The Mississippi Archaic follows the end of the Paleo-Indian period (13000–8000 BC) and the Pleistocene epoch (1.8 MYA–8,000 BC) and is generally divided into three distinct subperiods: Early (8000–5000 BC), Middle (5000–3000 BC), and Late (3000–1500 BC). At the beginning of the Mississippi Archaic period, North America was quickly changing from a heavily glaciated continent populated by megafauna-like mammoths, mastodons, and saber-toothed tigers to a warmer, more stable ecosystem populated by smaller mammals. Globally, the end of the Pleistocene marks the change from the European Paleolithic to the Neolithic. Known as the Epipaleolithic transition, this is when humans are thought to have first developed agriculture.
In Mississippi the beginning of the Archaic period marks the extinction of the large mammals and the development of increasingly stationary human societies. Rather than moving from place to place utilizing readily available resources, humans began settling down and exploiting seasonally available foodstuffs. This is partly the result of a climactic phenomenon starting in the Middle Archaic known as the Hypsithermal interval, which resulted in the gradual warming of what became the southeastern United States. This warming altered the environment and made it more amenable to less mobile lifestyles. Rising sea levels, a result of increasing temperatures, caused river systems to meander, forming oxbows and backwater swamps ideal for the proliferation of edible aquatic foods. Evidence for this change is seen in increasingly thick middens (trash pits) at Middle Archaic archaeological sites formed from large amounts of shellfish and edible marine resources. Other distinctive elements of the Mississippi Archaic are the development of ground-stone tool technology, the invention of fiber-tempered pottery at the end of the period, and longer-term occupations of seasonal habitation sites. This period also saw a general growth, florescence, and disappearance of regional trade networks.
While the Early Archaic in Mississippi is not very well understood, scholars believe that this period is marked by the continuation of generalized pre-Archaic hunting and gathering adaptations. That humans lived in small bands and maintained highly mobile lifestyles is evident from the absence of expansive village/settlement sites discovered dating to this period as well as from the dearth of any significant well-formed middens. Without repeated or long-term settlement in one area, trash cannot accumulate to indicate human settlement. One distinctive change in projectile point technology is the shift from Clovis-style points, which are large bifacially worked spear points with a centralized groove, to side-notched and stemmed projectile points. Distinctive point types for the Early Archaic are Big Sandy, Cache River, Hardin, and Jude; other common stone tools are manos, pitted cobbles, scrapers, and hafted scrapers.
Post-Pleistocene changes in human lifestyles began in earnest during the Middle Archaic period. As a result of gradually warming environments during the Hypsithermal, aquatic species became more prevalent and hardy and therefore more reliable as a source of calories. Consequently, semipermanent settlement patterns tied to aquatic environs become de rigueur in Mississippi during this time. Seasonal base camps associated with wet and dry seasons are thought to have been utilized; during times of low water (summer), floodplain settlements were preferred, and during the high-water seasons (fall and winter), upland base camps were preferred. In addition to changes in settlement patterns, stone-tool utilization was also shifting. One of the most distinctive technologies to emerge at this time was ground-stone tools. With the inception of this method of manufacturing, axes and blades no longer had the jagged, flaked appearance common to older indigenous weapons and tools. Rather, these objects approached an aesthetic that mirrors our modern concern for balancing form with function. Such ground-stone objects were often made into celts (one-sided and blunt-ended axes), grooved axes, atlatl weights, pendants, grinding stones, and most impressively, a variety of bead forms. The Middle Archaic lapidary (bead-making) industry produced significant numbers of zoomorphic (animal-shaped) stone objects. Artisans at Mississippi’s Denton and Loosa Yokena sites crafted elaborate symbolic reproductions of turtles, locusts, owls, and other creatures. These animal-shaped beads are thought to have had a ceremonial or ritual function and have been found at these sites in conjuction with bead blanks, raw materials, and unfinished pieces. These beads were often made of jasper, nonlocal greenstone, local cherts and quartzites, sandstone, and other exotic materials. The large-scale production of beads at these manufacturing sites shows that while local resources were being used with greater frequency, an elaborate prestige-goods trading network was developing and spanned as far north as the Great Lakes and as far south as the Gulf Coast. This long-distance trading network can also be inferred from the high quantity of nonlocal and exotic materials recovered from Middle Archaic burials.
By the Late Archaic period, the warming trend brought by the Hypsithermal event had ended and was subsequently replaced by cooler, moister weather similar to contemporary weather patterns. Shorelines stabilized, and the shape of Mississippi’s modern-day coastline was established. Streams began flowing swiftly, thereby eroding creek bottoms and exposing more local lithic resources; as a result, local stone materials were used with greater frequency. With the increasing abundance of local resources, humans chose to settle down in one place for longer periods of time. In addition, human populations are thought to have increased during this period as a result of increasing sedentism and the serial utilization of particular food crops. As people lived in one place for longer periods of time, certain plant species experienced increased human consumption and redistribution, thereby possibly marking the beginnings of plant domestication in Mississippi. The Late Archaic period is also marked by the development of ceramic pottery in the Upper Tombigbee Basin. Called the Wheeler series, this type of pottery appears infrequently during the end of the Late Archaic and continues into the overlapping Gulf Formational period. Wheeler pottery is fiber tempered and mostly undecorated, although some has punctations and stamped design motifs; common vessel forms are flat-bottomed bowls and beakers.
- David Anderson, The Paleoindian and Early Archaic Southeast (1996)
- Judith Bense, Archaeology of the Southeastern United States: Paleoindian to World War I (1994)
- Philip Phillips, James A. Ford, and James B. Griffin, Archaeological Survey in the Lower Mississippi Alluvial Valley, 1940–1947 (1951)