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A map showing approximate areas of various Mississippian and related cultures.

The Mississippian culture was a mound-building Native American culture that flourished in what is now the Midwestern, Eastern, and Southeastern United States from approximately 800 CE to 1500 CE, varying regionally.[1]

The Mississippian way of life began to develop in the Mississippi River Valley (for which it is named). Cultures in the tributary Tennessee River Valley may have also begun to develop Mississippian characteristics at this point. Almost all dated Mississippian sites predate 1539 (when Hernando de Soto explored the area).

Contents

Cultural traits

Platform mounds at the Kincaid Site in Massac Co., Ill.
A Mississippian priest, with a ceremonial flint mace and severed head. Artist Herb Roe, based on a repousse copper plate.

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 these traits.

  1. 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.
  2. Maize-based agriculture. In most places, the development of Mississippian culture coincided with adoption of comparatively large-scale, intensive maize agriculture, which allowed support of larger populations and craft specialization.
  3. The adoption and use of riverine (or more rarely marine) shell-tempering agents in their ceramics.
  4. 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.
  5. The development of the chiefdom or complex chiefdom level of social complexity.
  6. The development of institutionalized social inequality.
  7. A centralization of control of combined political and religious power in the hands of few or one.
  8. 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.
  9. 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 (see Aztalan State Park) to the Gulf Coast, and from Florida to Arkansas and Oklahoma. The SECC was frequently tied in to ritual game-playing, as with chunkey.

The Mississippians had no writing system or stone architecture. They worked naturally occurring metal deposits, but did not smelt iron or make bronze metallurgy.

Chronology

Stone effigies found at the Etowah Site

The Mississippian stage is usually divided into three or more periods. Each of these periods is an arbitrary historical distinction that varies from region to region. At one site, each period may be considered to begin earlier or later, depending on the speed of adoption or development of given Mississippian traits.

  • Early Mississippian cultures are those which had just made the transition from the Late Woodland period way of life (500–1000 C.E.). Different groups abandoned tribal lifeways for increasing complexity, sedentism, centralization, and agriculture. The Early Mississippian period is considered to be, in most places, c. 1000–1200 C.E. The production of surplus corn and attractions of the regional chiefdoms both led to rapid concentrations of population in major centers.
  • The Middle Mississippian period is often considered the high point of the Mississippian era. The expansion of the great metropolis and ceremonial complex at Cahokia, the formation of other complex chiefdoms, and the spread and development of SECC art and symbolism are characteristic changes of this period. The Mississippian traits listed above came to be widespread throughout the region. In most places, this period is recognized as occurring c. 1200–1400 C.E.
  • The Late Mississippian period, usually considered from c. 1400 to European contact, is characterized by increasing warfare, political turmoil, and population movement. The population of Cahokia dispersed early in this period (1350–1400), perhaps migrating to other rising political centers. More defensive structures are often seen at sites, and sometimes a decline in mound-building and ceremonialism. Although some areas continued an essentially Middle Mississippian culture until the first significant contact with Europeans, the population of most areas had dispersed or were experiencing severe social stress by 1500. Along with the contemporary Anasazi, these cultural collapses coincide with the global climate change of the Little Ice Age. Scholars have theorized that drought and collapse of maize agriculture, together with possible deforestation and overhunting by the concentrated populations, forced them to move away.

Contact with Europeans

A map showing the de Soto route through the Southeast

At Joara, near Morganton, North Carolina, Native Americans of the Mississippian culture interacted with Spanish explorers of the Juan Pardo expedition, who built a base there in 1567 called Fort San Juan. Expedition documentation and archaeological evidence of the fort and Native American culture both exist. The soldiers were at the fort about 18 months (1567-1568) before the natives killed them and destroyed the fort. (They killed soldiers stationed at five other forts as well; only one man of 120 survived.) Sixteenth-century Spanish artifacts have been recovered from the site, marking the first European colonization in the interior of what became the United States.[2]

Scholars have searched the records of Hernando de Soto in 1539–1543 looking for evidence of contacts with Mississippians. He visited many villages, in some cases staying for a month or longer (see here). Some encounters were violent, while others were relatively peaceable. In some cases, De Soto seems to have been used as a tool or ally in long-standing native feuds. In one example, de Soto negotiated a truce between the Pacaha and the Casqui.

