Mississippian Culture Research Paper

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At the end of the first millennium CE, the Mississippi River valley of North America was the scene of tremendous social and political transformations, resulting in the creation of what archaeologists identify as a Mississippian culture comparable to other complex societies across the globe.

The Mississippian period (c. 1000–1600) in the Mississippi River valley of North America is distinguished by characteristics found worldwide in complex societies: large population aggregations (in the case of the Mississippian culture, some verging on urban centers), monumental architecture, an intensive agricultural base, hierarchical political and social organization, ethnic diversity, and a rich array of accompanying political and religious iconography.


Mississippian material culture and technology, while it differed in detail, shared many similarities with other Neolithic-stage societies. Mississippians lived in large, permanent, often fortified villages that contained from a few hundred to many thousand residents. Some villages enclosed large earthen ceremonial mounds arranged around plazas and are considered specialized civic-ceremonial centers. Such centers served as the ritual and political focus for widely dispersed populations as well as being the residences of ruling chiefs and nobles. War and fertility were both important symbolically. A rich iconography involving depictions of mythic creatures of the sky and underworld played an important role in Mississippian religion.

Maize and native domesticated plants provided the primary subsistence base, but wild animals, especially fish and deer, were important supplements. Villagers hunted, fished, and fought with the bow and arrow. Chipped chert hoes and digging sticks were the main agricultural implements used to farm the large floodplain fields. Pottery manufacture and design peaked with the production of thin, shell-tempered ceramics (made from clay containing crushed clam shells) that were often painted or crafted as elaborate animal or human effigies. The vast majority of raw material needs were obtained from nearby sources. However, a limited number of materials, such as seashells, copper, and mica, were brought from distant sources for consumption by the elites.


The core geographical region of Mississippian development was the Mississippi River valley and the area around its tributaries, stretching from Illinois south to Arkansas. Mississippian societies subsequently reached north to Wisconsin, west to Oklahoma, south to Louisiana, and east to Florida. In the late nineteenth century when archaeologists first began uncovering Mississippian sites, they assumed a central origin from which subsequent migrations spread Mississippian culture across the eastern United States. During the 1960s through the 1980s Mississippian culture was reinterpreted as an ecological adaptation confined to large floodplains. In this interpretation similar societies coevolved in locations across eastern North America; the theory abandoned the notion of a central origin and migrations outward. To some degree, archaeologists have come full circle to a new theory of a central Mississippian origin. This shift has been the result of new excavations and analyses at one of the earliest, most impressive and influential centers of Mississippian culture—Cahokia. Located in the American Bottom near St. Louis, this center and adjacent mound centers appear to have served as the catalyst for change across much of the midcontinent over the three centuries of Cahokia’s existence (1050–1350).

The emergence of Cahokia predates all other Mississippian centers by almost a century; it is a primate center without peers. Consequently we assume its influence through population movements, religious and political ideology, and military force, all of which were pivotal for the subsequent changes we can document in subsequent Eastern Woodlands societies. These changes are related to the emergence of significant social divisions within society. Archaeological excavations have shown that the large flat-topped mounds were platforms for the homes of the leaders and the temples of the gods. There was now a segment of society—a nobility—that was intimately associated with spiritual, political, and social power, and that was spatially segregated from those who composed the majority of the population. Nowhere was this separation more clearly indicated than in the Cahokia Mound 72 mortuaries, an elite burial ground where several burials show evidence of a ceremony that involved the sacrifice of hundreds of followers and war prisoners. Mound 72 contains a central tomb with an elite individual covered in an elaborate shell cape. He is surrounded by multiple mass graves including several that contain only the bodies of dozens of young women stacked like cordwood. One mass grave contains the bodies of men and women who have been shot with arrows, axed, and sometimes decapitated and then thrown into a pit in disarray. It is reasonable to suggest that several hundred young women and several dozen others (those violently and brutally killed) were sacrificed as part of the mortuary ceremonies that were associated with the burial of a high-ranking individual. Physical analysis has shown that the young women were less healthy and ate more corn than typical of the elite population suggesting they may have been members of the commoner populations.

