Around 800 CE, a culture began to rise in North America that became known as the Mississippians. These were a network of mound-building Native American tribes, which while varied regionally, shared many common themes and customs. The Mississippians ranged from as far north as Wisconsin and as far south as the Mississippi River delta and eastward to the Atlantic coast. In fact, the great river takes its name from these people. What do we know of this vast culture?
The Mississippians were responsible for some of the most complex societies that ever existed in North America. Most of their lives were spent outside, and houses were used mainly for sleeping and storage. The small homes were made by setting poles in individual holes or in a continuous trench, then saplings and cane were woven around them. Any holes were insulated with sub-baked clay. Like the homes in Skara Brae, the center of the home was a hearth space with low benches for sleeping and storage along the outer walls. They were primarily farmers, and they had a varied diet of corn, beans, squash, sunflowers, goosefoot, sumpweed and other plants. Their farms were tended with simple tools such as stone axes and digging sticks. There was some hunting of small game and fishing from the numerous water sources including the great river which bears their name. Archaeologists have found their diet, which was heavily made up of starchy plants, caused tooth decay. Agriculture influenced most aspects of the Mississippians’ lives as the stable food supply brought them together into small villages which turned into larger cities. A trade network sprung up between these towns as the Mississippians moved farther north and west and people traded stone hoes, marine shell beads and other products for food.
The Mississippians lived in a series of cities with satellite villages, which functioned as suburbs. The largest city was Cahokia, on the banks of the Mississippi River near the site of present day St. Louis on the Illinois side. At its peak, Cahokia covered about 6 square miles and contained as many as 120 human-made earthen mounds. The largest mound was Monks Mound, at the north end of the plaza. This mound rises more than 100 feet, and is nearly 800 feet wide and 1,000 feet long at its base. A large building was constructed at the top of the mound. This was probably the home of the great leader of Cahokia. At about 1100 CE, Cahokia was the largest urban center north of the great Mesoamerican cities in Mexico and Central America. Because of its location near the confluence of the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers, Cahokia was a center for trade from the Great Lakes on down to the Gulf Coast. Luxury goods such as copper, whelk shells and Mill Creek chert passed through its walls. Estimates of the population of Cahokia at its peak are between 6,000 and 40,000, which even more people living in the suburbs.
Mounds were a central part of many Mississippian settlements. The mounds built were of different sizes, and some were as high as 100 feet. Most of them were four sided and looked like a pyramid with its top cut off. They had steep sides with steps built of wooden logs on one side. It is thought these served as platforms for buildings or stages for religious and social activities. Some of them were burial mounds, but not all. The more mounds a town had, the more important it was as chiefs built
their homes on top of the mounds. Most smaller towns consisted of a plaza for town gatherings surrounded by houses. Some villages had defensive walls or ditches, but not all of them. Other important Mississippian cities were Angel Mounds in southern Indiana, Kincaid Site near Paducah, Kentucky and Moundville near Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Moundville is thought to be of equal stature to Cahokia in its day.
Cahokia began to decline in the 13th century and by 1300 CE was completely abandoned. No one is exactly sure why the city was abandoned. Archaeologists theorize anything from invasion to flooding to famine. The other Mississippian tribes’ influence ended when the European settlers moved into their lands. European diseases devastated whole tribes and the trade in native slaves caused chiefdoms to collapse. Many of these remnant populations banded together to form native groups such as the Creeks, Cherokees and Seminoles.
Sources available on request