University of Texas at Austin wordmarkCollege of Liberal Arts wordmark
Texas Beyond History
TBH Home
Tejas Main

Mississippian World

map of Mississippian world
Shown here are the major cultural areas of the Mississippian world between about A.D. 1000-1600. Within each area the timing and nature of Mississippian developments varied greatly and none of the areas was ever culturally uniform. The "Caddoan" Mississippian area illustrates the problem of trying to define broad culture areas: these are abstract generalizations that seem to take on a life of their own. Base map by Erwin Raisz, culture areas adapted from Brian Fagan.
The Great Sun
The Great Sun, paramount chief of the Natchez Indians, had absolute control over his people. The woodcut image accompanied an account by the French explorer, Le Page du Pratz, who lived among the Natchez in 1720 and gave us an eyewitness account of the last Mississippian chiefdom.

Click images to enlarge  

In each [Caddo] tribe there is a caddi. He is like a governor ruling and commanding his people. The office of the caddi also descends through the direct line of blood relation. Each caddi rules within the section of the country occupied by his tribe, no matter whether it be large or small.

Fray Casañas describing the Hasinai Caddo, Swanton, 1941

"human sacrifice" effigy pipe
This famous "human sacrifice" effigy pipe from Spiro illustrates militaristic aspects of Mississippian life.The warrior figure leans over the crouching body of a victim and smashes his face with a war club. The item shown here is cast of the original, which has a height of about 24 centimeters (9.5 inches). Courtesy Robert Bell and the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.

Between about A.D. 1000 and A.D. 1600 much of the Eastern Woodlands was part of a highly dynamic world of competing chiefdoms or ranked societies that represent the climax in cultural complexity for Native American societies north of Mexico. These developments are generally known as the Mississippian tradition in recognition of the role that the fertile floodplains of the mighty river and its major tributaries played in supporting the biggest and most powerful prehistoric and historic chiefdoms. Mississippian societies were based on agriculture, especially corn (maize) agriculture. The Mississippian world was never uniform or united; instead it was fragmented and fractious, a 600-year era during which dozens of chiefdoms arose and then fell apart, none lasting longer than a few hundred years, and few controlling large territories.

What exactly is meant by chiefdom? Anthropologists use this term to describe a pre-state, kinship-based society that typically has at least a thousand people and at least two social classes led by a hereditary leader, often called a chief or cacique by Europeans. Among the Natchez Indians in the lower Mississippi Valley, these two "ranked" social classes were known as "Suns" and "Stinkards." The paramount chief, called the "Great Sun," was the Natchez leader because he was a Sun by birth and because he and his closest Sun kin had the personal abilities to maintain control and authority over the Natchez. There were also various lesser chiefs who answered to the Great Sun and made sure that he received tribute in the form of food or special things regularly from all of the Natchez, most of whom lived in outlying hamlets organized into districts. The Great Sun lived in a fortified village with large earthen mounds atop which were temples and the houses of the chief and his favored priests and attendants. We know all this from the eyewitness account of a French explorer, Le Page du Pratz, who lived among the Natchez in 1720, shortly before the Natchez chiefdom collapsed due to the ravages of European diseases and rapidly changing social circumstance.

Many broadly similar societies were encountered around the world by European explorers, some having relatively "simple" forms of social organization and some having "complex," highly structured societies like the Natchez. Chiefdoms are inherently unstable because the authority of the leaders and legitimacy of the ranking social class depends mightily on the cooperation of the people. Chiefs achieve this cooperation by using sacred rituals and ancestor worship to reaffirm the legitimacy of their own lineage. In such societies, politics and religion are tightly interwoven. Chiefs also hold sway by arranging elaborate ceremonies and feasts during which accumulated wealth is redistributed as gifts, thus building bonds of social obligation. The famous potlatches among the Indians of the Pacific Northwest coast are perhaps the best-known examples of this behavior. Chiefdoms frequently fall apart because of infighting among kin groups, failure to effectively deal with crisis (such as drought or warfare), and a host of other reasons.

As you might imagine, archeological evidence rarely tells us exactly what transpired in the ancient chiefdoms we recognize among Mississippian societies, including those of the Caddo. Archeologists often prefer the term ranked society instead of chiefdom, because it is easier to recognize the existence of different social classes (or at least differential treatment of the dead) than it is to identify the nature of leadership organization. The nature of (and even existence of) redistribution systems is also very difficult to "see" archeologically.

In the Caddo Homeland, the most convincing evidence of ranked societies is a settlement hierarchy within which are a few large ritual (mound) centers and many small villages, smaller hamlets, and individual farmsteads. The larger centers contain evidence of special structures such as temples, council houses, and a few over-sized houses ("elite residences"), some of which were built atop mounds. The larger mounds and larger structures (many of which were not built on mounds) are sometimes arranged around a open plaza. Nonetheless, buildings and mounds at Caddo centers were more irregularly arranged than neatly laid out, in contrast to some of the larger Mississippian centers and towns elsewhere.

