Mississippian Culture

The late prehistoric cultures of the southeastern United States dating from ca. A.D. 900 to 1600 comprise the Mississippian culture. In general, Mississippian culture is divided chronologically into emergent, early, and late periods. Based on differences in culture traits, particularly ceramics and mortuary patterns, distinct Mississippian cultures are identified in West, Middle, and East Tennessee. In general, changes in Mississippian cultures chronicle the development of intensive agriculture based on the cultivation of corn and reflect associated development of complex religious, social, and political organization. These developments are expressed in the size and density of settlements; the construction of elaborate earthen mounds upon which were erected public buildings; and the occurrence of numerous burials often accompanied by elaborate grave goods.

Mississippian cultures manufactured an abundance of ceramic vessels for utilitarian and ceremonial uses. In contrast to preceding cultures, a distinguishing characteristic of virtually all Mississippian ceramics is that the clay was tempered with crushed river mussel and snail shells. Mississippian vessels included a wide variety of globular jars, bowls, shallow pans, and bottles. These were sometimes decorated with fabric or cord impressions or with incised lines, though more frequently the surface was left undecorated. Flat strap handles or circular loop handles were added to vessels. Some of the most elaborate vessels are bottles manufactured in the shape of animals such as dogs or owls and bowls with animal and human effigies. Bottles and bowls were painted red with iron oxide overall or in broad curved patterns.

Mississippian Period people also excelled in the manufacture of stone, shell, and copper objects. Besides finely made small triangular arrow points and numerous utilitarian tools for cutting, scraping, and chopping, Dover chert from West Tennessee was made into large and elaborate knives, swords, and discs used for ritual purposes. Large shells from the Gulf and Atlantic coasts also were cut into ceremonial drinking vessels or gorgets depicting supernaturally endowed creatures including woodpeckers, rattlesnakes, and spiders. Other shells were made into elaborate ear pins and hair decorations or into a wide variety of beads, which were worn on the arms, legs, and neck. Cold hammered copper was fashioned into thin embossed decorations in the shapes of abstract arrows and supernatural beings, which were used as parts of headdresses and ritual clothing. Beads, ear spools, and other body adornments also were constructed from copper.

An important defining characteristic of Mississippian culture was the development and dependence on intensive maize agriculture. Mississippians also continued to grow plants such as chenopod, sunflowers, and squash that had been domesticated much earlier. By A.D. 1000 beans had been incorporated into the diet, and between A.D. 1200 and 1400 farming of the large fertile river bottoms that surrounded Mississippian settlements on the Tennessee, Cumberland, and Mississippi Rivers and their larger tributaries was well established. Wild plants, but especially hickory nuts, acorns, walnuts, and chestnuts, were utilized. Deer, turkey, raccoon, and bear were the most important animal resources, but also used in large numbers were various aquatic turtles, fish, and birds such as passenger pigeons and migratory waterfowl.

Mississippian social and political patterns largely are inferred from the size, organization, and complexity of settlements, but more importantly from patterns in mortuary behavior. Emergent and early Mississippian cultures exhibit progressively greater cultural elaboration in this regard, which culminates in the well-known highly complex and sophisticated late Mississippian cultures. Mississippian settlement consisted of large towns, intermediate size towns, small hamlets, and individual farmsteads, as well as hunting camps and camps for the exploitation of different plants and animals. This pattern is especially evident during the late Mississippian Period after about A.D. 1400. Large towns were often enclosed by a palisade and occupied two to ten acres. The largest such sites surely served as regional civic-ceremonial centers. Within the village were square or rectangular wattle and daub houses and their associated work and storage areas for two hundred to six hundred people. These buildings were situated around a central plaza. At one end of the plaza was an earthen mound referred to as a substructure or temple mound. Buildings erected on the summit of these mounds were used by priests and chiefs to conduct ceremonies and rituals. In some instances the buildings also served as their residences while in other instances additional buildings were placed there for that purpose. Often located on the plaza opposite the primary mound were one or more additional mounds, which usually served mortuary functions.

