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Natural Setting | Paleoindian | Archaic | Woodland | Mississippian | Caribbean Prehistory
European Exploration | American Independence and Westward Expansion | The U.S. Through the 19th and 20th Centuries

Oil painting of the Rucker's Bottom Mississippian Village.
Rucker's Bottom Mississippian Village (Southeast Archeological Center - National Park Service).

Southeastern Prehistory

Mississippian and Late
Prehistoric Period

History of Investigations
Mississippian Cultures | Other Late Prehistoric Cultures
Prehistoric Underwater Archeological Resources
Further Reading | National Park Units

 

History of Investigations

*Since the difference between radiocarbon years ago and actual years ago is negligible during this time, and since this time period crosses over into contact with Europeans, all dates will be given using A.D. and B.C., instead of "years ago" or rcbp.

MORE ON THE WEB:

Map of Important Mississippian Sites in the Southeast United States
Macon's Mississippians
(Site describing the Mississippian Period in the Macon Plateau area)
Shiloh Mounds
(Recent SEAC project at Shiloh National Military Park)

The 1963 National Historic Landmark Theme Study characterized Mississippian cultures (then called "Temple Mound" cultures) as different from the Woodland cultures on the basis of distinctive ceramic vessel forms, the use of ground shell as a tempering agent in ceramics, rectangularly shaped structures, and ceremonial earthwork complexes. The earthworks contained flat-topped pyramidal mounds used primarily as the bases or platforms for wooden temple structures. Archeological excavations at these complexes uncovered high-status burials, sometimes containing ceremonial materials that appeared to exhibit shared iconography from site to site. It was speculated that these artifacts represented a "Southern Cult" or shared religious manifestations that linked these sites throughout much of the eastern United States. One major problem noted in this study was the uncertainty of the place of origin of the Mississippian culture.

Archeological investigations over the last thirty years have given us a very different picture than that characterized in the 1963 study. First, although certain ceramic forms and tempering agents and rectangularly shaped structures are still considered indicators of Mississippian period sites, there now appears to be nothing dramatically new in the way Mississippian cultures lived as opposed to the previous Woodland cultures. Walthall (1990) has divided Mississippian cultural chronology into Early Mississippian (A.D. 850 to A.D. 1,150*), Middle Mississippian (A.D. 1,150 to A.D. 1,500*), and Late Mississippian (A.D. 1500 to A.D. 1700*). Mississippian sites appeared almost simultaneously throughout the Southeast around A.D. 850* and were mainly located within river floodplain environments.

 

Mississippian Culture

Copper ceremonial headdress.
Copper ceremonial headdress (Adapted from "Beneath These Waters" page 88).

The earthlodge at Ocmulgee in Georgia.
The earthlodge at Ocmulgee in Georgia (Adapted from "Beneath These Waters" page 84).

A carved shell gorget.
A carved shell gorget (Adapted from "Beneath These Waters" page 99).

MORE ON THE WEB:

Ocmulgee National Monument
(A National Park Unit in Macon, Georgia with multiple large mounds dating to the Mississippian Period)
Town Creek Indian Mound State Historic Site
(Official web site describing this Mississippian occupation in North Carolina)
An Archaeological Sketch of Moundville
(Site describing the Moundville complex in Alabama)

It is now generally believed that a form of chiefdom government operated within the Mississippian period. These chiefdoms, operating out of temple mound complexes, such as Moundville or Etowah, apparently controlled specific territories usually associated with a defined floodplain environment. Chiefs were responsible for the redistribution of food between outlying communities and the major community. Whether these chiefs were able to control exchanges of goods within their territory and with other chiefdoms, employ full-time artisans and specialists, or function as both the religious and political head, are questons requiring more research.

In all probability, Mississippian chiefdoms controlled only small geographical areas and were in constant states of change because their power rested on fragile agricultural adaptations. Failure of crops due to weather or other natural forces would have imperiled population stability in the chiefdom. In the past, much was made of the idea of a "Southern Cult" or pan-Mississippian religious phenomenon, based on the finding of similar iconography on artifacts of shell, copper, and ceramic from high-status burials in large Southeastern temple mound centers. It is now realized that postulating a religion on the basis of similar types of burial artifacts may be an erroneous assumption. More likely, similarity in exotic artifacts was due to a Mississippian exchange network linking hundreds of large and small communities, which functioned to promote the exchange of prestige goods for food. A similar exchange system probably functioned in the Middle Woodland period and similarly accounted for the exchange of exotic goods that were similar in appearance from site to site.

