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Moundville Linked to Chickasaw Past

By Richard Green

December Times  2000

History’s first glimpse of Chickasaws occurred when Hernando de Soto’s Spanish expedition settled into a village the Indians had abandoned in December 1540. Although the Spaniards stayed into March and had frequent contact with the Chickasaws, “glimpse,” unfortunately, is the word that best characterizes the written accounts of the Spanish chroniclers.

Apparently these Spanish were too single-minded to be curious about or interested in the people they had encountered. Of course, as is evident from the chroniclers’ accounts of the expedition’s four-year trek across the Southeast, they recorded few details about the culture of any of the tribes they met.

Thus, a golden opportunity was lost to not only note their observations of tribal culture at the earliest point in recorded history, but also to provide an account of at least the people’s most recent history. This is particularly unfortunate because it is likely that less than a century before–and maybe only a few years before–the Chickasaws who encountered de Soto had been living in very different circumstances. In fact, it is possible that within that relatively short time-span the people had come together from various settlements to form what would first be recognized at Chicaca as the Chickasaw tribe.

Trying to work back into tribal history in a step-wise fashion prior to December 1540 may be an impossible task. We don’t know where precisely the Chickasaws were living then let alone prior to that time. But archaeologists who have studied Southeastern prehistoric human remains and artifacts believe that the ancestors of the Chickasaws and most other Southeastern tribes were the highly centralized, mound-building Indians of the so-called Mississippian Period (roughly 900 to 1600 A.D.)

De Soto came along when this 700-year period was collapsing and, as a result, many of the groups of Indians were moving permanently away from the period’s characteristic centralized chiefdoms to more decentralized and democratic tribes. Descriptions in the de Soto chronicles suggest that the Chickasaws were going through this period of transition.

During the collapse, it is possible that migrating Indians from different locations in the Southeast had come together to form upland settlements overlooking rivers and streams. That this convergence may have happened is one reason why Governor Bill Anoatubby has initiated Chickasaw Nation claims with the federal government involving Mississippian Period human remains and artifacts recently unearthed in construction projects in the Nashville area. The claims were initiated not to take possession of the material, but in keeping with tribal policy, to expedite the reburial of the remains and artifacts as near the original sites as possible. No one can say that none of the thousands of Indians who lived in the Nashville area during the Mississippian Period were or were not ancestral Chickasaws. But it is well-known that between 1400 and 1500 A.D., most of the Mississippian Indians abandoned the area. Why they left and where they went has been the subject of years of speculation and debate.

Similar upheavals were taking place at approximately the same time in other Southeastern locations. One of the best documented by archaeologists occurred at Moundville. Because it is only 60 to 70 miles southeast of where some experts on de Soto’s expedition believe that the Spaniards wintered over near the Chickasaws, Moundville may have been a prime site for ancestral Chickasaws. This does not suggest that Moundvillians wound up settling in Chicaca. Artifacts do suggest, however, that the Moundvillians dispersed throughout the Black Warrior River Valley of western Alabama. But Moundville pottery that dates from 1100 to almost 1500 has been found west of the Tombigbee River in Mississippi. This means that not only Moundvillians but also descendants of prior generations of Moundvillians could be ancestral Chickasaws.

More specifically, some of the Moundville artifacts have been unearthed just northeast of Starkville, Mississippi at Lyon’s Bluff, which archaeologist Marvin Smith, among others, thinks could have been the location of Chicaca.

The evidence linking Moundville to the Chickasaw is circumstantial and archaeologists don’t like to go out on limbs. But, Moundville is a window to the tribe’s distant past, at the very least as a symbol of an epoch through which Southeastern Indians passed.

Archaeologists have been digging at the Moundville site on and off for nearly a century and each excavation yields new information that increases understanding or is fodder for new thinking about Moundville culture. So the fruits of any article are temporary. The purpose of this brief article on Moundville is to provide basic information and a bibliography for those wanting to learn more or expand and update their knowledge.

Not everything about the mound-building culture has been helpful for public discourse. One group thought they divined a cosmic origin of the mounds, speculating that space aliens had built them (not just the mounds at Moundville but all Southeastern prehistoric mounds). That nuttiness was disseminated by misguided individuals or charlatans, via the media, before their fifteen minutes of fame expired. That such nonsense would have gained the public’s attention was partially due to the scholars’ own sketchy knowledge of the mounds’ origin.

The earliest pottery on the site dated to about 1050 A.D. Shortly thereafter, the first mound was built, presumably as a burial mound for high-status people. Such earthen mounds had been built for hundreds of years. What made Moundville different than other older and contemporary mound sites was that the Moundvillians kept building mounds of various sizes and shapes and with different purposes. By 1300, Moundville had become the megalopolis of its day, probably as awe inspiring to visitors as New York City is to Americans from small rural communities.

Most settlements then consisted of a few houses, some gardens, less than a hundred people and possibly a single mound. Moundville’s 300 acres, and 1,000 people were enclosed on three sides by a 10- foot-tall palisade and the Black Warrior River to the north. Within the enclosure were at least 26 mounds ranging from a few that were little more than knolls to immense edifices, one almost 60 foot high. Also within the enclosure was a central plaza and dozens of houses made of poles and thatch.

