Published on December 10, 2012 by Amy
The Mississippian culture was a mound-building Native American culture that flourished in what is now the Midwestern, Eastern, and Southeastern United States from approximately 800 CE to 1500 CE, varying regionally.
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The Mississippian way of life began to develop in the Mississippi River Valley (for which it is named). Cultures in the tributary Tennessee River Valley may have also begun to develop Mississippian characteristics at this point. Almost all dated Mississippian sites predate 1539-1540 (when Hernando de Soto explored the area).
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 these 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 Mississippi stage is usually divided into three or more chronological periods. Each of these periods is an arbitrary historical distinction that varies from region to region. At one site, each period may be considered to begin earlier or later, depending on the speed of adoption or development of given Mississippian traits. The “Mississippi period” should not be confused with the “Mississippian culture”. The Mississippi period is the stage, while Mississippian is referred to as the cultural similarities that characterize this society.
Early Mississippi cultures had just transitioned from the Late Woodland period way of life (500–1000 C.E.). Different groups abandoned tribal lifeways for increasing complexity, sedentism, centralization, and agriculture. The Early Mississippi period was from c. 1000 to 1200 C.E. Production of surplus corn and attractions of the regional chiefdoms led to rapid population concentrations in major centers.
The Middle Mississippi period reflects the high point of the Mississippi era. The expansion of the great metropolis and ceremonial complex at Cahokia (in present-day Illinois), the formation of other complex chiefdoms, and the spread and development of SECC art and symbolism are characteristic changes of this period. The Mississippian traits listed above came to be widespread throughout the region. In most places, this period is recognized as occurring c. 1200–1400 C.E.
The Late Mississippi period, usually considered from c. 1400 to European contact, is characterized by increasing warfare, political turmoil, and population movement. The population of Cahokia dispersed early in this period (1350–1400), perhaps migrating to other rising political centers. More defensive structures are often seen at sites, and sometimes a decline in mound-building and ceremonialism. Although some areas continued an essentially Middle Mississippian culture until the first significant contact with Europeans, the population of most areas had dispersed or were experiencing severe social stress by 1500. Along with the contemporary Anasazi, these cultural collapses coincide with the global climate change of the Little Ice Age. Scholars have theorized that drought and the collapse of maize agriculture, together with possible deforestation and overhunting by the concentrated populations, forced them to move away from major sites.