Mississippian Period - 500 to 1,000 Years Ago

Growing Communities

The Mississippian culture in the Southeast region of the United States was a collection of different societies that shared similar ways of living and traditions. During its peak, the Mississippian period was considered to be the highest cultural achievement in the Southeast. They built more permanent communities, farmed extensively, made marvelous pottery, and maintained vast trade networks in addition to continuing their ancestral tradition of hunting and gathering.

stone ax, stone hoe, flint hoe
Tools used by Mississippian farmers: stone axe (left), stone hoe (middle), and flint hoe (right).

NPS Photo

The people that lived during this period relied heavily on agriculture for a large portion of their diet. In particular, they mainly focused on the cultivation of the Three Sisters - corn, beans, and squash. These early farmers cleared large fields using stone axes and fire, then worked individual plots by hand with digging sticks, stone hoes, and large animal bones. These fields were then filled with mound-like structures, which were formed by piling soils together. The Mississippian people often fertilized these mounds with fish or other organic materials. Corn would then be planted in the middle of each mound. Once their stalks began to grow, beans would then be planted on the slopes of the mounds. As the corn matured, their stalks provide a structure for the beans to climb. The beans in return, reenergized the soil by adding nutrients such as nitrogen that would have been consumed by the other plants. Squash was planted in between the mounds. Their wide leaves provided ground cover to keep the soil moist and minimize weed growth, and their prickly vines helped deter wildlife from eating the corn or beans. The Mississippian people would practice this agricultural method along the river valleys, with homes and communities located nearby. The combination of these three plants provided the inhabitants a reasonably nutritious vegetable diet.
Mississippian pottery shards
Mississippian Lamar pottery sherds (top), Cazuela sherd (bottom left), and fabric imprint (bottom right).

NPS Photo

Following the tradition of their Woodland ancestors, the Mississippian people also made fabulous pottery that was used for various means. Large earthen pots, woven baskets, and even large gourds held food and drink. Meals were cooked in kettle-shaped jars and served in bowls and on plates. Most of such dinnerware was plain and dull in color. However, archeologists have also recovered sherds of more extravagant ceramics decorated with intricate engravings, stamped designs, and lustrous color finishes. Clay and stone disks in various sizes have also been found. Some of these disks may have served as spindle whorls while others may have been used as a gaming piece. This game is called Chunkey, a game that involves two players taking turns rolling a large stone disk down an open field and throwing their spears after the stone in hope of hitting it or landing close to its final resting place. The game served as a way to practice hunting techniques and predicting their prey’s movement. It is believed that the Mississippian people started playing the game at around 600 CE. Chunkey was a widely popular spectator sport with large crowds gathering around the players, watching intently. The game was taken very seriously, with players wearing ritualistic clothes, accessories, and face paint for high stake games.
Shell pendants, mica, and copper
Traded items from other regions found at Russell Cave: Madison point (top left), Fort Ancient point (top right), mica (bottom left), copper earspool (bottom right).

NPS Photo

Materials found at Russell Cave that were from hundreds of miles away suggest that the Mississippian people developed trade and social networks with groups from other regions. Decorative pieces such as seashell pendants and earplugs, which are more common in the coastal regions, were found just below the surface during the excavations at Russell Cave. A copper earspool was also found in the same excavation, a seemingly rare find since copper is more commonly found in the Great Lakes region. Similarly, Jack Reefs Corner Notched stone points, which are more commonly found in the Seneca River region of central New York and into Great Lakes area and into New England, were also found. It is possible that the inhabitants traded for the decorative items from other regions, or the locals from that region carried those items with them when they came to Russell Cave. These two possibilities are still applicable to the stone points, but in addition, the people of Russell Cave could’ve learned the design from the locals from that region and brought the knowledge back to their home.

With the explorations of European explorers came the end of the Mississippian peoples' history. Armies of Spanish conquistadors such as Juan Ponce de León and Hernando de Soto devastated the native populations from the 1500s to the 1540s, which was already in decline due to newly introduced European diseases from previous encounters as well as prolonged drought, crop failures, and internal warfare. Most of the larger Mississippian sites were abandoned or in decline by the mid-1400s.

Russell Cave National Monument

Last updated: January 25, 2022