In Caddo ritual centers, as elsewhere in the Mississippian world, we also find elaborate burials containing exotic artifacts and other indications that a few people were treated much better than most. Typically, most ritual centers seem to have grown to maximum size and complexity and then declined or entirely abandoned within a few hundred years. Across the Mississippian world, the timing of the peaks in the fortunes of individual mound centers varies widely within the 600-year span.

Spiro gorget
Engraved design on marine shell drinking cup from Craig Mound, at the Spiro site, with four Piasa figures (part snake, cat, and bird) arranged in swastika around a central circle and cross.
Rucker's Bottom
Artist's depiction of Rucker's Bottom, a fortified Mississippian town on the Savannah River in South Carolina. Courtesy of artist Martin Pate and the Southeast Archeological Center, National Park Service.
Cahokia
Artist's reconstruction of Cahokia, the largest and most powerful of all Mississippian centers, at about A.D. 1150. The paramount chief, perhaps called the Great Sun, lived atop Monk's Mound, the large mound shown in the background. Painting by L. K. Townsend, courtesy Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site.
Battle Mound
Aerial view of Battle Mound, the largest mound in the Caddo Homeland and one of the largest in the Southeast, measuring some 670 feet in length, 320 feet wide, and 34 feet high. In the background is the Red River. Photo courtesy Frank Schambach.
stone effigy pipe
Stone effigy pipe from the Craig Mound at Spiro. It has been called "Big Boy" and "Resting Warrior," but neither of these labels convey the status that this person—real or mythical—surely had in the Mississippian world. The figure may represent the mythical character known as Red Horn among many historic Indian groups (see opposite panel).

The pipe is made from red flint clay mined near Cahokia. Recently, it has been hypothesized that this sacred object and others like it were made in the 12th century and used at Cahokia. When the power of that great site waned in the late 13th century, important sacred objects like this pipe were taken to other sites like Spiro and Gahagan.

The seated figure wears a pair of long-nosed god mask earrings. On his back is a feathered cape, similar to those found in fragmentary condition at Spiro. Around his neck are heavy strings of beads. On his head is a curious cap that archeologist James Brown believes served to display embossed copper plates. (26 centimeters high or about 10 inches.) From the collections of the University Museum, University of
Arkansas. Photo courtesy Pictures of Record.
"bird-man"
"Bird-man" depicted on a repoussé copper plate from the Etowah site, Georgia. (Repoussé is a technique used to create raised designs by hammering a thin metal sheet from its back.) In this example the bird-man seems to be a human dancer wearing a falcon costume. A human head appears to be dangling by its scalp from the bird-man's left hand. Bird-man figures are a common representation in Mississippian ritual art.
Wooden statue
This wooden statue from Craig Mound at Spiro may be a representation of an ancestor like those seen by early European visitors in temples and charnal houses in the Southeastern U.S. (32.5 centimeters high) Smithsonian Institution.
Sanders gorget
Conch shell gorget from the Sanders site in the Red River Valley in Lamar County, Texas. The depiction of severed human heads is a common theme in Mississippian symbolism. The Sanders site dates mainly to the Middle Caddo period, about A.D. 1200-1400, and seems to have had a special relationship with Spiro, the nature of which is debated. More Southern Cult objects are known from the Sanders site than any other Caddo center south of Spiro. TARL archives.

Among the hundreds of ritual centers across the Mississippian world, most were relatively small and contained only a few mounds. A few among them stood out as primate centers. These places were the biggest of the big, the political and ritual centers of complex and unusually successful chiefdoms. The largest and most powerful of them all was the Cahokia site in the central Mississippi Valley near present day St. Louis. Cahokia had perhaps 200 earthen mounds and may have been home to as many as 15,000 people at its height around A.D. 1150. To the southeast were Moundville, in northern Alabama, and Etowah, in northern Georgia, both the largest sites in their local regions and both peaking 100-150 years after Cahokia. In the lower Mississippi Valley, the sites of Winterville and Lake George had dozens of mounds and were larger than all others in the region. The westernmost major center was the site of Spiro in the Arkansas Valley.

The best candidate for a primate center in the main Caddo Homeland is the Battle site in southwest Arkansas in the Great Bend area of the Red. This site contains the largest mound in the Caddo Homeland and one of the largest in the Southeast, measuring some 670 feet in length, 320 feet wide, and 34 feet high. The only other known mounds at the Battle site were four very low rises (now leveled for agriculture), but there are numerous cemeteries, occupation areas, and mounds in the general vicinity that may well have been part of the greater Battle community. Unfortunately, the site has only seen minor investigation and remains little known. The absence of obvious primate centers in the main Caddo Homeland may reflect, at least in part, the nature of Caddo settlement patterns: people lived in dispersed communities more often than nucleated villages. There are numerous smaller ritual centers in the Caddo Homeland that probably served as the central places of small, independent polities (political units) that some would call chiefdoms.

