Tennessee-Tombigbee Archaeology

In 1906 Congress passed the Federal Antiquities Act to preserve historic and prehistoric properties on government lands. Beginning in 1935 the Smithsonian Institution received responsibility for salvaging historic and prehistoric sites threatened by construction of reservoirs and dams along the nation’s rivers. In the late 1950s this job was transferred to the National Park Service (NPS). In 1966 Congress required all federal agencies to assess damage their projects might cause the environment; three years later, it added protective regulations for historical and archaeological sites.

In 1968 the US Army Corps of Engineers began to study the potential effects of the proposed Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway on the environment and the area’s archaeological and historical sites. The Mobile District began discussions with the NPS to avoid destruction of important sites and structures. The NPS had little funding but authorized studies by the University of Alabama at the lake above Gainesville, Alabama. The NPS also contracted Mississippi State University to look for sites in areas around Columbus, Mississippi.

From 1970 to 1974 thousands of acres were inspected, and dozens of archaeological sites were found and tested. The most interesting sites received more thorough excavation. During this era the federal government also required agencies to find historical and archaeological sites affected by projects and to determine whether those sites were important enough to warrant inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.

Dozens of archaeological sites and dozens of buildings lost to the construction of the waterway were excavated by scientists and archaeologists or measured and relocated by historians and architects and engineers. But most of the sites within the waterway project area were identified, evaluated, and preserved. The Corps of Engineers used remote sensing, radiocarbon dating, statistical sampling, and stratigraphic studies and analyzed pollen, soil, and plant and animal remains to discover the environmental and cultural changes that had taken place within the waterway since 10000 BC.

Native American use of the Tombigbee River Valley seems to have followed a cycle over thousands of years. During the Paleo-Indian and Early Archaic periods (10000–6500 BC), most artifacts and the only intact sites were found in northern rock shelters. Environmentalists, geologists, and archaeologists studied a few early artifacts and a handful of very early sites found in the waterway to fill a gap in our knowledge of early prehistory. These sites showed that the earliest Paleo-Indian and Early Archaic peoples in all segments of the waterway were hunters and gatherers who lived in widely spaced small family groups but shared the styles of their chipped stone tools with others across large parts of the Southeast. The widespread hunting patterns of this period must have included vast territories within which all of life’s necessities could be found. The entire river valley, from its uplands in the Tennessee hills zone to below where it joins the Black Warrior River, may have served as the hunting territory for only one band of these early Native American families.

During the Middle Archaic period (6500–2500 BC) most large, undisturbed sites were near the boundary of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Hills and Eutaw Hills environmental zones. Larger Native American groups collected seasonally different animals and plants within one section of the river valley and used nearby stone for tools. But with a gradual change to a warmer and drier climate after 4500 BC, the environment in the waterway became like that of today. Increasing ceremonial trade in stone tools with different local styles reveals exchange of raw materials with groups well to both the north and south. This provided families with access to food without having to scatter into small groups at different seasons. In the Black Prairie areas of the waterway, Middle Archaic people continued to live in small and seasonally shifting groups with lifeways similar to other cultures across the Gulf Coastal Plain, but some of the midden mound sites excavated in the central and upper floodplains of the waterway may be the earliest permanent sites in the country.

Between 2000 BC and 200 BC, in the poorly known Late Archaic period and in the following Gulf Formational period, a variety of seeds, nuts, and fruits became more important in the Native Americans’ diet. The greatest number of Late Gulf Formational period sites were found in that central part of the waterway where the Eutaw Hills and Black Prairie environmental zones meet and where the greatest number of different plants and animals could be found within a short distance.

There was very little occupation of this portion of the main trunk of the Tombigbee River Valley during the Middle Woodland period (200 BC–AD 600). It is hard to imagine that the causes for near abandonment in this period had much to do with finding food, and economics were not the only reason for Native Americans to act. It is likely that in the Middle Woodland period the kinds of rituals that took place where Native American groups came together put a high value on objects that were difficult to obtain. Perhaps that is why locations farther away from such easy routes for moving goods were favored. Indeed, three of the largest Middle Woodland ritual sites in the southeast lie less than twenty miles from the main Tombigbee River Valley.