De Soto's later encounters left about half of the Spaniards and perhaps many hundreds of Native Americans dead. The chronicles of de Soto are among the first documents written about Mississippian peoples, and are an invaluable source of information on their cultural practices. The chronicles of the Narvaez Expedition was written before the de Soto expedition; in fact, it was the Narvaez expedition that informed the Court of de Soto about the New World.

After the destruction and flight of the de Soto expedition, the Mississippian peoples continued their way of life with little direct European influence. Indirectly, however, European introductions would change the face of the Eastern United States. Diseases such as measles and smallpox caused so many fatalities, because the natives lacked immunity, that they undermined the social order of many chiefdoms. Some groups adopted European horses and changed back to nomadism (Bense pp. 256–257, 275–279). Political structures collapsed in many places. By the time more documentary evidence was being written, the Mississippian way of life had changed irrevocably. Some groups maintained an oral tradition link to their mound-building past (such as the late 19th-century Cherokee- Hudson pp. 334). Other Native American groups, having migrated many hundreds of miles and lost their elders to diseases, did not know their ancestors had built the mounds dotting the landscape. This contributed to the "Myth of the Mound Builders" as a people distinct from Native Americans, which was officially debunked by Cyrus Thomas in 1894.

Known Mississippian Chiefdoms

Hollow ceramic jug showing the underwater panther from the Mississippian culture, found at Rose Mound in Cross County, Arkansas, U.S., 1400-1600. height: 8 inches (20 cm).
The Kincaid Site as it may have looked at its peak

Although the Mississippian culture was heavily disrupted before a complete understanding of the political landscape was written down, many Mississippian political bodies were documented and others have been discovered by research. Some of the major sites are listed below, for a more comprehensive list see List of Mississippian sites.

Related modern nations

Mississippian peoples were almost certainly ancestral to the majority of the Native American nations living in this region in the historic era. The historic and modern day Native American nations believed to have participated in the overarching Mississippian Culture include: the Alabama, Apalachee, Caddo, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, Guale, Hitchiti, Houma, Kansa, Missouri, Mobilian, Natchez, Osage Nation, Quapaw, Seminole, Tunica-Biloxi, Yamasee, and Yuchi.[citation needed]

See also

References

  1. ^ Adam King, "Mississippian Period: Overview", New Georgia Encyclopedia, 2002, accessed 15 Nov 2009
  2. ^ Constance E. Richards, "Contact and Conflict", American Archaeologist, Spring 2004, accessed 26 Jun 2008
  3. ^ David Pollack (2004). Caborn-Welborn - Constructing a New Society after the Angel Chiefdom Collapse. University of Alabama Press. p. Pp. 24. ISBN 0-8173-5126-4. 
  4. ^ ""Southeastern Prehistory: Mississippian and Late Prehistoric Period"". "National Park Service". http://www.nps.gov/history/seac/outline/05-mississippian/index.htm. Retrieved 2007-12-04. 
  5. ^ Hudson, Charles M. (1997). Knights of Spain, Warriors of the Sun. University of Georgia Press. 
  • Bense, Judith A. Archaeology of the Southeastern United States: Paleoindian to World War I. Academic Press, New York, 1994. ISBN 0-12-089060-7.
  • Cheryl Anne Cox; and David H. Dye, eds; Towns and Temples along the Mississippi University of Alabama Press 1990
  • Hudson, Charles. The Southeastern Indians. University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, 1976. ISBN 0-87049-248-9.
  • O'Conner, Mallory McCane. Lost Cities of the Ancient Southeast. University Press of Florida, Florida A & M University, Gainesville, Fla., 1995. ISBN 0-8130-1350-X.
  • Timothy R. Pauketat; The Ascent of Chiefs: Cahokia and Mississippian Politics in Native North America. University of Alabama Press, 1994.

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