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
A map showing approximate areas of
various Mississippian and related cultures.
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
A Mississippian priest, with a
ceremonial flint mace.
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.
- 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
- 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
- The adoption and use of riverine (or more rarely marine)
shell-tempering agents in their ceramics.
- Widespread trade networks extending as far
west as the Rockies, north to the
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.
- The development of institutionalized social inequality.
- 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 (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
or stone architecture. They worked naturally occurring
metal deposits, but did not smelt iron or make bronze metallurgy
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
- 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
- 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
- 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
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
A map showing the de Soto route
through the Southeast
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.
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
). 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
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
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
" as a people
distinct from Native Americans, which was officially debunked by
Known Mississippian Chiefdoms
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
- Angel Mounds: A chiefdom in southern Indiana near
- Cahokia: Near
Louis, Illinois, Cahokia was possibly the first, and certainly the
largest and most influential of the Mississippian culture
- Emerald Mound: A Plaquemine
Mississippian-period archaeological site located on the Natchez Trace Parkway near Stanton,
Mississippi. The site dates from the period between 1200
and 1730 CE. The platform mound is the second-largest
Pre-Columbian earthwork in the country, after Monks Mound at Cahokia.
- Etowah: One of the major Mississippian chiefdoms, located
in Georgia, believed by some to be a longstanding antagonist
of the Moundville polity.
- Grand Village of the Natchez: The main village of the Natchez people, with three mounds. The only
mound site to be used and maintained into historic times.
Site: A major Mississippian mound center in southern
Illinois across the Ohio River
- Moundville: Ranked with Cahokia as one of the two most
important sites at the core of the Mississippian culture, located
- Ocmulgee: Originally a Mississippian chiefdom, the site was
later used by the Creek Indians into
- The Parkin Site: The type site for the
"Parkin phase", an expression of Late Mississippian culture,
believed by many archaeologists to be the province of Casqui visited by Hernando de Soto in
- Spiro Mounds: One of the best-studied archaeological centers of
Mississippian culture, located in eastern Oklahoma.
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
- Adam King, "Mississippian Period: Overview",
New Georgia Encyclopedia, 2002, accessed 15 Nov 2009
- Constance E. Richards, " Contact and Conflict", American
Archaeologist, Spring 2004, accessed 26 Jun 2008
- 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.