Mississippian Decline

Archaeologists have documented the abandonment of major Mississippian ceremonial centers and other secondary mound centers in the Black Warrior Valley in Alabama by the mid-sixteenth century, a period often referred to as the decline of the Mississippian tradition. Populations moved from the mound sites and resettled in nucleated villages in the river valley. Researchers have developed several explanations for these changes, including the introduction of European diseases, social and economic collapse, and soil depletion.

Several scholars have documented nutritional stress associated with the collapse of Mississippian societies in Alabama. This physiological stress coupled with Native American immune systems provided little protection against European diseases such as smallpox, measles, and influenza that were introduced in the early 1500s. Spanish slavers Francisco Gordillo and Pedro de Quejo are known to have made first contact along the South Carolina coast in 1521, with other European explorers closely following. Consequently, depopulation created by poor nutrition or disease could account for a decline in traditional social and political structures. However, the exodus from Moundville began before Europeans reached the North American coast, meaning that other factors must have been involved.

Climatic and ecological instability in the southeastern United States between AD 1300 and 1400 have been cited as the possible cause for soil depletion, particularly in Tennessee’s Little River Valley. Maize agriculture provided an important food source for large Mississippian settlements and populations. If crop production declined because of poor soils or climatic factors, populations would have been forced to relocate to new agricultural areas or to separate into smaller groups to forage on naturally occurring food resources. Population movement and a decrease in group size may have necessitated the adoption of different social and economic organizations, especially if agricultural production declined. Soil depletion and a decreased labor force have been cited as possible causes for the drop in dietary maize associated with the Mississippian decline at the Moundville Ceremonial center in Alabama.

In addition to relocating to the river valley, several other cultural changes begin to appear during the later Mississippian time. At several archaeological sites the tradition of primary articulated burials, some very elaborate, was replaced by a new and more popular custom of disarticulated secondary burials. These defleshed burials were sometimes placed in urns or in mass graves. In addition to the adoption of a new burial mode, warfare iconography associated with the height of the Mississippian period disappeared during this time, along with many large palisaded villages and ceremonial centers.

Although population movement and resettlement from many ceremonial centers and other villages occurred during this time, not all secondary mound centers were abandoned. One example is the Lyon’s Bluff site, a single-mound village located approximately nineteen kilometers northeast of Starkville. Researchers have documented continuous occupation of the Lyon’s Bluff site from AD 1200 to 1650. Another example is the Lubbub Creek single-mound village site in western Alabama, which was also occupied well into the seventeenth century. Populations at the Lyon’s Bluff and Lubbub Creek sites may have relied more on natural resources than did Moundville and other larger ceremonial sites where maize may have been the most important food source. Both the Lyon’s Bluff and Lubbub Creek sites are situated in the Black Belt physiographic province, which extends from north-central Mississippi to west-central Alabama. This geological formation is known for its fertile soils. The location of the Lyon’s Bluff and Lubbub Creek mound sites in this agriculturally productive area, combined with different social and economic conditions, may have led to the continued use of these sites long after the decline of Mississippian mound and ceremonial centers located elsewhere.

Further Reading

  • William W. Baden, A Dynamic Model of Stability and Change in Mississippian Agricultural Systems (1987)
  • S. Homes Hogue, Southeastern Archaeology (Winter 2007)
  • Vernon James Knight Jr., James A. Brown, George E. Lankford, Southeastern Archaeology (Winter 2001)
  • Vernon James Knight Jr. and Vincas P. Steponaitis, in Archaeology of the Moundville Chiefdom, ed. Vernon James Knight Jr. and Vincas P. Steponaitis (1998)
  • Evan Peacock and S. Homes Hogue, Southeastern Archaeology (Summer 2005)
  • Christopher S. Peebles, Mississippi Archaeology (June 1987)
  • Margaret J. Schoeninger and Mark R. Schurr, in Archaeology of the Moundville Chiefdom, ed. James Vernon Knight Jr. and Vincas P. Steponaitis (1998)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Mississippian Decline
  • Author
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date July 5, 2020
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 14, 2018