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Section 6: Native American Cultures in North America

Great Basin Culture

The peoples of the Great Basin area required ease of mobility to follow bison herds and gather seasonally available food supplies.

LEARNING OBJECTIVES

Describe the culture of the Great Basin civilizations

KEY TAKEAWAYS

Key Points

  • Between 10,500 BCE and 9,500 BCE (11,500 – 12,500 years ago), the broad-spectrum, big game hunters of the Great Plains began to focus on a single animal species: the bison.
  • Paleo-Indians were not numerous, and population densities were quite low during this time.
  • These bison-oriented indigenous peoples inhabited a portion of the North American continent known as the Great Basin.
  • The climate in the Great Basin was very arid, which affected the lifestyles and cultures of its inhabitants.

Key Terms

  • cultural region: A cultural region is inhabited by a culture that does not limit their geographic coverage to the borders of a nation state, or to smaller subdivisions of a state.
  • metates: A morter and grind stone tool used for processing grain and seeds.
  • Numic languages: A branch of the Uto-Aztecan language family. Includes seven languages spoken by American Indian peoples traditionally living in the Great Basin, Colorado River Basin, and southern Great Plains.

Between 10,500 BCE and 9,500 BCE (11,500 – 12,500 years ago), the broad-spectrum, big game hunters of the Great Plains began to focus on a single animal species: the bison, an early cousin of the American Bison. The earliest of these bison-oriented hunting traditions is known as the Folsom tradition. Folsom peoples traveled in small family groups for most of the year, returning yearly to the same springs while others favored locations on higher grounds. There they would camp for a few days, moving on after erecting a temporary shelter, making and/or repairing stone tools, or processing meat. Paleo-Indians were not numerous, and population densities were quite low during this time.

These bison-oriented indigenous peoples mostly inhabited a portion of the North American continent known as the “cultural region” of the Great Basin. The Great Basin is the region between the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada, in what is now modern-day Nevada, Utah, California, Idaho, Wyoming, and parts of Oregon. The original inhabitants of the region are believed to have arrived as early as 10,000 BCE. The climate in the Great Basin was and is very arid; this affected the lifestyles and cultures of its inhabitants.

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Map showing the Great Basin: The Great Basin is a multi-state endorheic area surrounded by the Pacific Watershed of North America, home to the pre-Columbian indigenous peoples of the Great Basin.

Language

While anthropologists can point to many distinct peoples throughout the region, most peoples of the Great Basin shared certain common cultural elements that distinguished them from other surrounding cultures. Except for the Washoe, most of the groups spoke Numic languages. Some groups may have not have spoken Numic languages, but no relics of their linguistic patterns remain today. There was considerable intermingling among the groups, who lived peacefully and often shared common territories. These groups were all predominantly hunters and gatherers. As a result of these similarities, anthropologists use the terms “Desert Archaic” or more simply “The Desert Culture” to refer collectively to the Great Basin tribes.

Lifeways

Desert Archaic peoples required great mobility to follow seasonally available food supplies. The use of pottery was rare because of its weight, but intricate baskets were woven that could be used to hold water, cook food, and winnow grass seeds. Baskets were also used for storage, including the storage of pine nuts. Heavy items such as metates were cached rather than carried between foraging areas. Agriculture was not practiced within the Great Basin itself, although it was practiced in adjacent areas. The area was too dry, and even modern agriculture in the Great Basin requires either large mountain reservoirs or deep artesian wells. Likewise, the Great Basin tribes had no permanent settlements, although winter villages might be revisited winter after winter by the same groups of families. In the summer groups would split; the largest social grouping was usually the nuclear family, an efficient response to the low density of food supplies.

Religion

Because Great Basin peoples did not come into contact with European-Americans or African Americans until comparatively later in North American history, many groups were able to maintain their traditional tribal religions. These peoples were leading proponents of cultural and religious renewals during the 19th century. Two Paiute prophets, Wodziwob and Wovoka, introduced the Ghost Dance as a means to commune with departed loved ones and bring renewals of buffalo herds and precontact lifeways. The Ute Bear Dance also emerged in the Great Basin, as did the Sun Dance.

