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12.16: Mississippian Culture

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    Learning Objective

    • Describe the economies of Mississippian cultures

    Key Points

    • Mississippian cultures lived in the Mississippi valley, Ohio, Oklahoma, and surrounding areas.
    • The “three sisters”—corn, squash, and beans—were the three most important crops.
    • Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto brought diseases and cultural changes that eventually contributed to the decline of many Mississippian cultures.


    three sisters

    Corn, squash, and beans. The three most important crops for Mississippian cultures.


    Formations made of earth that were used as foundations for Mississippian culture structures.

    The Mississippian Period lasted from approximately 800 to 1540 CE. It’s called “Mississippian” because it began in the middle Mississippi River valley, between St. Louis and Vicksburg. However, there were other Mississippians as the culture spread across modern-day US. There were large Mississippian centers in Missouri, Ohio, and Oklahoma.

    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 the following traits:

    • 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.
    • Maize-based agriculture. In most places, the development of Mississippian culture coincided with adoption of comparatively large-scale, intensive maize agriculture, which supported larger populations and craft specialization.
    • The adoption and use of riverine (or more rarely marine) shells as tempering agents in their shell tempered pottery.
    • 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.
    • The development of the chiefdom or complex chiefdom level of social complexity.
    • A centralization of control of combined political and religious power in the hands of few or one.
    • 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.
    • 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 to the Gulf Coast, and from Florida to Arkansas and Oklahoma. The SECC was frequently tied in to ritual game-playing.
    Mississippian Cultures. There were a number of Mississippian cultures, with most spreading from the Middle Mississippian area.

    Although hunting and gathering plants for food was still important, the Mississippians were mainly farmers. They grew corn, beans, and squash, called the “three sisters” by historic Southeastern Indians. The “sisters” provided a stable and balanced diet, making a larger population possible. Thousands of people lived in some larger towns and cities.

    A typical Mississipian town was built near a river or creek. It covered about ten acres of ground, and was surrounded by a palisade, a fence made of wooden poles placed upright in the ground. A typical Mississippian house was rectangular, about 12 feet long and 10 feet wide. The walls of a house were built by placing wooden poles upright in a trench in the ground. The poles were then covered with a woven cane matting. The cane matting was then covered with plaster made from mud. This plastered cane matting is called “wattle and daub”. The roof of the house was made from a steep “A” shaped framework of wooden poles covered with grass woven into a tight thatch.

    Platform Mounds. Mississippian cultures often built structures on top of their mounds such as homes and burial buildings.

    Mississippian cultures, like many before them, built mounds. Though other cultures may have used mounds for different purposes, Mississippian cultures typically built structures on top of them. The type of structures constructed ran the gamut: temples, houses, and burial buildings.

    Mississippian artists produced unique art works. They engraved shell pendants with animal and human figures, and carved ceremonial objects out of flint. They sculpted human figures and other objects in stone. Potters molded their clay into many shapes, sometimes decorating them with painted designs.

    Mississippian Underwater Panther.

    The Nashville area was a major population center during this period. Thousands of Mississippian-era graves have been found in the city, and thousands more may exist in the surrounding area. There were once many temple and burial mounds in Nashville, especially along the Cumberland River.

    Decline of the Mississippians

    Hernando de Soto was a Spanish explorer who, from 1539-43, lived with and spoke to many Mississippian cultures. After his contact, their cultures were relatively unaffected directly by Europeans, though they were indirectly. Since the natives lacked immunity to new infectious diseases, such as measles and smallpox, epidemics caused so many fatalities that they undermined the social order of many chiefdoms. Some groups adopted European horses and changed to nomadism. Political structures collapsed in many places.By the time more documentary accounts were being written, 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. Other Native American groups, having migrated many hundreds of miles and lost their elders to diseases, did not know their ancestors had built the mounds dotting the landscape. This contributed to the myth of the Mound Builders as a people distinct from Native Americans.

    Hernando de Soto. Engraving by Lambert A. Wilmer (1858).

    Mississippian peoples were almost certainly ancestral to the majority of the American Indian nations living in this region in the historic era. The historic and modern day American Indian nations believed to have descended from the overarching Mississippian Culture include: the Alabama, Apalachee, Caddo, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee Creek, Guale, Hitchiti, Houma, Kansa, Missouria, Mobilian, Natchez, Osage, Quapaw, Seminole, Tunica-Biloxi, Yamasee, and Yuchi.

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