Mississippian Mound-Building Culture Flourishes Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Mississippian culture, the last and most advanced of the mound-building cultures, made up the final and most advanced stage of the prehistoric Late Woodlands peoples, who originated in the eastern part of North America.

Summary of Event

“Mississippian culture” is a term denoting the late period of Native American prehistory and an advanced stage of indigenous cultural development in North America. “Mississippian” is the name used to describe the new era because the initial area of development was largely centered along the Mississippi River between modern St. Louis and Vicksburg and later along tributary streams in the Southeast, such as the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers. [kw]Mississippian Mound-Building Culture Flourishes (c. 800-1350) [kw]Mound-Building Culture Flourishes, Mississippian (c. 800-1350) Mississippian culture North America;c. 800-1350: Mississippian Mound-Building Culture Flourishes[0820] Agriculture;c. 800-1350: Mississippian Mound-Building Culture Flourishes[0820]

Earlier mound-building Mound building;Hopewell cultures, such as the Adena (which flourished c. 800 b.c.e.-200 c.e.) and the Hopewell (c. 300-700), were noted for their permanent village settlements, their impressive earthwork constructions (including burial and effigy mounds), their interregional trade networks, their high-quality craftwork, and (by around 500 b.c.e.), some agricultural activity. While sharing these traits, Mississippian societies were, by contrast, predominantly agricultural. Moreover, they were organized into centralized political entities called chiefdoms. They were governed by elites in large population centers that contained larger and more complex monumental constructions than those of preceding eras. A trend toward increased territoriality and warfare also developed among Mississippian peoples.

Factors contributing to the rise of the Mississippian culture include the introduction of the bow and arrow Bow and arrow (during the late Hopewell period), the flint hoe, and a hardy variety of maize known as eastern flint corn. The latter was resistant to cold weather and had a shorter growing season. In the three to four centuries following 800, food production dramatically expanded as a result of intensive cultivation along rich bottomlands and other fertile areas connected to population centers by both water and land routes. Maize, which had originated in Central America, was a more productive and more easily stored crop than the native plant foods cultivated by the earlier Hopewell peoples and therefore spurred population growth. By 1200, maize, beans, and squash formed the basis of the diet, supplemented by hunting, fishing, and gathering. Agriculture;Mississippian culture

Mississippian peoples shared a number of features with the high civilizations of Mesoamerica. In addition, the Mississippians probably traded, and to some degree intermingled, with Mesoamerican peoples. Nevertheless, some scholars see the impact of Mesoamerican cultures on the Mississippian as minimal and stress the largely independent development of Mississippian culture.

The period of the Mississippians’s initial growth witnessed the rise of some spectacular ceremonial centers and even true urban complexes, with wattle-and-daub, rectangular buildings. These were centers of political, social, religious, and economic power, as well as a rich artistic ceremonial life, fortified by log palisades and containing residences, public buildings, and elevated central plazas with great temple mounds topped by shrines and dwellings for rulers and other elite members of society. Subordinate and outlying settlements paid tribute to the noble elites in these centers. Architecture;Mississippian culture

Mississippian society was stratified and dominated by an elite class from whose ranks came all-powerful male and female hereditary, theocratic rulers known as Great Suns. These exalted leaders, who may have been revered as deities or representatives of deities, were richly adorned and surrounded with great ceremony. Priestly religions oriented toward agriculture exercised a powerful and central role in maintaining this social, economic, and political order. Many anthropologists believe that the top elite lineages and mound-building centers arose in locales best suited to producing a reliable supply of food and strategically placed for trade, which in turn served to secure political allies who occupied less favorable locations. Religion;Mississippian culture





For many centuries, the heart of the Mississippian civilization was the great city of Cahokia, located about 8 miles (13 kilometers) east of modern St. Louis on the fertile Mississippi floodplain. Established as early as the eighth or ninth century, the city reached its peak of influence between 900 and 1150. The largest prehistoric metropolis north of Mexico, Cahokia Cahokia (also called City of the Sun because Sun symbols, Sun calendars, and indications of Sun worship have been unearthed there) occupied an area of 5 square miles (13 square kilometers) and at its height was home to a population of twenty thousand or more people, according to some estimates. Thousands more lived in small, “suburban” settlements and farmsteads.

Cahokia contained more than one hundred ceremonial mounds. The largest and most spectacular earthwork, Monk’s Mound Monk’s Mound[Monks Mound] , towered over the city’s central plaza. The earthen base of this monumental construction is larger than those of the largest pyramids of Egypt and Mexico, measuring 1,100 by 790 feet (335 by 240 meters) and covering 16 acres (6.5 hectares), with a total volume of 804,608 cubic yards (618,929 cubic meters). The top tier served as a platform for a large temple and residence of Cahokia’s priestly ruler. Surrounding this ceremonial area was a timber palisade. which extended for more than 2 miles (3 kilometers). Nearby, builders also laid out an observation area with wooden poles placed in a circle. This structure, today known as Woodhenge Woodhenge , was probably used to keep track of the movements of the sun and other heavenly bodies.