Peyote religion flourished in the Great Basin as well, particularly among the Ute who used peyote obtained through trade and other potent ceremonial plants. Ute religious beliefs borrowed heavily from Plains Indians after the arrival of the horse. Northern and Uncompahgre Ute were among the only group of indigenous peoples known to create ceremonial pipes out of salmon alabaster and rare black pipestone found in creeks that border the southeastern slops of the Uinta Mountains in Utah and Colorado. The Uncompahgre Ute are also among the first documented peoples to utilize the effect of mechanoluminescene with quartz crystals to generate light in ceremonies used to call spirits. Special ceremonial rattles were made from buffalo rawhide and filled with clear quartz crystals collected from the mountains of Colorado and Utah. These ceremonial rattles were considered extremely powerful religious objects.

Pacific Coast Culture

The mild climate and abundant natural resources along the Pacific Coast of North America allowed a complex aboriginal culture to flourish.

LEARNING OBJECTIVES

Examine how natural resources shaped the cultures of the Pacific Coast

KEY TAKEAWAYS

Key Points

  • Due to the prosperity made possible by the abundant natural resources in this region, the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest developed complex religious and social ceremonies as well as many fine arts and crafts.
  • Music was created to honor the Earth, the creator, ancestors, and all other aspects of the supernatural world.
  • Many works of art served practical purposes, such as clothing, tools, weapons of war and hunting, transportation, and shelter; but others were purely aesthetic.
  • The Pacific Coast was at one time the most densely populated area of North America in terms of indigenous peoples.

Key Terms

  • permaculture: Any system of sustainable agriculture that renews natural resources and enriches local ecosystems.
  • potlatch: A ceremony amongst certain American Indian peoples of the Pacific Coast in which gifts are bestowed upon guests and personal property is destroyed in a show of wealth and generosity.
  • animism: The worldview that non-human entities—such as animals, plants, and inanimate
    objects—possess a spiritual essence.

The indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast were composed of many nations and tribal affiliations, each with distinctive cultural and political identities; but they shared certain beliefs, traditions, and practices, such as the centrality of salmon as a resource and spiritual symbol. These nations had time and energy to devote to the establishment of fine arts and crafts and to religious and social
ceremonies. The term “Northwest Coast”, or “North West Coast”, is used to refer to the groups of indigenous people residing along the coasts of British Columbia, Washington State, parts of Alaska, Oregon, and northern California.

The Pacific Northwest Coast at one time had the most densely populated areas of indigenous people. The mild climate and abundant natural resources,
such as cedar and salmon, made possible the rise of a complex aboriginal culture. The indigenous people in this region practiced various forms of forest gardening and fire-stick farming in the forests, grasslands, mixed woodlands, and wetlands, ensuring that desired food and medicine plats continued to be available through the use of advanced farming techniques. Those involved in agricultural development would create low-intensity fires in order to prevent larger, catastrophic fires and sustain low-density agriculture in a loose rotation. This is what is known as permaculture, or any system of sustainable agriculture that renews natural resources and enriches local ecosystems.

Arts and Crafts

One of the major cultural elements that began to flourish on the Pacific Northwest Coast was the use of music and other forms of arts and crafts. Although music varied in function and expression among indigenous tribes, there were cultural similarities. For example, some tribes used hand drums made of animal hides as their instrument of choice, while others used plank or log drums, along with whistlers, wood clappers, and rattles. However, regardless of the type of instrument used, music and song were created to accompany ceremonies, dancing, and festivities.

The principal function of music in this region was to invoke spirituality. Music was created to honor the Earth, the creator, ancestors, and all other aspects of the supernatural world. Songs were also used to convey stories and sometimes were owned by families like property that could be inherited, sold, or given as a gift to a prestigious guest at a feast. Professional musicians existed in some communities, and in some nations, those who made musical errors were punished, usually through shaming. Vocal rhythmic patterns were often complex and ran counter to rigid percussion beats.

As with music, the creation of art also served as a means of transmitting stories, history, wisdom, and property from generation to generation. Due to the abundance of natural resources and the affluence of most Northwest tribes, there was plenty of leisure time to create art. Many works of art served practical purposes, such as clothing, tools, weapons of war and hunting, transportation, cooking, and shelter. Others were purely aesthetic. Art provided indigenous people with a tie to the land and was a constant reminder of their birth places, lineages, and nations. One example of this is the use of symbols on totem poles and plank houses of the Pacific Northwest coast.

