Evolution of a Native American Society: A Journey Through Ancient History
As a Native American culture, the Chickasaw people broadly trace their ancestry back to the migratory peoples of the Paleo-Indian period , which spanned from roughly 10,000 BC - 8500 BC. Legend has it that the Chickasaws migrated for generations from “the place in the West” to settle in what is now the Southeast.
The climate was drier and colder than today in the centuries after humans first migrated to the Americas and glaciers covered the northern lands. Paleo-Indian era people roamed the country in small extended family bands and hunted herds of mammoth, mastodon, giant bison, horse, ground sloth and other Pleistocene megafauna.
The people of this era used Clovis point spears to hunt, which have been discovered all over North America, as well as in what is now Mississippi. Clovis points were often made of exotic high-quality flint, or chert, and sometimes traced to modern day northern Alabama and middle Tennessee, the Chickasaw’s historic homeland.
By the Archaic Era , 8000 BC -1000 BC, glaciers melted as temperatures rose and fluctuated. As the climate changed, some of the large animals that the ancient Americans of this era depended on disappeared. Eventually temperatures became more stable, which allowed Native peoples to settle into their environments. The Mississippi River also made its transition from a glacial outwash stream of converging and diverging waterways to a broad, meandering river and rich floodplain. For the ancestors of the Chickasaws, rivers would become highways for them to trade goods aboard dugout canoes.
Plant foods and smaller animals, such as whitetail deer, became the major source of sustenance as people adapted. With the invention of ground stone tools, the ancient people of North America began to process nuts or seeds such as hickory nuts, acorns, sunflower and chenopodium. Ground and polished stone axes were also developed for deadening trees and working wood. Sharp points were chipped from high-quality chert and then affixed to throwing spears, which were launched with the aid of the atlatl or spear-throwing stick. The end of this long cultural stage was marked by growing populations and the establishment of territories, with mobile bands of people congregating seasonally along rivers at shellfish sites.
The ancient Native American people began to establish semi-permanent clan villages during the Woodland Era (1000 BC - 900 CE) and relied to a larger extent on nuts and seeds boiled in cordmarked clay pottery vessels. Rich wetland plant, animal, fish, and shellfish sustained the ancestors of today’s southeastern and Mississippi Valley tribes. Hunting and gathering also continued with increasingly larger populations along the river valleys.
During the Middle Woodland period, long-distance trade peaked with the movement of exotic chert blades, native copper, galena, quartz crystal, marine shell, decorated pottery and other valued items. Ceramic technology and the construction of earthen mounds for communal ceremonies and funerary rites also became a universal trait of Woodland societies.
The throwing spear was replaced by the bow and arrow toward the end of the Woodland Era and people began to hunt smaller animals. As the wild food resources fluctuated, dietary stress increased in places with population influxes and some of the weaker clans began to starve. Corn, or maize, was originally domesticated in Mexico, but arrived in the Southeast during the Late Woodland period and foretold dramatic changes to come.
Complex societies emerged during the Mississippian cultural stage, which spanned from 900 CE - 1600 CE. Much of Chickasaw culture, as well as that of dozens of other southern and eastern tribes, can be traced to this era. The Mississippian descendants of modern-day Native Americans of the southeastern United States widely adopted the sociopolitical organization, diet, cosmology, customs and other practices of this era.
Mound building peaked during the Mississippian Era and mound-and-plaza architecture proliferated all over the Southeast, Midwest, and Mississippi Valley. Some mound sites were cities, with a thousand or more people dwelling within the protection of a log palisade. Others were ceremonial centers where dispersed tribes would gather periodically for ceremonial events and rejoicing. Pyramidal, flat-topped mounds served to elevate chiefly residences, temples and ceremonial structures over the rest of the community.
One of the main functions of the clan was to provide kinship with clan members in other villages and traditionally, a person would not be allowed to marry someone within his or her own clan. While the old totemic clans may have been deemphasized by chiefly elites who benefitted from maintaining a stratified society, the people never abandoned the core institution of matrilineal social organization.