Decline of Moundville Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Mississippian cultural center now called Moundville was built over centuries by prehistoric peoples called Mound Builders and reached its peak during the thirteenth century. The reasons for its decline and eventual collapse over the next two centuries are not fully understood but probably are manifold. Studying this site, however, has provided anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians with insights into one thousand years of human activity in precontact North America.

Summary of Event

By around 800, the nomadic lifestyle of the Mississippian Indians had evolved into an agricultural society. Small communities thrived on rich floodplains across southeastern North America. Archaeological evidence paints a picture of a vigorous society following a chiefdom system wherein an elite class governed through inherited or earned positions. Alliances and trade, along with elaborate religious rites, tied the communities together. As their society grew more civilized, their use of mounds became creative and expanded into planned hubs of religion, commerce, and politics. Moundville Apafalaya Soto, Hernando de De Soto, Hernando

Moundville, the second-largest mound site, was built c. 1000-1250 on a high plateau 55 feet (approximately 17 meters) above the Black Warrior River Valley in Alabama. Historians consider it likely that the rise of Moundville marked the ascent of one dominant chief, now referred to as the paramount chief, whose familial dynasty ruled until the center’s collapse around 1550. Mississippian culture

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Twenty-nine mounds were constructed on the Moundville terrace. The largest ceremonial mound—a steep pyramid 58 feet (18 meters) high with two ramps—was centered in a leveled plaza. Fifteen additional mounds of varying sizes were built in an orderly arrangement around the central mound, positioned to define the plaza’s rectangular shape. The location of each mound is deliberate, making this one of the first planned communities in North America.

Mound residence or burial was status-related. The largest was erected on a line north of the center mound and is believed to have contained the domicile of the principal chief. On other mounds, workers built homes for the elite or structures for ceremony. Each resident mound had a smaller burial mound nearby.

A palisade with guard towers surrounded the 185-acre (about 75 hectares) site on three sides, with the river bluffs protecting the fourth. Evidence suggests that the bulk of the residents, commoners, lived in settlements within the palisade.

With the rise of Moundville, trade and the arts flourished. Wealthy nobles were buried with finely crafted artifacts made of exotic materials such as copper, mica, greenstone, and marine shell. Farmsteads, spread along 50 to 75 miles (80 to 120 kilometers) of river delta, supported Moundville with tribute, food, labor, and trade. The city was a cultural residential center until about 1300. The population at its peak, estimated at about one thousand, was supported by ten thousand living in outlying farmsteads. Agriculture;North America

Over the century from 1350 to 1450, Moundville changed. Commoners and low-level nobles left. Activities became ceremonial. Mounds were abandoned, and the tribute of food and labor was reduced. When the Europeans reached the area one hundred years later, the links between Moundville and the people who had created and supported it were irretrievably broken.

Many theories have been postulated to explain why the Mississippians abandoned Moundville. One credits mound building itself as a cause. Since excavation would have created large pits as workers moved soil and almost none of these borrow pits were located inside the palisade, workers might have walked a quarter of a mile or more carrying 60-pound baskets of soil. Mound construction would have taken an army of builders walking from dawn to dusk, carrying baskets of dirt, dumping their burdens and tamping the soil with their feet, then retracing their path to the borrow pit for yet another basketful. Scholars argue that generations lived and died to guarantee the flow of immigrants necessary to expand, maintain, rebuild, and raise the earthworks ever higher. The end of workers and tribute could only result in the collapse of the city.

It is also conceivable that the migration was a conscious decision intended to enhance the sanctity of Moundville’s position as the chiefdom’s religious and political center. Such a decision may also have been a matter of expedience: Competition for limited resources may have created tensions within tribes and between neighboring tribes. Poor sanitation could have triggered epidemics. Soil and wood depletion may have led to poor crops and famine. Any combination of these factors could have driven people away, and Moundville’s nobility evidently did not stop the gradual erosion of the political consolidation that had made Moundville possible. With the decline of the outlying support, the mound city may have fallen out of favor. Moundville became a home for the elite, a religious center, and a mortuary rather than the cultural and political center it had been earlier.