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Pacific Coast Art: Tribal art included plank houses and totem poles that served as constant reminders of indigenous peoples’ birth places, lineages, and nations.

Religious and Social Ceremonies

Other cultural elements that became established were the religious and social ceremonies of the Pacific Northwest nations. Although various tribes might have had their own different mythologies and rituals, “animism” is said to describe the most common, foundational thread of indigenous peoples’
spiritual or supernatural perspectives in this region. Spiritualism, the supernatural, and the importance of the environment played such integral roles in day-to-day life. Therefore, it was not unusual for worldly goods to be adorned with symbols, crests, and totems that represented some important figure(s) from both the seen and unseen worlds.

Many of these religious or spiritual symbols would be present during social ceremonies as well. The potlatch, a gift-giving feast, was perhaps one of the most significant social experiences that occurred within Pacific Northwest groups. It was a highly complex event where people gathered in order to commemorate a specific event such as the raising of a totem pole or the appointment/election of a new chief. In the potlatch ceremony, the chief would give highly elaborate gifts to visiting peoples in order to establish his power and prestige, and by accepting these gifts, the visitors conveyed their approval of the chief. There were also great feasts and displays of conspicuous consumption. Groups of dancers put on elaborate dances and ceremonies. Watching these performances was considered an honor. Potlatches were held for several reasons: the confirmation of a new chief, coming of age, tattooing or piercing ceremonies, initiation into a secret society, marriages, the funeral of a chief, or a battle victory.

Eastern Woodland Culture

Eastern Woodland Culture refers to the way of life of indigenous peoples in the eastern part of North America between 1,000 BCE and 1,000 CE.

LEARNING OBJECTIVES

Analyze how agricultural practices shaped the Eastern Woodland Culture

KEY TAKEAWAYS

Key Points

  • This time period is widely regarded as a developmental period for the people of this region as they steadily advanced in their means of cultivation, tools and textile manufacture, and use of pottery.
  • While the increasing use of agriculture meant the nomadic nature of many groups was supplanted by permanent villages, intensive agriculture did not become the norm for most cultures until the succeeding Mississippian period.
  • The Early Woodland period differed from the Archaic period in the following ways: the appearance of permanent settlements, elaborate burial practices, intensive collection and horticulture of starchy seed plants, differentiation in social organization, and specialized activities.
  • Due to the similarity of earthworks and burial goods, researchers assume a common body of religious practice and cultural interaction existed throughout the entire region, referred to as the “Hopewellian Interaction Sphere.”

Key Terms

  • maize: A grain, domesticated by indigenous peoples in Mesoamerica in prehistoric times, known in many English-speaking countries as corn.
  • atlatl: A wooden stick with a thong or perpendicularly protruding hook on the rear end that grips a grove or socket on the butt of its accompanying spear.

The Eastern Woodland cultural region extended from what is now southeastern Canada, through the eastern United States, down to the Gulf of Mexico. The time in which the peoples of this region flourished is referred to as the Woodland Period. This period is known for its continuous development in stone and bone tools, leather crafting, textile manufacture, cultivation, and shelter construction. Many Woodland hunters used spears and atlatls until the end of the period when those were replaced by bows and arrows. The Southeastern Woodland hunters however, also used blowguns. The major technological and cultural advancements during this period included the widespread use of pottery and the increasing sophistication of its forms and decoration. The growing use of agriculture and the development of the Eastern Agricultural Complex also meant that the nomadic nature of many of the groups was supplanted by permanently occupied villages.

Early Woodland Period (1000–1 BCE)

The archaeological record suggests that humans in the Eastern Woodlands of North America were collecting plants from the wild by 6,000 BCE and gradually modifying them by selective collection and cultivation. In fact, the eastern United States is one of 10 regions in the world to become an “independent center of agricultural origin.” Research also indicates that the first appearance of ceramics occurred around 2,500 BCE in parts of Florida and Georgia. What differentiates the Early Woodland period from the Archaic period is the appearance of permanent settlements, elaborate burial practices, intensive collection and horticulture of starchy seed plants, and differentiation in social organization. Most of these were evident in the southeastern United States by 1,000 BCE with the Adena culture, which is the best-known example of an early Woodland culture.