Mississippian people engaged in elaborate ritual that surely reflected their beliefs in the supernatural and helped them define, maintain, and replicate complex patterns of political and social organization. These patterns are especially evident from the study of mortuary ritual in late Mississippian times. Burials reflect an individual's status at death, and most individuals of all ages and both sexes are buried in village areas. These people have few or no grave associates except for utilitarian objects such as cooking vessels. Mortuary mounds and small cemetery areas, often near mounds, contain burials interred with greater ritual and more numerous and different kinds of artifacts, suggesting that they enjoyed a more privileged social position which they had likely inherited. Individuals with the highest status were almost always adult males, buried in temple mounds or cemeteries, and frequently accompanied by the best crafted stone, ceramic, shell, and copper objects. These types and styles of objects were clearly restricted to the most powerful individuals in Mississippian society–the political, military, and religious leaders of the society.

Much of the elaborate ritual and belief system evident at Mississippian sites in Tennessee was shared by cultures across the southeastern United States. This collective cultural experience is identified as the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex. Unifying aspects to this complex were warfare, fertility, and ancestor worship. Ancestor worship was critical to the ruling political and religious leaders because this was the source of their power and authority. Fertility is evident by the fact that much of the iconography found on Mississippian artifacts appears to represent or symbolize reproduction in both natural and supernatural contexts. The representations of symbolic weapons, war costumes, and the use of raptors, especially falcons, also are prevalent motifs in Southeastern Ceremonial Complex artifacts, indicating an intense and pervasive interest in war.

In East Tennessee, Mississippian cultures are well known from the upper Tennessee River valley and its major tributaries, especially the Little Tennessee and Clinch Rivers. Martin Farm culture represents emergent Mississippian occupations, while Hiwassee Island and Dallas cultures respectively represent early and late Mississippian cultures in the region. Martin Farm settlements consisted of a small settlement usually smaller than two hectares. Small platform mounds upon which were built community buildings and a village plaza were the focal points for individual rectangular houses surrounding these features. Houses had wattle and daub walls on a frame of upright posts; the roofs were gabled or arched and covered with sheets of bark stripped from trees. Evidence for palisades enclosing the settlements has not been identified. Early Mississippian settlements were similar in their spatial organization, but there is evidence that individual villages were larger and more numerous than in the preceding period. Dallas culture maintains the same fundamental organizational pattern, but unlike the preceding period, there are abundant human interments.

In Middle Tennessee, Mississippian cultures are best defined in the Duck and Cumberland River valleys. Regional cultures respectively representing early and late Mississippian manifestations include the Jonathan Creek and Tinsley Hill cultures in the Lower Tennessee-Cumberland River valley. Middle Cumberland culture is used to describe Mississippian occupations in the Nashville Basin, where Harpeth River, Dowd, and Thurston cultures generally represent chronological development in the region. As in most areas, some sites like Mound Bottom on the Harpeth River exhibit long and complex developmental histories. Here and elsewhere in the Middle Cumberland area large cemeteries are found with individuals interred in boxes constructed from limestone slabs, and hence referred to as stone box graves. These burials often contain associated artifacts, especially ceramic vessels. In West Tennessee along the Mississippi River and in the vicinity of Reelfoot Lake, emergent, early, and late Mississippian cultures have received a variety of designations. Among the best documented is the Walls culture, which includes bluff top villages such as Chucalissa near Memphis. There is evidence that after ca. A.D. 1450 much of West Tennessee and parts of the Cumberland-Tennessee valley were either abandoned by Mississippian societies or their settlements were so fundamentally reorganized that occupation is difficult to detect. What might have led to such occurrence is not known. In East Tennessee, no comparable pattern is evident.

When Europeans entered the southeastern United States in the sixteenth century, they encountered Mississippian cultures. Hernando de Soto surely visited Mississippian villages in East and West Tennessee. Largely because of warfare and European introduced diseases, Mississippian cultures with their large village populations and complex social, political, and religious organization no longer existed by the beginning of the seventeenth century. A century later, the remnants of Mississippian culture regenerated as the historic Native Americans of Tennessee–especially the Chickasaws in the West and the Cherokees in the East.

Suggested Reading

David Dye and C.A. Cox, eds., Towns and Temples Along the Mississippi (1990); Robert Ferguson, The Middle Cumberland Culture (1972); T. M. N. Lewis and Madeline Kneberg, Hiwassee Island (1946); Charles H. McNutt, ed., Prehistory of the Central Mississippi Valley (1996)

Citation Information

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  • Article Title Mississippian Culture
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  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date July 21, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018