[NPS Arrowhead] U.S. Dept. of Interior National Park Service Archeology Program
Quick Menu Features
* Sitemap * Home
   Ancient Architects of the Mississippi  >> home
   * life along the river * the moundbuilders * traders and travelers * delta voices * the context * timeline

5000 BC-1000 AD

1000-1200 AD

1200-1400 AD

1400-1500 AD

1500-1670 AD

The first mounds in the Southeast, used mainly to bury the dead, were probably constructed between 8000 and 1000 BC. By around 800 AD, a distinct way of life was developing in the lower Delta.

The mound sites slowly expanded into hubs of commerce and politics. The earlier era's rounded burial mounds, mostly cone-shaped, were supplanted by massive platforms where the elite built their homes, staged events, and laid ancestors to rest. Most residents, however, lived in settlements huddled around the periphery of the platforms.

Trade burgeoned; goods arrived over land and water from as far away as the Southwest. Craftsmen adopted motifs from afar to embellish objects such as shell-tempered ceramics, an innovation that–by taking advantage of a range of clays–led to new uses.

New strains of corn with a short growing cycle yielded two harvests a season and–by lessening fear of frost–encouraged farming further up the valleys. Improved strains of beans and squash followed.

Wealth solidified the elite’s position at the top of the increasingly complex society that evolved to erect cities along the river.

The heyday of moundbuilding in the Delta. The arts flourished; finely wrought symbolic artifacts are a period hallmark.

With bountiful harvests and trade, social and religious customs grew more sophisticated. The moundbuilders expanded their earthworks to stage the elaborate rituals of a religion known to scholars as the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex.

Rulers began to lose their grip on the tightly organized societies of the lower Mississippi. Moundbuilding and public ceremony started to disappear. Chiefdoms factionalized; war, rather than political control, became the key to power.

With instability and drought, Native Americans vacated the Delta, leaving the mound cities empty for the Europeans to ponder in years to come. Farmers abandoned their fields for small plots inside walled enclosures.

Landing in Florida in 1539, the Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto witnessed a culture in decline as he traveled the Southeast over four years. By the 1600s, disease had wiped out thousands. In the early 1700s, the French encountered what may have been the last mound culture in the Delta, the Natchez of Mississippi.

As it had for centuries, the Mississippi continued to beckon. Spain, France, Britain, and the United States competed for the long-coveted lower Delta. And today, like the moundbuilders of old, millions of Americans work its banks and waterways.