The Adena culture was centered around what is present-day Ohio and surrounding states and was most likely a number of related American Indian societies that shared burial complexes and ceremonial systems. Adena mounds generally ranged in size from 2o to 300 feet in diameter and served as burial structures, ceremonial sites, historical markers, and possibly even gathering places. The mounds provided a fixed geographical reference point for the scattered populations of people dispersed in small settlements of one to two structures. A typical Adena house was built in a circular form, 15 to 45 feet in diameter. Walls were made of paired posts tilted outward that were then joined to other pieces of wood to form a cone-shaped roof. The roof was covered with bark, and the walls were bark and/or wickerwork.

While the burial mounds created by Woodland culture peoples were beautiful artistic achievements, Adena artists were also prolific in creating smaller, more personal pieces of art using copper and shells. Art motifs that became important to many later American Indians began with the Adena. Examples of these motifs include the weeping eye and the cross and circle design. Many works of art revolved around shamanic practices and the transformation of humans into animals, especially birds, wolves, bears, and deer, indicating a belief that objects depicting certain animals could impart those animals’ qualities to the wearer or holder.

Middle Woodland Period (1–500 CE)

The beginning of this period saw a shift of settlement to the interior. As the Woodland period progressed, local and inter-regional trade of exotic materials greatly increased to the point where a trade network covered most of the eastern United States. Throughout the Southeast and north of the Ohio River, burial mounds of important people were very elaborate and contained a variety of mortuary gifts, many of which were not local. The most archaeologically certifiable sites of burial during this time were in Illinois and Ohio. These have come to be known as the Hopewell tradition.

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Hopewell mounds: The Eastern Woodland cultures built burial mounds for important people such as these of the Hopewell tradition in Ohio.

The Hopewellian peoples had leaders, but they were not powerful rulers who could command armies of soldiers or slaves. It has been posited that these cultures accorded certain families with special privileges and that these societies were marked by the emergence of “big-men,” or leaders who were able to acquire positions of power through their ability to persuade others to agree with them on matters of trade and religion. It is also likely these rulers gained influence through the creation of reciprocal obligations with other important community members. Regardless of their path to power, the emergence of big-men marked another step toward the development of the highly structured and stratified sociopolitical organization called the chiefdom, which would characterize later American Indian tribes. Due to the similarity of earthworks and burial goods, researchers assume a common body of religious practice and cultural interaction existed throughout the entire region (referred to as the “Hopewellian Interaction Sphere”). Such similarities could also be the result of reciprocal trade, obligations, or both between local clans that controlled specific territories. Clan heads were buried along with goods received from their trading partners to symbolize the relationships they had established. Although many of the Middle Woodland cultures are called Hopewellian, and groups shared ceremonial practices, archaeologists have identified the development of distinctly separate cultures during the Middle Woodland period. Examples include the Armstrong culture, Copena culture, Crab Orchard culture, Fourche Maline culture, the Goodall Focus, the Havana Hopewell culture, the Kansas City Hopewell, the Marksville culture, and the Swift Creek culture.

The map shows the Hopewell exchange system, which at its greatest extent ran from the Southeastern United States as far south as the Crystal River Indian Mounds into the southeastern Canadian shores of Lake Ontario up north.

Hopewell Interaction Area and local expressions of the Hopewell tradition:Throughout the Southeast and north of the Ohio River, burial mounds of important people were very elaborate and contained a variety of mortuary gifts, many of which were not local. The most archaeologically certifiable sites of burial during this time were in Illinois and Ohio. These sites were constructed within the Hopewell tradition of Eastern Woodland cultures.

Ceramics during this time were thinner, of better quality, and more decorated than in earlier times. This ceramic phase saw a trend towards round-bodied pottery and lines of decoration with cross-etching on the rims.

