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The Americas

Early Cultures


Mississippian Culture (Classic & Post-Classic)
c.AD 600 - 1400
Incorporating the Caddoan, Fort Ancient, Oneota, Plaquemine, & South Appalachian Cultures

The mound-building tradition was a feature of many Native American woodland tribes - including the Mississippian culture. Mound building had begun in the Middle Archaic period around 3500 BC, when the people responsible were still hunter-gatherers. Their successors throughout the subsequent Woodland period all practiced farming and animal husbandry, and their collective cultures covered the Great Lakes, the Mississippi River and its various (many) tributaries, and the Ohio river valley.

The mounds were platforms, similar to small pyramids of the Mesoamerican kind, and they required a concerted effort by hundreds of people working in unison to complete each mound. They could be flat-topped, or with elongated ridges, conical, or even some other designs. The practice continued right up until the first European settlements had been established on the eastern coast of North America. First appearing along the Mississippi River before spreading outwards, the Mississippian was also the last of the mound-building cultures of North America in the mid-western, eastern, and south-eastern United States.

The cultural capital of the Mississippian was Cahokia, near what is now Collinsville, Illinois. Cahokia was the largest pre-Columbian settlement to the north of the Aztec empire in what is now Mexico - the largest city on North America until Philadelphia in the 1790s. It is not called the mound city for nothing, as some one hundred and twenty mounds have been identified by archaeologists.

At its height it accommodated around twenty thousand people and this was about five hundred years before the arrival of Columbus. It appears to have been highly dependent upon good rains, thanks to a climatically-wet period, and would suffer when those rains failed to arrive or arrived too enthusiastically. In the end, Cahokia's reliance on the climate was what destroyed it (a 2024 study demonstrates no evidence of crop failure due to drought but does not specify the impact of increasingly heavy rains). The rest of Mississippian culture quickly faded after it fell, with only the Natchez communities still practicing it when the Spanish arrived in 1539 in the form of Hernando de Soto and the creation of various Spanish Colonies.

The Mississippian culture disseminated widely through eastern North America, generally following the river valleys to extend itself. Whilst Illinois and Cahokia saw its greatest development, variations also existed in the form of the Caddoan culture of north-western Louisiana, eastern Texas, and south-western Arkansas (which evolved into a Mississippian culture from Woodland period origins from about AD 1000), the South Appalachian culture of Etowah and Moundville, the Plaquemine culture in southern Louisiana and Mississippi (which succeeded the Coles Creek culture), and the Oneota of the eastern plains and Great Lakes (AD 900-1700, a major component of Upper Mississippian culture).

Additionally, the Fort Ancient culture in the Ohio river valley is dated to AD 1000-1750 (southern Ohio, northern Kentucky, south-eastern Indiana, and western parts of West Virginia). This culture is seen as having succeeded the Hopewell whose people built the Fort Ancient type site.

FeatureAlice Kehoe suggested that this largest known centre of Mississippian culture would be better termed a state rather than using the more loose term of a culture. She has argued that the Mississippians had close trade and communications links with the civilisations of Mesoamerica (such as the Mayas, Aztecs, and their predecessors and contemporaries), and that this link is readily apparent in the archaeological record (see feature link for more on this). The rest of Mississippian culture consisted of urban settlements (none of which were as large as Cahokia) and primitive suburban areas around them. The culture's start and end dates are not set in stone - there is some regional variation.

Buffalo on the North American plains, by Dave Fitzpatrick

(Information by Peter Kessler and Mick Baker, with additional information from Osage Texts and Cahokia Data, Alice B Kehoe (2007), from Wind Jewels and Paddling Gods: The Mississippian Southeast in the Postclassic Mesoamerican World, Alice B Kehoe (2005), Mississippian Period: Overview, Adam King (New Georgia Encyclopaedia, 2002), and from External Link: Mississippian Period (Encyclopaedia of Alabama), and Study challenges the narrative of Cahokia's abandonment (Heritage Daily).)

c.1050 - 1100

The transition from Late Woodland to Early Mississippian is complete by this stage. The related Fort Ancient mound-building culture has already formed along the Ohio river valley. Tribal living has been exchanged to an increasing level in favour of a sedentary, pastoral lifestyle. Corn production is high, allowing regional chiefdoms to form, around which cultural centres coalesce.

Map of Mississippian culture
The Mississippian culture and its related neighbours essentially had Cahokia as their capital, this being the largest pre-Columbian settlement to the north of the Aztec empire (click or tap on map to view full sized)

Cahokia expands in terms of growth and organisation during what has been shown to be one of the wettest half centuries of the last millennium. Migrants flock into the area in this time of plenty as agriculture and fishing reach their zenith.


Tree-ring data suggests that the rains fail around this time, resulting in drought and crop failure - around Cahokia at least - which in turn leads to unrest and civil disturbance as people struggle to find sufficient food. Within a quarter of a century the population has plummeted, as shown by archaeology in abandoned dwellings and other areas of the Cahokia.

Several large towns spring up within the vicinity of the city. Fortifications are built with a wall which is 4.5 metres high, and 3.2 kilometres in diameter around the city. Calculations show that it takes twenty thousand trees and around six years for twelve men working eight hours a day to complete the work.

Cahokia is known as the mound-building city, after the Mississippian culture to which it belonged between AD 600-1400 until collapse occurred due to several external factors


The frequent rains of eleventh century Cahokia would seem to increase even further in intensity after that period. There is evidence of a catastrophic, almost Biblical flood of the type which had been seared into the memory of ancient Sumerians. The dating for this event is imprecise, with it being placed within a span which covers 1100-1260, but the effect is the same - instability and suffering. In the half century after 1200 there is a definite downturn in upland farming.

However, for the culture as a whole, the start of the Middle Mississippian at this point shows it reaching its peak. Regional chiefdoms are at their most evolved, with traits which have been developed at Cahokia being disseminated throughout the entire culture. Palisades are beginning to appear, but ceremonial complexes are still being built and centrally-produced pottery is being copied on a local basis.

Cahokia at the start of the Middle Mississippian was reaching its peak, with regional chiefdoms having emerged but ceremonial complexes still being built

c.1300 - 1400

There is evidence that a number of men are killed in a group in the 1200s. They are decapitated, perhaps suggesting executions, possibly for rebellion or for being captured in war. Many arrowheads are also found by archaeologists. It would seem that the increasing instability of the rains and the resultant food shortages have triggered some form of civil war which ultimately destroys this civilisation.

The Late Mississippian is a period of decline. By 1300 Cahokia is a ghost town. A second massive flooding event takes place between 1340-1460, which probably helps to terminate the already-fading Mississippian culture itself.

Cultural and even language traits survive in many former Mississippian groups, however. As those groups coalesce into the Native American tribes which exist to greet the Europeans in the next three centuries, many of those traits are recorded.

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