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2.5 Mississippians

The Mississippian culture was spread across the Southeast and Midwest from the Atlantic coast to the edge of the plains, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Upper Midwest, although most intensively in the area along the Mississippi River. One of the distinguishing features of this culture was the construction of large earthen mounds. They grew maize and other crops intensively, participated in an extensive trade network, and had a complex stratified society.

The Mississippians first appeared around 1000 AD. The largest site of this people, Cahokia —located near modern East St. Louis, Illinois— may have reached a population of over 20,000. At its peak, between the 12th and 13th centuries, Cahokia was the most populous city in North America, although far larger cities were constructed in Mesoamerica and South America. Monk’s Mound, the major ceremonial centre of Cahokia, remains the largest earthen construction of the prehistoric New World. The culture reached its peak in c. 1200-1400, and it seems to have been in decline before the arrival of the Europeans.

Many Mississippian groups were met by the Hernando de Soto Expedition of the 1540s, mostly with disastrous results for both sides. Unlike the Spanish expeditions in Mesoamerica who conquered vast empires with relatively few men, the de Soto expedition wandered the American Southeast for four years, becoming more bedraggled, losing more men and equipment, and eventually arriving in Mexico a fraction of its original size. The local people fared much worse though, as the social disruption and diseases introduced by the expedition devastated the populations. By the time Europeans returned a hundred years later, nearly all of the Mississippian groups had vanished, and vast swaths of their territory were virtually uninhabited.

Arizona and New Mexico adopted the Cochise culture around 5,000 BC. Harvesting, gathering and storing wild plants and seeds became usual. These people built their homes on cliffs, in caves and desert valleys. The first mounds were built along the lower Mississippi around 4,500 BC, the oldest one remaining today is in Watson Brake near Monroe, Louisiana. North California was settled at the same time. There the inhabitants lived in sturdy, semi-interred earth lodges before changing to lighter surface houses made of brush as the climate became warmer.

The first long-term settlement in Poverty Point, Louisiana, occurred at the same time (2,000 BC). The people who lived here gathered seeds from the floodplain to plant the following spring. They cultivated above all squash, sunflowers, mash elder and chenpodium. They also made some votive objects from clams, falcons and owls as well as cooking pots of steatite from Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia. Poverty Point mounds expanded in Louisiana to become the first of the Great Mississippi sites with at least 600 living quarters and a population of between 4,000 and 6,000 people.

Agriculture and storage of surplus crops transformed hunting Indians in more sedentary agricultural people who only moved every 30 to 40 years after the soil was exhausted. Inhabitants of the Great Lakes region mined copper to make tools and beads for trade.

The centre of the Mississippian culture was located in the Mississippi Valley in a place known today as Cahokia, near East St. Louis. From 750 to 1150 it was the capital of the Mississippian culture and the population ranged from 10,000 to 40,000 people. All that remains today are 19 platform mounds surrounding a central plaza. The biggest one known as “Monks Mound” is still now, 800 years later, more than 90 feet high. It was the home of Cahokia’s ruler, the Great Sun. It is believed to have been built according to strict principles of mathematics and astronomy. In Cahokia there was also a solar observatory, of Mesoamerican design, composed of 48 posts set in a circle and co-ordinated with the equinoxes and solstices of 1,000 AD. It has been restored and is known as “Woodhenge”. Toltec colonists built Cahokia probably in 600 AD. It became an important commercial and religious centre between 700 and 900 AD when Teotihuacán’s existence was threatened and some of its inhabitants were sent in Cahokia.

The Mississippian culture took its name from the fact that it spread along the Mississippi and its tributaries, Ohio and Tennessee Rivers. Some Mississippian sites are also found in Arkansas and Oklahoma (Ocumulgee, Spiro, Etowah and Moundville). During its 400 years life, Cahokia traded from Canada to the north, to the Gulf of Mexico to the south mainly copper, obsidian, mica, crystal, gold, silver and conch shells. The Natchez Indians believe that the Mississippian civilisation was influenced by Mesoamerican colonists around 800 AD. This led to the culture of corn and the building of truncated pyramids or “platform mounds”.

By 1400 the population of the Mississippi River began to decline as tribe after tribe moved away. For instance, the Sioux were originally a Mississippian people who lived in the lower Ohio and Mississippi Valleys. They called themselves Dah-Kota, which means “Alliance of Friends”. In the 1400s they dispersed and moved north to Wisconsin and Northern Minnesota.

In the 1400s the most populated regions of North America were the Mississippi Valley and the Pacific Northwest coast. The Mississippians lived from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico and from the Appalachian Mountains to Kansas. They were known as river people who provided them with fish, fertile land, water, a transportation system and a connection to the underworld of their cosmology. Their origin is believed to have been in Poverty Point, Louisiana, in around 1,500 BC and they still were important in the 1,500s AD.

These people were known as the Adena from 700 BC to 200 AD, the Hopewell from 200 AD to 700 and finally as the Mississippians after 700 AD. They left behind flattop mounds arranged in mathematically precise geometric clusters with the ratios of their measurements, based on their cosmology, repeated all over their settlements. From Wisconsin to Louisiana they also built “effigy mounds” in the shape of serpents, bears, panthers and birds. They are assumed to represent supernatural beings or their ancestors, possibly including among them animals, as they believed that all creatures were part of the natural system.

The objects found in the ruins of their settlements show that they had some connections with the Mesoamericans: pottery representing human sacrifice, stylised skulls, bones, weeping eyes in sculptures and masks. They adored the Sun, had sacred fires, ceremonial ball games and enlarged their temples when their leader, known as the Great Sun, died. He lived in a large house on top of the central temple and when he died he and his servants that went with him in the next world, were cremated on top of the mound. A new layer was added to the top and sides of the mound and a new house was erected for the new Great Sun. Thousand of Mississippian settlements have been found in Florida, Georgia, North and South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Kansas, Iowa, Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and north of the Great lakes.

2.5.1  Cultural Traits

Platform mounds at the Kincaid Site in Massac Co., Ill.
Platform mounds at the Kincaid Site in Massac Co., Ill.

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 centre (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.

2.5.2  Chronology

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 AD). 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 AD. The production of surplus corn and attractions of the regional chiefdoms both led to rapid concentrations of population in major centres.
•    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 AD.
•    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. 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. 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.

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