Late Woodland Period (500–1000 CE)

The late Woodland period was a time of apparent population dispersal. In most areas, construction of burial mounds decreased drastically, as did long distance trade in exotic materials. Bow and arrow technology gradually overtook the use of the spear and atlatl, and agricultural production of the “three sisters” (maize, beans, and squash) was introduced. While full scale intensive agriculture did not begin until the following Mississippian period, the beginning of serious cultivation greatly supplemented the gathering of plants.

Late Woodland settlements became more numerous, but the size of each one was generally smaller than their Middle Woodland counterparts. It has been theorized that populations increased so much that trade alone could no longer support the communities and some clans resorted to raiding others for resources. Alternatively, the efficiency of bows and arrows in hunting may have decimated the large game animals, forcing tribes to break apart into smaller clans to better use local resources, thus limiting the trade potential of each group. A third possibility is that a colder climate may have affected food yields, also limiting trade possibilities. Lastly, it may be that agricultural technology became sophisticated enough that crop variation between clans lessened, thereby decreasing the need for trade.

In practice, many regions of the Eastern Woodlands adopted the full Mississippian culture much later than 1,000 CE. Some groups in the North and Northeast of the United States, such as the Iroquois, retained a way of life that was technologically identical to the Late Woodland until the arrival of the Europeans. Furthermore, despite the widespread adoption of the bow and arrow, indigenous peoples in areas near the mouth of the Mississippi River, for example, appear never to have made the change.

Southwestern Culture

Environmental changes allowed for many cultural traditions to
flourish and develop similar social structures and religious beliefs.

LEARNING OBJECTIVES

Describe the cultural traditions of the Southwest

Key Points

  • Three of the major cultural traditions that impacted the region include the Paleo-Indian tradition, the Southwestern Archaic tradition, and the Post-Archaic cultures tradition.
  • As Southwestern cultural traditions evolved, tribes transitioned from a hunting-gathering, nomadic experience to more permanent agricultural settlements.
  • As various cultures developed over time, many shared similarities in family structure and religious beliefs.
  • Extensive irrigation systems were developed and were among the largest of the ancient world.
  • Elaborate adobe and sandstone buildings were constructed, and highly ornamental and artistic pottery was created.

Key Terms

  • animism: The worldview that non-human entities—such as animals, plants, and inanimate objects—possess a spiritual essence.
  • sandstone: A sedimentary rock produced by the consolidation and compaction of sand, cemented with clay.
  • irrigation: The act or process of irrigating, or the state of being irrigated; especially, the operation of causing water to flow over lands for the purpose of nourishing plants.
  • shamanism: A practice that involves a practitioner reaching altered states of consciousness in order to perceive and interact with a spirit world and channel transcendental energies into this world.

Overview

The greater Southwest has long been occupied by hunter-gatherers and agricultural settlements. This area, comprised of modern-day Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Nevada, and the states of Sonora and Chihuahua in northern Mexico, has seen successive prehistoric cultural traditions since approximately 12,000 years ago. Three of the major cultural traditions that impacted the region include the Paleo-Indian tradition, the Southwestern Archaic tradition, and the Post-Archaic cultures tradition. As various cultures developed over time, many of them shared similarities in family structure and religious beliefs.

Southwestern Agriculture

Southwestern farmers probably began experimenting with agriculture by facilitating the growth of wild grains such as amaranth and chenopods as well as gourds for their edible seeds and shells. The earliest maize known to have been grown in the Southwest was a popcorn varietal measuring one to two inches long. It was not a very productive crop. More productive varieties were developed later by Southwestern farmers or introduced via Mesoamerica, though the drought-resistant tepary bean was native to the region. Cotton has been found at archaeological sites dating to about 1,200 BCE in the Tucson basin and was most likely cultivated by indigenous peoples in the region. Evidence of tobacco use and possibly the cultivation of tobacco, dates back to approximately the same time period.

Agave, especially agave murpheyi, was a major food source of the Hohokam and grown on dry hillsides where other crops would not grow. Early farmers also possibly cultivated cactus fruit, mesquite bean, and species of wild grasses for their edible seeds.