Then, in the Late Woodland and Mississippian periods (AD 600–1400), hunting with the bow and arrow became common, and after AD 950 corn and beans from the North and West were introduced to the Tombigbee River Valley, giving a new importance to farming and floodplain wildlife. The largest Native American groups along the Tombigbee River seem to have lived in the Black Prairie zone. But these populations were growing too large even for the productive bottomlands of the Tombigbee River Valley, and they certainly seem to have become so large and dense that traditional family rules and customs no longer regulated social comfort or provided cultural security. Such older customs must have been less and less useful as family groups increasingly relied on the same natural resources. Even cultivated plants only slowly gave more food for more labor.

By AD 1050 Native Americans occupying the broad and fertile floodplains of the Lower Tombigbee and Alabama River Valleys to the south and east, the middle Tennessee River Valley to the north, and the Lower Mississippi River Valley to the west reorganized their societies along theocratic and militaristic patterns reminiscent of those in central Mexico. The Late Woodland peoples of the Black Prairie adopted this more hierarchical way of life that promised more and better crops as well as better protection from conflict with their neighbors and with each other. This new Mississippian way of life may have seemed blessed by the supernatural powers that ran the world. It must only have seemed right that it came with more exciting and gaudy rituals that tied together the rulers of the spiritual world and those who ruled the new society.

Only one major Mississippian site was excavated in the area along the Tombigbee River that would become the waterway, but one of the largest and most elaborate ritual towns of this new Mississippian society existed just a few miles to the east, in the Lower Black Warrior River Valley. During this Mississippian period more use was made of the fish and mollusks and of the easily tilled, well-drained, and rich soils of the Black Prairie river bottoms, and socially distinct Mississippian groups lived in the central and southern portions of the waterway. These groups show differences in their pottery, their houses, and their site planning. In the north, villages were not only fortified but were located on river bluffs up tributary streams.

However, the Latest Woodland cultures had very low populations in the Upper Tombigbee Valley. The social and ritual practices of Mississippian culture seldom occurred in the uplands between the major river valleys, and the Upper Tombigbee may have served as a refuge for Late Woodland people who had less need or desire for a lifestyle in which material and spiritual comfort would come at the cost of individual freedom. Perhaps even in prehistory the more traditional members of a culture felt at home in the hills.

The studies of physical anthropology and analyses of ritual symbols from the Mississippian sites in the project area explain the origin and growth of Mississippian political systems. From those studies archaeologists have determined the possible importance of climatic change for the limits of Mississippian economic and political control. After 1250, crop reductions, malnutrition, and internecine raiding reduced most large Mississippian societies to smaller, more scattered, and less organized groups of Native Americans well before the first Europeans arrived.

Unlike the earlier shifts related to the nature and location of the resources the Native Americans used, conflict seems responsible for the fact that the main Tombigbee River Valley was mostly abandoned as a place to live year round during the three hundred to four hundred years from the end of the Mississippian period to US Removal of the Native Americans beyond the Mississippi in the 1800s. Some of the groups moved to the area around the junction of the Black Warrior and Tombigbee Rivers in the early historic period and finally to the French forts along the Lower Tombigbee and Alabama Rivers. The easy movement of well-organized, hostile tribal groups allied with larger chiefdoms or European colonies apparently made the Tombigbee River Valley unattractive if not dangerous for Native American population concentrations.

Scholarly studies along the Tombigbee River did not end with the opening of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway. As operations of this artery of communication continue, archaeologists and historians monitor the sites and structures that were preserved in the project area, thousands of artifacts still exist in the waterway, and research continues on the drawings, photographs, and artifacts that came from the waterway.

Further Reading

  • Cleveland Museum of Natural History for the US Army Corps of Engineers, Mobile District, Yesterday’s River: The Archaeology of 10,000 Years along the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway (1991)
  • Raymond D. Fogelson, ed., The Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 14, The Southeast (2004)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Tennessee-Tombigbee Archaeology
  • Author
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date June 5, 2020
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 15, 2018