Another earlier aspect has to do with the origin of the Mississippian culture. The 1963 study noted that in earlier studies radiocarbon dating was inadequate for dating Mississippian-type sites before about A.D. 850 *, and it was then proposed that the Mississippian culture origin was based at the great site of Cahokia near East St. Louis, Illinois, or in western Kentucky and Tennessee. Today, archeological investigations and radiocarbon dating have identified "proto-Mississippian" sites within the Weeden Island culture area of the Gulf Coast of Florida and the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee valleys of Alabama and Georgia, which date from the Middle to Late Woodland period from approximately A.D. 100 to A.D. 700*. Excavations have identified flat-topped or platform ceremonial, rather than burial, mound complexes that are similar in layout to early Mississippian period earthworks.

Another important result of the work conducted on Mississippian sites in the last thirty years has been the differentiation of the Mississippian culture into distinctive cultural areas. The Middle Mississippian area, represented by the major sites of Cahokia and Moundville, covers the central Mississippi River Valley, the lower Ohio River Valley, and most of the Mid-South area, including western and central Kentucky, western Tennessee, and northern Alabama and Mississippi. This appears to be the core of the classic Mississippian culture area, containing large ceremonial mound and residential complexes, sometimes enclosed within earthen ditches and ramparts or a stockade line.

The lower Mississippi River Valley contains the Plaquemine Mississippian culture area in western Mississippi and eastern Louisiana. Plaquemine Mississippian earthwork sites are similar in appearance to Middle Mississippian complexes, except the former are ceremonial in nature and usually lack a residential aspect. Good examples of this culture are the Emerald Mound and Holly Bluff (Lake George) sites located in Mississippi.

The South Appalachian Mississippian area appears to have derived its inspiration from the Middle Mississippian culture area, as it appears to post-date Mississippian occupation from the latter area. Settlement patterns of floodplain occupation, with stockades enclosing earthen temple mounds and residential areas, such as those represented at Etowah and Ocmulgee National Monument in Georgia, and Shiloh National Military Park in Tennessee, are characteristic of the South Appalachian Mississippian. Sites are distributed throughout southeastern parks in Alabama, Georgia, northern Florida, South Carolina, and central and western North Carolina and Tennessee.

 

Other Late
Prehistoric Cultures

MORE ON THE WEB:

Fort Ancient Culture
(Site geared towards kids concerning this culture in Ohio and Kentucky)
Fort Ancient - Hopewell Native American Earth Works
(Web site of the Fort Ancient Earth Works in Oregonia, Ohio)
Fort Ancient
(Brief summary of the Fort Ancient culture in the Ohio River Valley)
Museum of Red River: The Caddo Culture
(Great summary of the Caddo culture and the environment in which it formed)
A History of the Caddo Indians
(An article from 1935 reprinted on the World Wide Web dealing with the history of these people in the Louisiana region)
The Caddo Indians of Louisiana
(A good summary of this culture in Louisiana)

Coeval Mississippian areas include the Fort Ancient culture area of southern Ohio and eastern Kentucky, and the Caddoan Mississippian of eastern Oklahoma, eastern Texas, western Arkansas, and western Louisiana. The Fort Ancient culture emerged about A.D. 1350* as a response by local Late Woodland populations to an increasing reliance on agriculture, increasing sedentism, and the accompanying rise in socio-political complexity associated with the Middle Mississippian culture area. The Fort Ancient culture produced ceramics distinct from Middle Mississippian wares, with a settlement pattern of villages organized into a circular or elliptical configuration of structures surrounding a central plaza.

The Caddoan culture appears to have emerged from the local Middle Woodland cultures in the western Louisiana area around A.D. 750*. Mississippian culture traits common to the Caddo people primarily along the Red River drainage, such as the use of maize agriculture, burial mounds, and temple mound complexes, appear to have been derived from the Plaquemine Mississippian culture area more so than the Middle Mississippian core area. However, the Caddoan culture is generally viewed as a separate culture area from the Mississippian culture of the Southeast.

Other coeval Mississippian culture areas are the St. Johns culture area of northeastern Florida, the Glades and Calusa culture areas of southern Florida, and the coastal cultures of North Carolina. Many of these cultures constructed temple mounds and/or burial mounds and, to a certain extent, utilized maize agriculture; however, to a larger extent they continued a Woodland type of subsistence in Late Prehistoric times until European contact.

 

Prehistoric Underwater
Archeological Resources

MORE ON THE WEB:

The Aucilla River Prehistory Project
(More than a decade of underwater investigations occurred in this North Florida river)
The PaleoAucilla Prehistory Project
(Conducted by the Underwater Archaeology department at Florida State University)
Underwater Archeology
(The Southeast Archeological Center's page on this subject)

Although no archeological sites of Pleistocene age are yet recognized for the coastal seashores and other maritime parks, the presence of peat deposits dating to this period and underlying inshore barrier islands at Canaveral National Seashore, Fort Matanzas National Monument, Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve, Cumberland Island National Seashore, Cape Lookout National Seashore, Cape Hatteras National Seashore, and Gulf Islands National Seashore reflect the potential for studies concerning the early peopling of North America. Submerged peat deposits that contain well-preserved cultural resources are also evident and to be anticipated at Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve.