Paleolithic peoples utilized habitats near water sources like rivers, swamps, and marshes, which had an abundance of fish and attracted birds and game animals. They hunted big game—bison, mammoths, and ground sloths—who were also attracted to these water sources. A period of relatively wet conditions saw many cultures in the American Southwest flourish. Extensive irrigation systems were developed and were among the largest of the ancient world. Elaborate adobe and sandstone buildings were constructed, and highly ornamental and artistic pottery was created. The unusual weather conditions could not continue forever, however, and gave way in time, to the more common arid conditions of the area. These dry conditions necessitated a more minimal way of life and, eventually, the elaborate accomplishments of these cultures were abandoned.

During this time, the people of the Southwest developed a variety of subsistence strategies, all using their own specific techniques. The nutritive value of weed and grass seeds was discovered and flat rocks were used to grind flour to produce gruels and breads. The use of grinding slabs originated around 7,500 BCE and marks the beginning of the Archaic tradition. Small bands of people traveled throughout the area gathering plants such as cactus fruits, mesquite beans, acorns, and pine nuts. Archaic people established camps at collection points, and returned to these places year after year.

The American Indian Archaic culture eventually evolved into two major prehistoric archaeological culture areas in the American Southwest and northern Mexico. These cultures, sometimes referred to as Oasisamerica, are characterized by dependence on agriculture, formal social stratification, population clusters, and major architecture. One of the major cultures that developed during this time was the Pueblo peoples, formerly referred to as the Anasazi. Their distinctive pottery and dwelling construction styles emerged in the area around 750 CE. Ancestral Pueblo peoples are renowned for the construction of and cultural achievement present at Pueblo Bonito and other sites in Chaco Canyon, as well as Mesa Verde, Aztec Ruins, and Salmon Ruins. Other cultural traditions that developed during this time include the Hohokam and Mogollon traditions.

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Hohokam House: Photo of the Great House at the Casa Grande Ruins National Monument.

Family and Religion

Paleolithic peoples in the Southwest initially structured their families and communities into highly mobile traveling groups of approximately 20 to 50 members, moving place to place as resources were depleted and additional supplies were needed. As cultural traditions began to evolve throughout the Southwest between 7,500 BCE to 1,550 CE, many cultures developed similar social and religious traditions. For the Pueblos and other Southwest American Indian communities, the transition from a hunting-gathering, nomadic experience to more permanent agricultural settlements meant more firmly established families and communities. Climate change that occurred about 3,500 years ago during the Archaic period, however, changed patterns in water sources, dramatically decreasing the population of indigenous peoples. Many family-based groups took shelter in caves and rock overhangs within canyon walls, many of which faced south to capitalize on warmth from the sun during the winter. Occasionally, these peoples lived in small, semi-sedentary hamlets in open areas.

Many Southwest tribes during the Post-Archaic period lived in a range of structures that included small family pit houses, larger structures to house clans, grand pueblos, and cliff-sited dwellings for defense. These communities developed complex networks that stretched across the Colorado Plateau, linking hundreds of neighborhoods and population centers.

While southwestern tribes developed more permanent family structures and established complex communities, they also developed and shared a similar understanding of the spiritual and natural world. Many of the tribes that made up the Southwest Culture practiced animism and shamanism. Shamanism encompasses the premise that shamans are intermediaries or messengers between the human world and the spirit worlds. At the same time, animism encompasses the beliefs that there is no separation between the spiritual and physical (or material) world, and that souls or spirits exist not only in humans, but also in some other animals, plants, rocks, and geographic features such as mountains or rivers, or other entities of the natural environment, including thunder, wind, and shadows.

Conclusion

Although at present there are a variety of contemporary cultural traditions that exist in the greater Southwest, many of these traditions still incorporate similar religious aspects that are found in animism and shamanism. Some of these cultural traditions include the Yuman-speaking peoples inhabiting the Colorado River valley, the uplands, and Baja California; O’odham peoples of southern Arizona and northern Sonora; and the Pueblo peoples of Arizona and New Mexico.

Mississippian Culture

Mississippian cultures lived in the modern-day United States in the Mississippi valley from 800 to 1540.

LEARNING OBJECTIVES

Describe the economies of Mississippian cultures

KEY TAKEAWAYS

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.

Key Terms

  • three sisters: Corn, squash, and beans. The three most important crops for Mississippian cultures.
  • mounds: 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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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