Cahokia and Mississippian Native Culture


Archeologists have studied various prehistoric civilizations to understand their cultures and existence. In this regard, Mississippian native culture is one of the societies that inspire the curiosity of many historians and archeologists. According to Alt (2018), Mississippian culture existed between 700 and 1500 AD before the arrival of the European explorers. This civilization became known as Mississippian culture because it started in the middle of river Mississippi valley. Significantly, archaeologists associate the popularity of the Mississippi civilization with Cahokia, the most significant prehistoric site. Indeed, Cahokia acted as a dynamic urban center of the Mississippi culture. Historians argue that Cahokia’s size was considerably larger than London and Paris and had a population of about 15000 to 20000 residents (Alt, 2018). The city influenced the exchange of religious, cultural, and political norms, thus shaping Mississippian culture. Fundamentally, Cahokia urban center played an indispensable role in uniting people from different backgrounds to establish one big Mississippian culture characterized by farming, chiefdom rulers, and earthworks, among other cultural values.

Origin and History of Mississippian Culture

Initially, residents of Mississippi River Valley and its neighborhoods practiced a simple lifestyle. They often gathered wild fruits and complemented them with harvests from small garden plots. The majority of the communities in the region were small and living independently. However, the new Mississippian era emerged as the communities grew in size. The development of the Cahokia urban center facilitated the union of the different societies. Mehta and Connaway (2020) claim that Mississippian culture comprised several tribes that shared the same traditions or lifestyles. The establishment of a common culture led to the rise of new influential leaders, adopting similar rituals, and building fortified small homesteads and earthen mounds. Although Native Americans left no written records, the studies by archeologists demonstrated that migrations of the individuals led to the borrowing of ideas, thus facilitating the fast spread of the new tradition across the Southeast.

Mississippian Daily Life

People from the Mississippian culture were farmers, fishermen, and hunters. They grew different types of crops, including corns, squash, beans, and sunflowers. Principally, the Mississippians are famous for the corn production and trade (Alt, 2018). They owned small plots and worked by hands using stone or shell hoes. The Mississippians never used fertilizers and depended on the traditional shifting cultivation. They would slash and burn the unwanted vegetation and plant their crops in those fields. Mississippian people also relied on turtles, fish, and deer as their source of proteins. Importantly, they gathered wild fruits, nuts, and acorns to supplement their cultivated crops.

The Native Americans living in Mississippi embraced the craft industry, especially pottery. They fashioned the tools they needed for their daily activities from shell, stone, pottery, and wood (Mehta & Connaway, 2020). For instance, Mississippians shaped stones into knives, axes, arrows, and scrapers while crafting bones into fishhooks and awls. These instruments were vital in various day-to-day activities such as cooking, processing foods, and trading. Some people processed crop produce by pounding them in wooden mortars using pestles while others used grinding stones. In the cooking process, they utilized kettle-shaped jars to prepare their meals and served them using bottles, bowls, and dishes. A study by Alt (2018) also revealed that Mississippians were involved in basketry and earthenware pottery, thus producing gourds, pots, and other containers that carried food and drinks. Products from pottery were often plain and drab, although some vessels included stamped and incised designs, mainly painted using white, red, and black colors.

Mississippian inhabitants lived a simple life characterized by outdated lifestyles and low living standards. Based on the archeologists’ research, the remains of the Mississippian houses indicate that they adopted different housing models, including circular, square, and rectangular shapes (Mehta & Connaway, 2020). Most houses were tiny in size, consisting of one-room buildings, which could host two or three individuals. House walls were made of vertical logs, strengthened using foundation trenches covered with grass, cane wattles, or mud-and-straw plaster. The poor sanitation of their houses contributed to the spread of infections, which killed many infants. Archeologists also claim that most residents experienced tooth decay due to their reliance on a corn-based diet (Alt, 2018). They also faced other health risks such as arthritis and tuberculosis, and thus, Mississippians had a relatively short lifespan compared to the modern-day population in the same region.

