The Mississippian Cultures

Sometime between A.D. 600 and 800, following a decline in Woodland mound building activity, a group of Late Woodland people arrived in the American Bottoms, rich alluvial terraces, floodplain and low bluffs in present day Illinois, just south of the juncture of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. Around 900, for reasons which are unclear, these Late Woodland people began to build mounds, not only the burial mounds of the Hopewell and Adena peoples, but also flat topped pyramid mounds which supported large structures, circles of wooden posts, and conical and ridge-shaped mounds. The origin and center of this activity is Cahokia.

A cluster of shared customs of these people, the Mississippians, spread up the Mississippi River as far north as Aztalan in Wisconsin, through the Ohio River to Angel in southern Indiana, and southeast into Alabama at Moundville and Etowah, in Georgia. It is possible that the new Mississippian sites were found by people originally coming from the Cahokia area to establish trading centers. It is also possible that ideas were being exchanged, along with trade goods, between the indigenous people and the Cahokia people. The possibility of invasion of established towns by the Mississippians also exists.

By the 12th and 13th centuries, several Mississippian centers had appeared in the southeastern United States. Lewis Larson, Jr. points out that these sites were limited in their distribution to alluvial bottom lands of the major river systems and their branches, at a point where different environmental zones meet.

The Mississippian settlement pattern typically followed a Maya one, with a large, well populated ceremonial administrative trading center containing platform mounds, and other public buildings, plazas, and residences. This was surrounded by dispersed farming and manufacturing towns and hamlets. Some of the largest of these had their own platform mounds and plazas.

Mississippian cultures are characterized by complexity of social structure, which includes social stratification and differential access to various resources. The need for manpower in the construction of the large public works indicates a kind of social control not found in other North American sites outside of Mexico. Mississippian sites invariably give evidence of participating in elaborate trade networks, a continuation of a Woodland and Archaic pattern.

Large Late Mississippian sites were all surrounded by wooden stockades, surely evidence of warfare with their neighbors. Since the technology of the Mississippians did not differ radically from that of their neighbors, nor did their means of subsistence (corn cultivation supplemented by hunting, fishing and gathering), it is difficult to understand the reasons for the warfare. It is possible that the social structure and the public works of the Mississippians required the use of captive slave labor, who may also have been used for human sacrifices, in which case warfare seems reasonable.

One of the major problems of the Mississippian culture is its relation to what has been called the Southern Ceremonial Cult or the Southern Cult. Identical styles appear in ceremonial context in many Mississippian and non Mississippian sites. An example is a monolithic polished axe, found at Moundville and Etowah and realistically represented in an incised shell cup from Spiro, in Oklahoma, a non Mississippian site. Incised shell, incidentally, which occurs in some quantity at Spiro as well as at Moundville, Etowah and other sites, is made from Busycon perversum, a mollusk native to the Florida keys and the northern Veracruz coast of Mexico (where the Huasteca were incising the same kind of shell).

The connections between the Mississippians, the Southern Cult, and Mesoamerica are still in question. The similarities of style and content between the southeast and Mesoamerica are too great to be ignored. One example is the longnosed god, who appears in some Southern Cult contexts as well as in many Mesoamerican ones. One hypothesis is that Aztec traders, whose god, incidentally, was a long nosed one, were trading up the Mississippi River. No object of clear Mississippian origin has been found in Mesoamerica, but perishable raw materials such as furs and herbs cannot be excluded. It is interesting to note that Cahokia, the originator and most spectacular of all Mississippian centers, shows very little evidence of participation in the Southern Cult, although the platform mounds and plazas indicate Mesoamerican influence.

At Cahokia, a gradual decline took place from about A.D. 1250. Some of the public areas were converted to private use, and burials became less elaborate. By the time of contact with Europeans, the great Mississippian centers had been largely abandoned, although they were occasionally used for Indian burials. No European artifact has been found in a Mississipian context.

The decline of the Mississippian centers has been attributed to the overuse and exhaustion of natural resources near the centers. As a result, the large centers may have been superseded by the growth of smaller regional centers with Mississippian traits. The Natchez, for example, when visited by Le Page Du Pratz in the early 18th century, were building mounds for chiefs houses, practicing human sacrifice in connection with the burial of important people, and maintaining an elaborately stratified social structure. By the 1830's, the last faint vestiges of the Mississippian cultures had vanished.

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