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Mississippian Culture (1,300 to 400 Years BP)

The cultivation of the tropical maize, flint corn, and beans along the Mississippi River and in the Gulf States marks the beginning of the Mississippian culture. This culture became fully developed in the Southeast around 1,300 years BP and continued until the arrival of Europeans. The adopted intensive agricultural practices from Mesoamerica influenced the landscape in the Southeast dramatically. Large native populations developed in much of the lower South because of the more sophisticated agricultural system produced more food. Without draft animals or plows, agriculture with stone or wood implements was limited to the tillable soils of floodplains, where spring flooding helped renew soil fertility. Agricultural fields were cleared first by girdling trees and then burning the area. The ashes acted as fertilizer (Swanton 1946). Stumps were also removed over time and in the spring old agricultural debris was burned off before planting (Doolittle 1992). When soil fertility declined from cultivation, fields lay fallow but were burned annually to maintain their open condition for future agricultural use. Most of the cultivatable floodplains of the Southeast were cleared of forest and managed in this way (Doolittle 1992, Hudson 1976).


All over the Southeast, land was cleared for large villages, hamlets, agricultural fields, and groves of fruit-bearing trees. In addition, towns moved every few decades because of soil and firewood depletion. Over time, new towns were built on old town sites, which were kept open by annual burning (Hudson 1976).


Clearing floodplains and upper terraces for agriculture and village sites across the South increased as the Mississippian culture spread. Central towns covered hundreds of acres and included expansive plazas and religious centers. Central towns were dominated by extensive public works of truncated mounds topped by temples. One such town, Cahokia, near St. Louis, MO, is estimated to have had a population of nearly 50,000. It was abandoned when firewood and soil were depleted.


There were large organized political centers, or chiefdoms, such as Cahokia, scattered throughout the Southeast. These chiefdoms were similar to city-states and demanded tribute from surrounding vassal tribes. They also waged war and competed with other chiefdoms to secure hunting and agricultural lands to support their large and growing populations. The successful Mississippian culture spread across the Southeast, up the Mississippi River Valley around 900, and then east into South Carolina around 1100 (fig. 24.15). Native populations in the Southeast increased dramatically during this period, and by 1500 it is estimated that 1.5 to 2 million people lived in the Southeast (Dobyns 1983). These chiefdoms were still in place to receive the first Spanish explorers in the 1500s (Goodyear and others 1979, Hudson 1976, Walthall 1980, Ward and Davis 1999). Old World diseases introduced by the Spanish in the early 1500s decimated the American Indian populations of the Southeast. Around 1600 the Mississippian culture collapsed (Smith 1987).


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content: Wayne D. Carroll
webmaster: John M. Pye

created: 4-OCT-2002
modified: 08-Dec-2013