The Rise and Fall of Moundville: Mississippian Culture in Ancient America
The Moundville archaeological site, occupied from around 1120 CE until 1650 CE, was a large Mississippian settlement on the Black Warrior River in central Alabama. Many archaeologists and scholars believe that the Chickasaws and other tribes from the Southeastern United States descended from the Mississippian-era inhabitants of Moundville . Much of the Chickasaw culture and the economic and political structure—as well as that of dozens of other tribes—was greatly influenced and shaped by the mound-building Mississippian civilization, which is named after the river valley in North America where this culture flourished.
Complex societies emerged during the Mississippian period, which spans from roughly 900 CE to 1400 CE. The hierarchical ranking of clans, family house groups and lineages developed into permanent institutionalized status differences. Burgeoning elites controlled regional chiefdoms and organized warfare, resulting in the displacement of large populations and the abandonment of some river valleys. The mass cultivation of corn began during this era as well, intensively planted and harvested in huge maize fields along rivers where fertile floodwaters enriched the soil annually. The chiefly aristocracy’s domination of sedentary population centers and long distance trade networks emanated from these developing societal changes. This systemic control of trade networks subsequently allowed them to acquire exotic objects such as copper plates with symbolic imagery, mica cutouts, rare feathers, exotic ceramics, stone implements and engraved marine shell art or ornaments.
The Mississippian period marked the height of mound building, and mound-and-plaza architecture proliferated throughout the Mississippi Valley and present-day Southeastern and Midwestern United States. Mound building evolved from round-shaped domes used exclusively for the burial of important tribal members to rectangular to flat-topped mounds that served as platforms to elevate temples or chiefly residences . Some mound sites were the metropolises of their day, 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 celebrations.
By 1250 CE, Moundville was one of the largest North American settlements north of Mexico and had a population of over 1,000. At its height, the Moundville chiefdom extended for miles throughout the Black Warrior (‘Tashka Lusa’) River valley. The site comprised of 320 acres, was enclosed by a 10-foot tall protective palisade with bastions, and featured a large central plaza with 29 earthen mounds, ranging from 3 feet to 57 feet in height.
The mounds are arranged in a bilateral symmetrical pattern reminiscent of the Chickasaw clan camp circle . The largest mounds are found on the northern end of the plaza and repeating pairs of mounds complete the circle with the smallest mounds on the southern end. The most highly ranked house groups occupied the northern end in the Chickasaw camp circle, while the lower ranked house groups were placed on the southern end. These similarities suggest that the monumental earthen architecture of the Moundville site may be a representation of the social structure of its population.
The town was occupied for some time, but the fall of the community was rapid and scholars do not fully understand the rise of Moundville or its swift decline . Between 1300 CE and 1600 CE, Moundville underwent drastic changes. By the late 1500s, the area was no longer a fortified city and only a sparsely populated ceremonial center and burial place remained. Various theories have been advanced to explain the decline, which could have been due to feuding leaders, warfare, the “little Ice Age,” food shortages, diseases or a more general societal shift.
For reasons that are not fully understood, Moundville inhabitants began to migrate away from the city permanently and disperse throughout the Black Warrior River valley. They continued to retain much of the civilization’s material culture, however, and people did return to bury their kin in meaningful locations near the mounds. New archaeological developments that take tribal traditions into account could shed light on the specific circumstances that prompted Moundville’s decline, but what is known is that the Moundville site was all but abandoned in the 16 th century. The various groups and waves of people who deserted Moundville continued to move and resettle throughout the area, possibly becoming parts of the Muscogee, Alabama, Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes.
The Moundville Archaeological Park now rests on the site. The park is comprised of 320 acres and contains prehistoric, Mississippian-era Native American earthwork mounds and burial sites. It was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1964 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1966. The Moundville Museum was erected in 1939 and renovations were completed in 2010. The museum now uses some of the latest technology and showcases over 250 artifacts from one of the most significant Native American archaeological sites in the United States.