Cahokia’s strategic location near the Mississippi River and its junctures with major tributary river systems made it a great commercial hub of the continent during the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth centuries. Dugout canoes laden with highly valued trade items arrived from both local and distant waterways. Mississippian craftspeople obtained products such as obsidian from distant mountain areas of the American West, copper from the Great Lakes, mica from the Appalachians, seashells from the Gulf coast, quartz from Arkansas, and silver from southern Canada. Using these and local materials, Mississippian artisans produced ornaments and jewelry, a unique pottery tempered with crushed mussel shells, effigy jars, cult figurines in human and animal form, ceremonial costumes, and items made from feathers, leather, stone fibers, wood, and beaten copper.

In addition to Cahokia, Mississippian civilization gave rise to other notable population centers and small chiefdoms. Some have been excavated, including Moundville in Alabama, Etowah and Okmulgee in Georgia, and Spiro on the Arkansas River in eastern Oklahoma. Although all were considerably smaller than Cahokia in both territory and population, they nevertheless were active and thriving centers of population, craft production, and a rich artistic and ceremonial life.

A frog effigy pipe found in Ross County, Ohio, dating to the Hopewell tradition.

(Photograph courtesy of National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution)

Neighboring regions of the Midwest, including sites in the Great Lakes area and the Ohio Valley, have been linked to the Mississippian cultural complex. Migrations of Mississippian peoples from the Southeast also brought new groups westward into the Great Plains, where they established agricultural villages in favorable areas along major streams and gave rise to a Plains Mississippian culture. Migrations;Mississippian culture to Great Plains

The power of the various southeastern chiefdoms and regional centers ebbed and flowed. A period of decline occurred after 1350, prior to the arrival of the Spaniards. The great mound-building projects ceased, and the major centers gradually disappeared. Rivalries and power struggles, as evidenced by an increase in fortifications, weaponry, and a glorification of the warrior in religious art, may have been part of several factors contributing to this decline. An exception was the Natchez chiefdom, which survived in pristine Mississippian form until its destruction at the hands of the French and their local native allies in the early eighteenth century. Incursions of European explorers and gold seekers into the Southeast during the early 1500’s brought new pressures, especially the fatal epidemic diseases against which the indigenous populations had no immunity. The result was a precipitous decline in the Mississippian population from millions of people to a few hundred thousand.


Many tribal cultures of the historic southeastern United States retained Mississippian traditions after the culture’s decline. These groups include indigenous nations such as the Muskogee Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Alabama, Cherokee, Shawnee, and Caddo. Remnants of the prehistoric culture survived in permanent agricultural settlements, a reverence for mounds as sacred symbols, strong matrilineal clans, some social stratification, the Green Corn ceremony (a purification ritual performed at harvesttime), and ball games such as “chunky,” which was played with a rounded stone disk. The power of Mississippians on land and water, which impressed the Spaniard Hernando de Soto’s expedition (1539-1542) to the Mississippi River area, delayed the European conquest of North America. Many of the aforementioned tribal nations retained their independence until as late as the early nineteenth century.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Emerson, Thomas E. Cahokia and the Archaeology of Power. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1997. Argues that the Cahokian elite used a cosmology and worldview to support their dominant position.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Emerson, Thomas E., and R. Barry Lewis, eds. Cahokia and the Hinterlands: Middle Mississippian Cultures of the Midwest. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000. Collection of articles dealing with the appearance of Cahokian Mississippian cultural patterns in Midwest fringe areas.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mehrer, Mark. Cahokia’s Countryside: Household Archaeology, Settlement Patterns, and Social Power. De Kalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1995. Synthesizes Mississippian settlement and social systems using recent data and an anthropological theoretical model.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Milner, George R. The Cahokia Chiefdom: The Archaeology of a Mississippian Society. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998. Reconstructs what life must have been like in the Cahokian-dominated Mississippian period society.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morse, Dan F., and Phyllis A. Morse. Archaeology of the Central Mississippi Valley. London: Academic Press, 1983. Chapters 10-12 center on Mississippian cultural development. Stresses importance of environmental factors in this process.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">O’Connor, Mallory McCane. Lost Cities of the Ancient Southeast. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1995. More than twenty ceremonial sites are represented. Also discusses sculpture, ceramics, engravings, and other artifacts associated with each era.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pauketat, Timothy R., and Thomas E. Emerson, eds. Cahokia: Domination and Ideology in the Mississippian World. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997. Collection of articles examining Cahokia’s powerful position in the Mississippian world. Agriculture and appropriation, production and power, ideology and authority, monuments and mobilization are cited as factors.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shaffer, Lynda Norene. Native Americans Before 1492: The Moundbuilding Centers of the Eastern Woodlands. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharp, 1992. Examines the historical development and features of the great centers of the Mississippian phase and previous Woodlands cultures.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Bruce D. “Mississippian Patterns of Subsistence and Settlement.” In Alabama and the Borderlands, edited by B. Reid Badger and Lawrence A. Clayton. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1985. This chapter in a work on the prehistoric and early historic periods of the Southeast examines a variety of Mississippian settlement patterns.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Young, Biloine W. Cahokia: The Great Native American Metropolis. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000. An archaeological overview of the prehistory of Cahokia and mound excavations during the life of the settlement, including a discussion of Cahokia’s “place in the pre-conquest world.” Illustrations, maps.

Categories: History