Although never politically united, the Mississippian world was united in a cultural sense by participation in widespread religious and social phenomena often described as "cults." This is perhaps a poor choice of terms as the word cult may conjure up images of small extremist groups. Mississippian "cults" were part of very powerful and widespread religious movements that we are only beginning to understand.

The best-known Mississippian religious movement is popularly known as the Southern Cult, although most archeologists today prefer the less evocative phrase Southeastern Ceremonial Complex. The central tenets of this cult or religion were transmitted through rituals and through the exchange of sacred objects emblazoned with symbols such as falcons, crosses, and rattlesnakes. Often the iconography depicts scenes of violence and warfare, such as warrior figures holding weapons and decapitated heads. These symbols were carved, modeled, engraved, and painted on many materials, most of them probably perishable (like cloth and wood) or made from exotic materials, such as copper and marine shell, imported from distant sources.

The Southern Cult was exclusive—only certain individuals and kin groups participated, thus supporting the authority of the chiefs. They alone could handle, wear, and own the most sacred symbols, which were no doubt perceived as possessing power and being too dangerous for any but the chosen few to handle. When the leaders died, the cult artifacts were buried with them, perhaps to protect the people from danger. (Or, to take a more pragmatic interpretation, to keep such symbols out of general circulation, and thus rare and more prestigious.) By exchanging these symbolic artifacts among one another, the leaders also maintained trading and political alliances. Such alliances were important because warfare appears to have been widespread.

Among the Southern Cult artifacts that do survive, carved marine shell gorgets (chest ornaments) and drinking cups, are the most widely distributed. Many shell ritual objects were made from lightning whelk shells from the northern Gulf coast. The cups were used in rituals during which participants consumed the famous "black drink," a dark tea made from yaupon leaves. Much misinformation exists about the black drink. Its principal active ingredient is caffeine. Early European visitors to the Southeast were appalled when they witnessed what could be called "projectile vomiting" during rituals involving the consumption of the black drink. This purposeful ritual purging or cleansing was induced by drinking lots of hot tea quickly, not by the properties of the tea. Yaupon bears the scientific name Ilex vomitoria, a name born out of European misunderstanding.

There is also good evidence for the existence of a widespread Earth Cult (for lack of a better term) that was tied to renewal, fertility, and the periodic building of earthen mounds. This set of beliefs was communal in nature and served to bring people together to participate in community-wide rituals. Periodically, temples and other special buildings were carefully dismantled or burned and buried with a fresh layer of earth, often chosen for its color and texture. Burial mounds received similar treatment: periodic renewal by the addition of new layers of earth.

Some archeologists, including Dee Ann Story and Frank Schambach, think that for the Caddo what was most important was not the mounding of earth, per se, but what the earth was mounded over—ritually destroyed temples and tombs. Referring to the burning of temples, Schambach believes that "for the Caddo, one immediate objective of this ritual may have been to produce the great plume of smoke and steam that must have emanated from each burned and buried building for days or even weeks, as a cord or more of wood was slowly reduced to charcoal." He reasons that, to the Caddo, fire and smoke were the key elements, not earth, an idea that finds support in early historic accounts of the importance of fire to Caddo groups.

Earth, fire, or smoke, the timing of such ritual activities was probably tied to the agricultural cycle and perhaps to longer ritual cycles linked to the death of important chiefs or astronomical phenomena. Major ritual events almost certainly included feasting, dancing, and other communal activities.

The third widely shared religious practice was Ancestor Veneration. Showing respect for exalted ancestors took many forms, including elaborate burials such as the shaft tombs of the Caddo and mounds where only certain members of society were buried. Most Caddo groups were unusual among Mississippian societies in that they buried their dead quickly while their bodies were still intact. Most other societies in the Eastern Woodlands had charnal houses where bodies were stored until the flesh had rotted (or had been removed by priests) and only bones were left. Periodically, the charnal houses were cleaned out and the accumulated bones buried together during elaborate rituals, perhaps also linked to renewal. Another widespread indication of ancestor worship is the existence of temples containing human statues made of stone or wood and some times sacred bundles or boxes containing the bones of a revered ancestor or special ritual items. These are best known from the accounts of early European explorers, although human statues made out of wood, ceramics, and stone have been found at Spiro and other Mississippian sites.