Another favored theory credits the decline to the restrictive class structure imposed when the paramount ruler consolidated power. Moundville’s artificial social structure required a strong leader capable of imposing his will on a rural population. Evidence that this paramount chief existed is found in the very building of Moundville, in the immense amount of labor that had to be mobilized to build the palisade, level the public plaza, and construct the earthworks. Yet that very power, vested as it was in one paramount chief and his kin, depended on strength of will rather than logical social order—leading, some theorize, to the decline.

Yet one more theory considers that people no longer needed the safety of a fortified city. Evidence exists that about the time of the migration away from Moundville, the palisade ceased to be rebuilt, which could indicate a lack of threat in the area. Perhaps related to this theory is the possibility that secondary mound centers, believed to serve and administer to the rural population far from Moundville, drained power from the original center. Eight of these large, flat-topped mounds have been unearthed. Most were supported and survived beyond the decline of Moundville. It is theorized that the support of these centers came at the expense of Moundville, as the populace chose to support only the local center.

Regardless of which of these theories or combinations of causes formed the primary impetus for Moundville’s decline, archaeological evidence shows that by about 1500 Moundville was for the most part deserted, with only the chief’s mound occupied. Historians disagree about the status of Moundville’s chiefdom when European explorer Hernando de Soto arrived in 1540. Evidence exists from de Soto’s journals that he encountered Apafalaya, a hereditary Moundville chief, who ruled over a decentralized chiefdom from the now nominal and all but defunct ceremonial center. Apafalaya may have served de Soto as a guide and interpreter, and the European’s arrival may have hastened the dispersion of Moundville’s remnant population.

Historians do agree, however, that de Soto in no way caused the decline of Moundville. That event was inevitably under way a century before and most likely caused by a combination of the internal stresses mentioned above. Still, it remains possible that European influence, while having no direct consequence, facilitated the final abandonment of Moundville and its periphery mound centers.

Significance

Moundville is one of the best examples of the sophistication and organization of Mississippian civilization. Even after centuries of disuse, the mounds remain visible as impressively massive earthen platforms, built with flat tops suitable for elite homes, burial of ancestors, and performance of religious and community rituals. Construction of each mound would have taken crews of workers years to complete, each hauling basket after basket of soil to raise the earthwork to its final dimensions.

The occupational history of Moundville reflects evidence of human activity over centuries: from prehistoric nomads camping on the riverbank, to independent farmsteads growing corn, to small agricultural communities banding together for security, to an impressive planned cultural center, to a declining center suffering from political decentralization, and finally to an abandoned site following an apparent mass exodus from the river valley.

It is important to realize that neither the rise nor the fall of Moundville is completely understood. Scholars have studied Moundville for more than a century, yet much of what is known remains speculation. For all of the mystery and disagreement, however, all agree on one fact: that Moundville was a remarkable achievement for its builders and remains a testimony to their ingenuity and dedication.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brown, Ian W., ed. Bottle Creek: A Pensacola Culture Site in South Alabama. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2003. Although not directly about Moundville, discusses mound builders and contains useful references to Moundville.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Knight, Vernon James, Jr., ed. The Moundville Expeditions of Clarence Bloomfield Moore. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1996. Moore’s original reports, complete and unabridged, Certain Aboriginal Remains of the Black Warrior River and Moundville Revisited, with an excellent introduction by the editor.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Knight, Vernon James, Jr., and Vincas P. Steponatis, eds. Archaeology of the Moundville Chiefdom. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998. Comprehensive and relatively easy to understand, providing summaries of scholarly thinking as well as more detailed papers and presentations of research.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Payne, Mildred Y., and Harry Harrison Kroll. Mounds in the Mist. New York: A. S. Barnes, 1969. Although a somewhat romanticized account of the Pinson Indian Mound Complex, still provides good background reading about mound builders, with references to Moundville.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Welch, Paul D. Moundville’s Economy. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1991. Report of a study of the economic organization of the Moundville chiefdom. Sophisticated and technical.

Oct. 12, 1492: Columbus Lands in the Americas

1493-1521: Ponce de León’s Voyages

1528-1536: Narváez’s and Cabeza de Vaca’s Expeditions

1532-1537: Pizarro Conquers the Incas in Peru

May 28, 1539-Sept. 10, 1543: De Soto’s North American Expedition

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