Classical America: The East: South

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Classical America: The East: South


Moundbuilding Tradition. Beginning around 2300 b.c. the Archaic inhabitants of the South domesticated the bottle gourd from which they made light and sturdy containers that did not break like ones made of pottery. They also domesticated sunflowers and added native squash and chenopodium to their diets. The horticultural bounty as well as the countless stocks of white-tailed deer, bear, and other small mammals that roamed the forests provided the Archaic societies of the region with the food supply necessary to increase their populations rapidly. In fact, the environment was so rich that the Archaic bands that had evolved into tribes developed further into chiefdoms, a form of organization archaeologists consider the pinnacle of political and social organization in Native North America. The chiefdoms were characterized generally by nucleated settlement patterns, mound building, and strong lines of social stratification between chiefs and commoners.

Poverty Point: 1500700 b.c. Poverty Point, located in present-day northeastern Louisiana, flourished between 1500 and 700 b.c. and was the first of the southern mound-building societies. The site covered nearly three square miles, and the pathways that crisscrossed the mounds and other earthworks marked the trajectories of the summer and winter solstices. Emblematic of the peoples high regard for the sun and the sky, one large mound was crafted in the shape of a bird. Perhaps two thousand people lived at Poverty Point, and their diet had changed little from that of their Archaic predecessorsthey still hunted and gathered. But their capacity for trade was much more developed. Located near the Mississippi River, traders imported chert, soapstone, and other minerals from northern regions in exchange for locally produced finished goods such as figurines, bowls, pipes, and tools. By about 500 b.c. Poverty Points preeminence in the native economy of the South had started to decline, but their influence had spread up the rivers through the Mississippi and Ohio River valleys.

Coles Creek: 7001100 a.d. After the collapse of the Poverty Point culture several societies in the South began to bury the dead with prestige goods, build mounds, and farm for the bulk of their sustenance. In 700 a.d., for example, the Coles Creek people emerged in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, and they built impressive civil and ceremonial mound centers. They placed houses on top of the mounds presumably to house the chiefs, a pattern that suggests that Coles Creek societies may have been stratified. Unlike the Poverty Point culture, however, Coles Creek people depended on plants more so than animals for their subsistence, but kernels of corn are conspicuously absent from the sites archaeologists have excavated. Instead they raised local plants for consumption. By 1100 a.d. contact with the Mississippian society of Cahokia in Illinois ended the Coles Creek culture and produced a new one archaeologists call Plaquemine.

Cahokia: 10001250 a.d. The third generation of Mound Builders in the South continued the trajectory apparent in the archaeological records of Poverty Point and Coles Creek but differed in one respect. With few exceptions the people archaeologists call Mississippians grew corn. The crops bounty enabled them to produce more food and thus support more people than in any other native culture in precontact America. The first and

largest Mississippian site, Cahokia, developed in the bottomlands of the Mississippi River near present-day East St. Louis, Illinois, sometime around 1000 a.d. Cahokias chiefs supervised the building of the largest earthen structures in prehistoric North America, and they coordinated the production and exchange of a wide range of prestige goods in addition to enormous quantities of foodstuffs. What kept the chiefdom going was trade, and so long as the goods flowed, the chiefdom prospered. The population of Cahokia probably peaked at about twelve thousand people. By 1250 a.d., however, Cahokia was declining. Competition with other chiefdoms, climatic change and a breakdown in the subsistence economy or internal strife may have triggered the decline, but archaeologists still are not sure why a society as well developed as Cahokia disappeared. Nevertheless, the spirit of Cahokia persisted in the religious and political imagery of its art and the tools of its material culture that had been traded throughout the South and in the several Mississippian societies that arose after Cahokias decline.

Mississippians in the South. How the Mississippian culture of Cahokia diffused into the South is something of a mystery. Some archaeologists theorize that migrants from Cahokia carried their culture down the Mississippi River and into the region. Others argue that through trade the ideology and material culture of Cahokia made its imprint on the other indigenous cultures of the South. The Coles Creek culture, in particular, suggests the latter argument because it clearly shows in its later phases the grafting of a foreign Mississippian culture onto the preexisting one. Regardless, Mississippian societies depended on regular surpluses of food to support their growing populations and sprawling political boundaries. Groups in the interior relied much more heavily on corn, however, than those on Gulf and Atlantic coasts where fishing and gathering shellfish remained important.

Coosa: 15001560 a.d. In the early 1500s Coosa was the largest Mississippian chiefdom in the Southeast. It stretched nearly 250 miles from near present-day Knoxville, Tennessee, down the Appalachian Mountains nearly to modern Montgomery, Alabama. Women raised corn, the chiefdoms most important source of food, on the several floodplains that ran through the chiefdom, and sunflower, squash, beans, nuts, and fruits such as persimmons rounded out the peoples vegetable diet. White-tailed deer and bear provided the bulk of meat calories, but men hunted other smaller animals as well. The chiefdoms dependence on corn led to nutritional disorders that archaeologists have found in their examinations of the bones of the Coosa population. A high percentage of corn in the daily diet led to protein deficiencies and anemia. The population lived in small towns that were clustered around one of several mound centers scattered regularly between the northern and southern ends of the chiefdom. Coosas total population was nearly four thousand, but it declined precipitously in the aftermath of Hernando de Sotos visit to the area in 1540.

Calusa: 15001600 a.d. Calusa was one of the few southern chiefdoms that was not Mississippian. What separated it from the rest was a lack of horticulture and a dependence on an Archaic economy. The chiefdom of Calusa was populous and powerful. By combining efficient hunting-and-gathering strategies with fishing they were able to produce enough food to preclude any dependence on horticulture. A hereditary chief who also acted as a priest sat atop the social and political hierarchy and governed the subchiefs, who presided over the individual villages of the chiefdom. To ensure his or her power the chief oversaw the intermarriage of close relatives and used military force to exact tribute from neighboring societies not completely under his or her control.


Charles Hudson, The Southeastern Indians (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1976);

Timothy R. Pauketat and Thomas E. Emerson, eds., Cahokia: Domination and Ideology in the Mississippian World (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997).

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Classical America: The East: South

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