Prehistoric maritime exploration, probably from South America, resulted in the settling of the Virgin Islands among the northern Leeward Islands, with the initial occupation of the Greater Antilles estimated to have taken place as early as 5000 B.C. (Rouse and Allaire 1978:465). In his 1960 survey of St. John, (Virgin Islands National Park), Frederick Sleight (1962) noted that most of the prehistoric settlements were in the northwest section of the island .

The development of specialized maritime, riverine, and other adaptations in select areas allowed for establishment of a sedentary way of life that was not specifically agriculturally based. Many maritime communities developed as a result of the use of specialized fishing and hunting techniques or a combination of both. A combination of maritime and agricultural practices formed the foundation for cultural developments in the Caribbean and along the southeast coast of the United States. Examples of these cultures have been found in archeological contexts throughout the Southeast, including at Virgin Islands National Park, Biscayne National Park, Everglades National Park, Big Cypress National Park, Canaveral National Seashore, Fort Matanzas National Monument, Timucuan Ecological And Historic Preserve, Cumberland Island National Seashore, and Gulf Islands National Seashore. These sites are usually manifested as shell middens or mounds reflecting the remains of local shellfish exploitation.

Protected bay and cove prehistoric site types are also found at Buck Island Reef National Monument and Salt River Bay National Historical Park and Ecological Preserve. Elsewhere in the Southeast, the potential for prehistoric maritime exploration and early settlement has been considered for Dry Tortugas National Park (Cockrell 1989).

Maritime cultural adaptations of the native populations throughout the Southeast were recorded by early explorers, including Columbus, LeMoyne, Ribault, Laudonniere, and d'Iberville, among others. National parks in the region which either have archeological sites or historic accounts describing contact period maritime cultural adaptations include Salt River Bay National Historical Park and Ecological Preserve, Canaveral National Seashore, Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve, Cumberland Island National Seashore, and Gulf Islands National Seashore.

Further Reading

MORE ON THE WEB:

Beneath These Waters
(Popular history of the Savannah River region, including information on the Mississippian in the Southeast)
The Land and the People
(Popular history of the Fort Benning, Georgia area including information on the Woodland in the Southeast)

Cover of "The Savannah River Chiefdoms" by David G. Anderson.
"The Savannah River Chiefdoms"
by David G. Anderson
.
Cover of "Coosa: The Rise and Fall of a Southeastern Mississippian Chiefdom" by Marvin T. Smith.
"Coosa: The Rise and Fall of a Southeastern Mississippian Chiefdom" by Marvin T. Smith.

On Mississippian Culture in the Southeast:

Anderson, David G.
•1994 The Savannah River Chiefdoms: Political Change in the Late Prehistoric Southeast. University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa.

Hally, David J., ed.
•1994 Ocmulgee Archaeology, 1936-1986. University of Georgia Press, Athens.

Knight, Vernon James, Jr., and Vincas P Steponaitis, eds.
•1998 Archaeology of the Moundville Chiefdom. Smithsonian Series in Archaeological Inquiry. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC.

Muller, Jon
•1997 Mississippian Political Economy: Interdisciplinary Contributions to Archaeology. Plenum, New York.

Scarry, John F., ed.
•1996 Political Structure and Change in the Prehistoric Southeastern United States. Ripley P. Bullen Series, University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

Schnell, F.T., and N.O. Wright, Jr.
•1993 Mississippi Period Archaeology of the Georgia Coastal Plain. University of Georgia Laboratory of Archaeology Series Report No. 26, Athens.

Shaffer, Lynda Norene
•1992 Native Americans Before 1492: The Moundbuilding Centers of the Eastern Woodlands. M.E. Sharpe, Armonk, NY.

Smith, Marvin T.
•2000 Coosa: The Rise and Fall of a Southeastern Mississippian Chiefdom. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

On Fort Ancient Culture:

Drooker, Penelope B.
•1997 The View from Madisonville: Protohistoric Western Fort Ancient Interaction Patterns. Memoir 31. Museum of Anthropology Publications, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Henderson, A. Gwynn
•1992 Fort Ancient Cultural Dynamics in the Middle Ohio Valley. Monographs in World Archaeology, no.8. Prehistory Press, Madison.

On Caddo Culture:

Perttula, Timothy K.
•1992 The Caddo Nation: Archaeological and Ethnohistoric Perspectives. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Smith, F. Todd
•1994 The Red River Caddos: A Historical Overview to 1835. Bulletin of the Texas Archeological Society 64.
•1995 The Caddo Indians Tribes at the Convergence of Empires, 1542–1854. Texas A&M University Press, College Station.

 

National Park Units

Evidence of Mississippian Period sites has been located in the following National Park Units (Click on links for more information about Native American occupations in these parks):


Return to the Late Woodland | Move on to Caribbean Prehistory