Mississippian Social Organization

The Mississippian civilization was organized into chiefdoms ruled by a chief or an official leader. Families’ status or social ranks helped in categorizing and dividing chiefdom societies. Individuals in various chiefdoms inherited their social rank at birth, but they could gain power and prestige through personal achievements. Chiefs ensured the peaceful coexistence of the people in the region, especially Cahokia, the major trading center. Indeed, the Spanish explorers wrote the accounts on Mississippians in which they noted the existence of chiefdoms before the 16th century (Alt, 2018). In their views, powerful chiefs lived in towns protected by wooden palisades and earthen mounds. For instance, the Moundville site was a fortified and large capital town comprising several mounds. Earthen mounds also served religious purposes, including offering rituals and burying the dead. Archeologists suggested that the recently evacuated bones in mounds belonged to high-ranking chiefs (Mehta & Connaway, 2020). Other people were buried near their houses, and a few common tools, such as axes, were found in their graves. Nevertheless, there is little information on the ceremonial and religious life of Mississippi’s and Cahokia’s inhabitants.

Economic Activities and Trading

Mississippian people participated in trading activities through the barter trade method. The Cahokia City was the central marketplace of Mississippian civilization (Mehta & Connaway, 2020). Residents exchanged the materials they produced locally, such as pottery products, with commodities they did not have. For instance, marine shells or other exotic goods were exchanged with white-tailed deer beaver pelts or hides. Additionally, Mississippians valued ornamental industry, and thus, they acquired copper from the Great Lakes region to produce cultural symbols. The generosity of the Cahokia’s and Mississippi’s inhabitants also strengthened the trading activities. In Cahokia, gift-giving was a common phenomenon that helped transition of ornamental items from one generation to another and among different societies. Therefore, trading activities were not attached to monetary or economic value during the time, but ensured the inhabitants received materials they needed for survival and meeting other life demands.

The Decline of Cahokia and the Fall of the Mississippian Culture

Historians and archaeologists are not sure of the reasons behind the decline of Cahokia. Notwithstanding, it is believed that about 1300 AD, the population size of Cahokia started to reduce (Alt, 2018). By the time the first European explorers arrived in southern North American, the famous Cahokia urban center was abandoned. The decline of Cahokia could have emanated from the massive deaths of the inhabitants due to severe droughts, heavy flooding, or vast earthquakes, which destroyed the agricultural system in the region. The Mississippian traditions also declined with the collapse of Cahokia. Other historians believe the interactions with the Europeans about 1500 AD led to the introduction of new diseases, which led to the death of thousands of residents, thus ending the Mississippian culture (Alt, 2018). Today, Mississippian descendants belong to the Osage and Chickasaw tribes, which practice the culture to a less extent due to little information about it and changes in the contemporary world.


Archeological investigations have established Mississippian culture as an essential prehistoric civilization. The growth of the great city of Cahokia led to the union of different tribes living in the Mississippi River Valley and its neighborhood. As a result, the Mississippian culture emerged, characterized by ornamental affinity, corn farming, hunting, and fishing. Inhabitants also engaged in social organization that was defined by family status or social rank gained at birth. Powerful chiefs lived in the cities, mainly covered by mounds, and ruled the chiefdoms. Mississippians depended on farm produce supplemented with wild fruits and nuts for their diet. They processed these foods using tools such as grinding stones and cooked them utilizing kettle-shaped jars. Significantly, residents of Cahokia and Mississippi traded with people from various regions through barter trade to acquire materials, including copper and marine shells, they needed to produce ornamental items and meet other life necessities. Little information exists about the collapse of Cahokia, although historians believe flooding, earthquakes, severe droughts, and diseases might have been the primary reasons. Presently, descendants of Mississippian culture belong to the Osage and Chickasaw tribes.


Alt, S. M. (2018). Cahokia’s complexities: Ceremonies and politics of the first Mississippian farmers. University of Alabama Press.

Mehta, J. M., & Connaway, J. M. (2020). Mississippian culture and Cahokian identities as considered through household archaeology at Carson, a monumental center in North Mississippi. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, 27(1), 28-53. Web.

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