The arrangement of the mounds around the plaza implies order and planning, according to Vernon Knight, a University of Alabama archaeologist who has studied and published numerous articles about Moundville. In trying to interpret the plan, Knight uses what he thinks is a good analogy, a Chickasaw man’s 1904 diagram showing the house groups of a Chickasaw camp square convened for an important council at some distant, though unknown time.

In the diagram of Josiah Mikey, clans were arranged by rank around the rectangular campground divided bilaterally and centered on a council fire symbolized in the traditional Chickasaw manner by a cross in a circle. The highest ranking clans in each division were assigned positions on a north-south axis. Knight purports that the mounds arrayed around Moundville’s plaza were also ranked kin groups.

Although Knight admits the analogy is not perfect, he does note that Moundville and the diagram share a rectangular plaza, bilateral symmetry on a north-south axis, a center reference point, arrangement of basic community segments by rank around the plaza and ranking of the segments starting at center north. Accordingly, Knight speculates that the pairs of mounds around the periphery of the plaza represent a fixed rank ordering of local kin groups. “It was an attempt by an emergent nobility to make a newly transformed social order tangible, inviolable, immovable, sacred.”

Archaeologists refer to Moundville as a paramount chiefdom, suggesting that power was concentrated in a chief and members of an elite class who controlled Moundville and some of the many smaller villages that were located nearby in the Black Warrior River valley, usually in riverbend areas to take advantage of the fertile farmlands. Moundville itself was developed in one of these areas undoubtedly for the same reason. Why it mushroomed the way it did, becoming the center of political and religious activities, is not known. But it may have had to do with the ascendency and maintenance of an especially charismatic and powerful family or group of leaders.That could be why the pyramidal, flat-topped  mounds grew to such heights. The larger ones must have taken generations to build. There is evidence that the chief lived in a structure on the top of the mound and that when he died, the structure was burned down and buried under fresh layers of dirt, carried by laborers in baskets. Such labor implies coercion and therefore different strata of Moundville society. Other laborers grew maize, squash and beans, or hunted or crafted remarkable works of art. Supporting evidence for this elite and non-elite society is also derived from the burials found all around Moundville. Commoners typically were buried underneath their houses with little or no grave goods.      

 On the other hand, some of Moundville’s lesser earthworks were used as mortuaries of the elite; prestige goods are present in most of these graves, sometimes adorning the human remains. Some relics are identified with certain political or religious offices. Often, the chief conducted both civil affairs and highly ritualistic religious ceremonies inside his residence, which was barred from all but a handful of elite members. Moundville artisans fashioned prestige goods from marine shells, copper, and other minerals like mica and galena. Their artistic excellence with pottery and stoneware have made Moundville a primary site in the study and interpretation of Mississippian imagery. Other prestige goods were imported as tribute from smaller chiefdoms or as trade items from more substantial chiefdoms. These prestige goods from nearly the entire eastern part of the continent demonstrate that a vigorous system of trade existed. The 10-foot palisades indicate that warfare existed as well.

If 1200 to 1300 was the high watermark of the Moundville chiefdom, function and purpose seemed to change after that. Before 1400, the population seemed to have thinned out and the palisade was gone. These were the initial signs of what would be a century and a half of decline. Some of the mounds seemed to have been abandoned and the mortuary rituals appear to have been less important. By 1500, few Moundvillians were left on site and it was no longer a paramount chiefdom. Various theories have been advanced to explain this decline. One for which there was plenty of evidence in many other Mississippian sites was that Moundville had simply outgrown the ability to feed its people. Contributing to this could have been successive years of unfavorable weather and /or a maize blight. Another explanation was profound mortality associated with the spread of infectious diseases via the de Soto expedition.

These last two have little support within the archaeological community in recent years. Virtually all agree that the decline was due to internal combustion of some sort, but there is no concensus on cause or causes. For much more detailed information and theories on Moundville’s development, the following bibliography is a good place to start. All of the articles cited are located in the Tribal Library at the Ada Headquarters. Copies may be obtained for a nominal fee by contacting the Library at 580-436-2603, ext. 302.

A Short Moundville Bibliography

Vernon James Knight, Jr. and Vincas P. Steponaitis, “A New History of Moundville.”
Knight, “An Ethnographic Analogy.”
Mary Lucas Powell, “Of Time and the River: Perspectives on Health During the Moundville Chiefdom.”
Paul D. Welch, “Outlying Sites within the Moundville Chiefdom.”
Welch, “Control over Goods and  the Political Stability of the Moundville Chiefdom.”
Christopher S. Peebles, “The Rise and Fall of the Mississippian in Western Alabama: The Moundville and Summerville Phases, A.D. 1000 to 1600.”
Margaret J. Schoeninger, Lisa Sattenspiel and Mark Schurr, “Transitions at Moundville: A Question of Collapse.”

Last Updated: 08/26/2014