AP®︎/College US History
- Native American societies before contact
- Native American culture of the West
- Native American culture of the Southwest
- Native American culture of the Northeast
- Native American culture of the Southeast
- Native American culture of the Plains
- Native American societies before European contact
Native American culture of the Southeast
The dominant Mississippian culture of the Southeast signaled agricultural success and urban development for a variety of Native American groups.
- The Southeastern region of North America was an agriculturally productive region for many Native American groups living in the area.
- The Mississippian culture built enormous mounds and organized urban centers.
- The Five Civilized Tribes of the Southeast created chiefdoms and, later, alliances with European settlers.
Geographic and temporal setting: the Mississippian period
This region stretches down the Mississippi River and into the area surrounding the Gulf of Mexico, through some of the most fertile lands in North America. Native Americans were the first to take advantage of such promising agricultural conditions.
The prominent Native American groups in this area were known as the Five Civilized Tribes: Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks, and Seminoles. Mississippian culture, dominant from 1000 CE onward, developed from the beginnings of farming in Hopewellian culture, which dominated a few centuries before in the Northeast.
Map of Mississippian cultures.
Common food practices: corn farming
The Mississippian peoples were excellent farmers. Notably, Cherokee women planted and harvested crops, including beans, squash, corn, tobacco, and sunflowers. They supplemented their diets with acorns, nuts, seeds, and fruits. Since they did not use any fertilizer, they had to burn the fields and create new ones every season. This required immense amounts of time and labor but ultimately led to large crop yields.
While they had great farming success, Southeastern Native Americans also continued to hunt and fish. They hunted deer with bows and arrows and fished in rivers and in the Gulf of Mexico for protein. In southern Florida, Calusa people developed complex fishing and trapping systems for clams, mussels, and saltwater fish.
Mississippians also created intricate pottery and arrow points. They fashioned elaborate serving utensils and dishes for food, as well as weaponry for hunting larger animals.
A painting of Choctaw women harvesting, processing, and cooking maize.
Societal structure: urban centers
Mississippians continued the mound-building traditions of the Hopewellian people and extended them to the south and west. Mississippian mound societies were larger and more complex than previous communities, indicating unprecedented population growth and wealth.
Cahokia, near modern-day St. Louis, was home to an estimated 40,000 Cahokian people, after whom the city was named. It became the major urban trade center along the Mississippi River and remained the largest city ever recorded in North America until Philadelphia surpassed its population numbers 500 years later. Monk’s Mound, at the center of Cahokia, is the largest pre-contact earthwork in modern America, expanding 955 feet in length and 100 feet in height. Cahokia's population declined sharply around 1250, probably due to environmental factors such as overhunting or deforestation.
Artist's representation of how Cahokia may have looked at its height.
Poverty Point, another mound city, linked large trade networks throughout the Americas. Located in the northern part of modern-day Louisiana, the city provided a place to export stone and clay items on dugout canoes up the Mississippi River. In return, flint and soapstone came to the South from the Ohio River Valley. Historians hypothesize that Poverty Point also had religious significance, indicated by large plazas most likely used for worship.
Most people lived in hamlets, or villages, which would form political units of under one thousand people. Seminoles, in modern Florida and Georgia, constructed villages out of chickees, buildings with thatched roofs and open sides.
Photo of a chickee.
Social and religious norms: stratifying wealth
The agricultural boom of the Mississippian culture concentrated wealth at the top. The Creek people in Georgia practiced slavery, forcing prisoners of war to work their fields. The Southeast Native Americans were the first to organize villages around chiefdoms, in which families were ranked by social status and proximity to the chief himself.
Chiefs lived in elaborate wooden structures atop large mounds, indicating their power. Societies often had both peace chiefs and wartime chiefs, with distinct purposes and leadership strengths.
Historians know little about the religious practices of the American Indians in the Southeast. Yet they agree that the groups had a spiritual connection to the land and used the mounds for ceremonies worshipping natural features, including the sun, corn, and water, the elements which sustained them.
What do you think?
Compare and contrast Hopewellian (Northeast, 200 BCE to 500 CE) and Mississippian culture (Southeast, 1000-1300 CE). How were they similar? How were they different?
Why do you think the agricultural success of Mississippians led to social stratification?
How did trade influence large Mississippian societies like Cahokia or Poverty Point?
Want to join the conversation?
- Through this article my mind began to ask the question "Without the influence of western cultures would have the native Americans eventually established a similar advanced civilization to the western continents, or due to their religious beliefs would they had stayed slightly tethered to more "earthly" ways?" I mean i seems as if my entire interpretation of the native american culture is changing, i was under the impression they were much different, but it seems as if they were moving through similar stages of a growing civilization that we see ever where else. From religious practices, to agriculture and politics.(17 votes)
- It's very possible that, without outside influence, that the Native Americans would have developed a similar civilization to what we have today. That is if they have the ability to develop as we have. Keep in mind, when the Europeans invaded, they were much more advanced in building and machines that the Natives were.(11 votes)
- Did they have pets at this time?(7 votes)
- Yes. Dogs were one of the domesticated animals at that time. Mostly used for hunting guarding and like today for companionship. Some of the dogs we know well, like the Hare Indian dog, Greenland Dog, Canadian Eskimo, Carolina Dog, and the Alaskan Malamute are some of the Native American dog breeds. Later after the Europeans arrived cats were also introduced.(10 votes)
- How did trade influence large Mississippian societies like Cahokia or Poverty Point?(7 votes)
- Im sure it helped it grow in population and grow more urbanized accelerated by its agricultural practices.It also helped it rake in a lot of wealth.(5 votes)
- How were peace chiefs and wartime chiefs utilized? Did they share power equally or were peace chiefs in total control in times of peace and vice versa?(5 votes)
- i hate this(3 votes)
- I'm sure that people of Southwest Native American cultures, like the Hopi Nation and the Navajo Nation, will be saddened to get that news, Odin, as you would be if Hopi or Navajo learners here would also "hate" lessons on your heritage.(4 votes)
- What is soapstone used for?(2 votes)
- Native Americans used soapstone since the Late Archaic Period. During the Archaic archaeological period (8000-1000 BC), bowls, cooking slabs, and other objects were made from soapstone. (I got this from Wikipedia.)(5 votes)
- how did they make there bows and arrows and what all did they grow besides sunflowers beans and corn?(2 votes)
- Bows and arrows were made out of hardy wood, string, and stone or bone arrowheads.(4 votes)
- Through this article my mind began to ask the question "Without the influence of western cultures would have the native Americans eventually established a similar advanced civilization to the western continents, or due to their religious beliefs would they had stayed slightly tethered to more "earthly" ways?" I mean iT seems as if my entire interpretation of the native american culture is changing, i was under the impression they were much different, but it seems as if they were moving through similar stages of a growing civilization that we see ever where else. From religious practices, to agriculture and politics.(3 votes)
- I get philosophical when I see your ideas. You use the word "advanced" to describe the civilization that moved from Europe to the Americas, to Africa, to east and south Asia. I suggest that you substitute the word "destructive" there, and reread your sentence. See if it doesn't convey a totally different result.(2 votes)
- How did they use the waters to their advantage?(3 votes)
- Rivers were good for travel. Even where the water was shallow, stuff could be pulled along in canoes rather than having to carry it on one's back. Rivers and water make transportation an easier thing.(2 votes)