Mississippian iconography often seems to glorify war and victory over vanquished foe. But as far as we can tell, most Mississippian warfare was more akin to raiding or ritual warfare, rather than all-out conquest. Most conflicts were probably raids to kill or capture warriors for revenge or arranged battles of limited scope. Nonetheless, the presence of fortified towns, particularly in the Mississippi Valley, suggests that people had reason to fear. Warrior motifs are often found on the engraved shells and other symbolic artifacts. Armed figures holding human head and scenes of decapitation and human sacrifice leave little doubt that military victories were glorified. Unambiguous archeological evidence of ritual cannibalism support eyewitness accounts of early explorers. Mississippian life was sometimes violent and gruesome.

The Caddo Homeland was on the geographical and cultural edge of the Mississippian world. As far as we can tell, ancestral Caddo groups never established large, complex chiefdoms, with the possible exception of Spiro. Instead the Caddo world was one of relatively small-scale chiefdoms of the sort described by the Spanish and French chroniclers. The largest Caddo centers had less than a dozen mounds, usually far less. With the notable exception of Battle Mound, most Caddo earthworks are small by comparison to those at major Mississippian centers, and tiny by comparison to Cahokia. Caddo centers were also laid out less formally and more organically than major Mississippian centers and they lacked fortifications.

What accounts for these differences? The location of the Caddo Homeland on the western frontier of the Eastern Woodlands is clearly a major factor. Most of the river valleys of the Caddo Homeland pale in size and productivity in comparison to the Mississippi and its major tributaries where many of the Mississippian developments took place. It is no accident that the largest and most complex Mississippian society developed at Cahokia in the central Mississippi valley. In the same way, Spiro is in the Arkansas Valley and, to the south, most of the larger Caddo centers occur along in the Great Bend region of the Red River, the largest and most fertile of the waterways in the main Caddo Homeland. Another consequence of being on the Mississippian frontier is that Caddo groups did not have any neighboring competing chiefdoms to contend with (at least to the west), which probably helps explain why Caddo sites weren't fortified.

The other major factor seems to have been the nature of Caddo societies themselves. Caddo societies seem to have split apart before becoming too large. We can speculate that Caddo societies developed mechanisms for sharing food and wealth and for "social leveling" — keeping high and low ranking classes (or clans) from being too segregated. Rigid caste-like social classes like those of the Natchez do not appear to have existed among the historic Caddo. Still, Caddo societies were not egalitarian; they had marked social inequalities as described in early historic accounts, and seen in differences in house size and location within archeological sites, in differences in comparative size and wealth among sites, and in differences in grave elaboration.


Battle Mound
Battle Mound, the largest known Caddo mound, is in southwest Arkansas. Note person standing in front of tree-covered mound. Photo courtesy Tim Perttula.
Long-nosed god mask earring
Long-nosed god mask earring from the Gahagan Mound site in northwest Louisiana. One of a matched pair found within a mass of artifacts in the corner of an Early Caddo tomb, the earring is made of sheet copper. The pair probably represent ritual ear ornaments as depicted on the effigy pipe from Spiro shown opposite.

Long-nosed god depictions are known from many North American and Mesoamerican cultures. Anthropologist Robert Hall has linked the Mississippian-period long-nosed god with the mythical figure known as Red Horn or He-who-wears-human-heads-as-earrings to the historic Winnebago and Iowa Indians of the upper Midwest. Hall believes the mask earrings were part of adoption rituals in Mississippian society during which important leaders extended fictive kinship bonds to visiting leaders, thus cementing political alliances. Photo courtesy Pictures of Record.
Conch shell drinking cup
Marine shell (lightning whelk) drinking cup from cemetery burial at the Haley site on the Red River in southwest Arkansas. In Mississippian societies, shell drinking cups were used in rituals during which participants consumed the famous "black drink," a dark, caffeine-rich tea made from yaupon leaves. Photo courtesy Pictures of Record.
temple mound
Cross-section through a temple mound at the Ferguson site, a Late Caddo site dating to about A.D. 1400 that is located in the Little Missouri River Valley in southwest Arkansas. The burned layers near the bottom of the picture are the remains of a small temple that was purposefully collapsed, then burned and intentionally buried. Photograph courtesy of Pictures of Record.

The Mississippian world was never uniform or united; instead it was fragmented and fractious, a 600-year era during which dozens of chiefdoms arose and then fell apart.

Caddo settlement
Artist's depiction of a dispersed Caddo settlement in what is today southeastern Arkansas. The house on the rectangular earthen mound in the foreground is that of a chief or shaman; the mound caps the remains of earlier houses of important people. Scattered in the background are family compounds, some with both winter (rectangular) and summer (round) houses as well as raised storage bins where surplus corn was stored. All of the details are based on archeological and historical evidence. Courtesy Arkansas Archeological Survey.