Mississippian culture

Mississippian culture

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 C.E. to 1500 C.E., varying regionally. The Mississippian peoples were technologically comparable to the European Copper Age.

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).

Cultural traits

A number of cultural traits are recognized as being characteristic of the Mississippians. Although not all Mississippian peoples practiced all of the following activities, all of them were distinct from their ancestors in their adoption of some or all of these traits.

  1. The construction of truncated 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.
  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 that could be comparable at different points to post-Roman, pre-consolidation tribal England.
  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 occur from Wisconsin (see Aztalan State Park) to the Gulf Coast, and from Florida to Arkansas and Oklahoma. This was sometimes tied in to ritual game-playing, as with chunkey.

The Mississippians had no writing system or stone architecture. They could work 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 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 Middle Mississippian period is often considered the high point of the Mississippian era. The formation of complex chiefdoms besides Cahokia and the spread and development of the 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, most areas had dispersed or were experiencing severe social stress by 1500.

Contact with Europeans

At Joara, near Morganton, North Carolina, however, Native Americans interacted with Spanish explorers who built a base in 1567 called Fort San Juan. Expedition documentation and archaeological evidence both exist. The soldiers were at the fort about 18 months (1567-1568) before they were killed and it was destroyed by the natives. Sixteenth-century Spanish artifacts have been recovered from the site, marking the first European colonization in the interior of what became the United States, 40 years earlier than the English settlement of Jamestown, and nearly 20 years earlier than the Lost Colony of Roanoke.

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. However, 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 one of the first documents ever written on Mississippian peoples, and are an invaluable source of information on the cultural practices of these peoples. The Chronicles of the Narvaez Expedition was a written account before the de Soto expedition; in fact, it was the Narvaez expedition who 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 undermined the social order of many chiefdoms, while 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 is available, 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 remember that their own ancestors had built the mounds dotting the landscape. This contributed to the "Myth of the Mound Builders," officially debunked by Cyrus Thomas in 1894.

Known Mississippian Chiefdoms

Although the Mississippian culture was heavily disrupted before a complete understanding of the political landscape was written down, many Mississippian political bodies are still known. Some of them are listed below.

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, among others too numerous to name: the Alabama, Apalachee, Caddo, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, Guale, Hitchiti, Houma, Illinois, Kansa, Miami, Missouri, Mobilian, Natchez, Osage Nation, Quapaw, Seminole, Shawnee, Timucua, Tunica-Biloxi, Yamasee, and Yuchi.


  • 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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