Elite populations and their close kin and followers, based on the archaeology and the ethnographic record, are the primary residents of the massive ceremonial mound centers. The highest ranking individuals live in homes on the top of the flat-topped mounds. Commoner populations may live near or around the edges of such centers as well as spread across the land in small farming communities. This physical separation in living (for example commoners would not normally be allowed into the mound top temples and structures or in the inner elite precincts) is mirrored in death when the role of commoners seemed to be confined to providing the labor to build the elite mortuary mounds and the honor of being sacrificed, especially if you happened to be a wife and daughter. Commoner cemeteries are more dispersed across the landscape and there is some evidence to suggest that a portion of that population’s bodies were exposed to decay rather than buried (a common North American practice). Elite burials also included elaborate shell capes, hundreds of arrows, chunky stones (stone disks that were used in ritual games played in the central plazas of mound centers), mica, and copper.

The leaders of Mississippian chiefdoms such as Cahokia were responsible for organizing large communal feasts and celebrations of religious and political events, a major factor in maintaining group solidarity. They also enhanced and formalized intricate religious rites that included priests, temples, and a rich art that focused on aspects of life renewal, fertility, and, later, warfare. These depictions included some of the most spectacular images produced in native North American arts, such as the red stone goddess figurines of Cahokia. Very likely the same class of nobles were also the war leaders in the numerous conflicts that characterized the Mississippian period.


The highpoint of Mississippian culture, Cahokia, is best viewed as a regional system rather than a settlement. It contained over 120 mounds (including Monks Mound, the largest in North America) and 1.8 square kilometers of inhabited land. It was contiguous with the East St. Louis Mound group of approximately forty-five mounds and habitation areas and immediately across the Mississippi River from the St. Louis Mound group of twenty-six mounds. To put this in a broader perspective, this 13-kilometer linear strip contained three of the four largest mound centers in the Eastern Woodlands region. The archaeologist Timothy R. Pauketat has referred to this continuum of mound, plaza, and habitation zones as a Cahokian “central political-administrative complex.” It formed a corridor that encompassed 14.5 square kilometers and contained nearly two hundred Mississippian platform and burial mounds. Additionally, within 25 kilometers of Monks Mound, there were fourteen other mounded Mississippian centers in the floodplain and the uplands, half of which had multiple mounds. The majority of this monumental construction of platform and mortuary mounds, woodhenges (large circles of posts that are thought to have ritual and calendrical uses), plazas, borrow pits, and habitation zones occurred during the eleventh to thirteenth centuries. At its height Cahokia controlled an immediate hinterland of over 9,300 square kilometers. In spatial extent and monumental construction Cahokia was equal to other early centers around the world.

Mississippian Influences

Cahokia’s influence through political, social, and economic interactions with both its near and distant neighbors had a profound, but uneven, influence on the configuration of the late prehistoric cultural landscape in the Eastern Woodlands. In the thirteenth century Cahokia began to decline and warfare became more prevalent due to the concurrent rise of chiefly political organization throughout the region—a political form that typically incorporated war achievements as a primary role for male advancement in that society combined with the collapse of political and military power at Cahokia. Also at this time, new independent Mississippian centers emerged at such well-known sites as Moundville in Alabama and Etowah in Georgia. These new centers are symbolized by iconography focused on war and on elite achievement, known regionally as the Southern Ceremonial Complex. The rise of these polities and hundreds of other smaller ones throughout the Southeast created a diverse and contentious political landscape that lasted sufficiently long to be encountered by the early sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spanish and French explorers.


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  10. Pauketat, T. R. (1998). Refiguring the archaeology of greater Cahokia. Journal of Archaeological Research, 6(1), 45–89.
  11. Pauketat, T. R., & Emerson, T. E. (Eds.). (1997). Cahokia: Domination and ideology in the Mississippian world. Lincoln: The University of Nebraska Press.
  12. Scarry, J. F. (Ed.). (1996). Political structure and change in the prehistoric southeastern United States. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.
  13. Smith, B. D. (1978). Mississippian settlement patterns. New York: Academic Press.

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