by a large number of native groups: some were at the chiefdom level of sociopolitical organization; other were quite small and organized along extended family lines. Within 100 years following European exploration and colonization, many of these groups had become extinct. Consequently, our knowledge and understanding of the native cultures of the Southeast is fragmentary for the first 350 years.


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Cultures Areas
Arctic | Subarctic | Northwest Coast

Plateau | California | Great Basin
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Northeast Woodlands | Southeast Woodlands

Updated: 09 Mar 2000