Virtually all that is known about the North American indigenous peoples before European contact comes from the discipline of archaeology. Archaeology is that branch of anthropology that investigates people's past by studying their material remains. Lacking written records, archaeologists could not give most of the prehistoric groups specific names. Therefore, archaeologists created names such as Paleo-Indian, Middle Woodland, Mississippian, Marksville, and Plaquemine to identify distinctive pre-contact Native American groups by culture and time of existence.
During the prehistoric period that began some 12,000 years ago in present-day Mississippi, Native Americans were the only inhabitants in the area. There are over 19,000 prehistoric archaeological sites recorded in Mississippi, and one section of the state, the Yazoo Basin (Mississippi Delta), boasts one of the highest concentrations of prehistoric archaeological sites in the world.
The earliest period is named the Paleo-Indian period, which dates from approximately 10,000 B.C. to 8,000 B.C. During this period, the landscape and accompanying pattern of human occupation were considerably different from that of recent times. The colder and wetter climate supported vegetation and wildlife unlike that of today. Evergreen forests of spruce and fir were common. Mastodon and bison roamed open grasslands. People of this period organized in small bands and were nomadic, following the movements of the large animals that they hunted for food and shelter. Their major hunting weapon was a wooden spear shaft tipped with a medium- to fine-chipped stone point.
As the climate warmed to one more characteristic of today’s climate, material culture indicates a lifestyle that became increasingly more sedentary. This pattern began in what is named the Archaic period (circa 8,000 B.C. to 500 B.C.) and continued into the Woodland (circa 500 B.C. to A.D. 1000) and Mississippian (circa A.D. 1000 to 1550) periods. Click here for a general summary of the characteristics of prehistoric periods. (Acrobat PDF)
Native Americans had established thousands of pre-contact settlements in Mississippi because of the area’s favorable environmental factors: abundant plant and animal life, warm climate, fertile soils, and navigable rivers and streams. In 1540 during the Hernando de Soto expedition, approximately 200,000 Natives lived in the area known today as Mississippi. Primarily because of diseases introduced by the Spaniards, the Native American population declined drastically over the next two centuries. By the time the French arrived in Mississippi at the end of the 17th century, only about 37,000 Native Americans remained. This population fell to an all-time low of approximately 16,500 by 1750.
Role of archaeology
Archaeological investigations at less than one percent of Mississippi’s prehistoric sites have provided information on the earliest inhabitants of the area. Archaeological investigations include field surveys to identify and map sites. They also include “testing projects” where limited excavation is undertaken to determine site depth and size based on distribution of artifacts.
More extensive excavations are undertaken at some sites. While extensive excavations provide the most detailed insights into a site and its occupants, the sites for extensive excavation are carefully selected because excavation is the most expensive, labor-intensive, time-consuming, and destructive of all archaeological procedures.
Archaeologists analyze the materials recovered from a site to determine the approximate time of occupation, occupational sequence, site activities, and site function(s). Site activities include animal hide processing, cooking, and toolmaking. Site function is the overall use of the site. Examples of function include temporary camps, permanent villages, and special purpose sites such as cemeteries or bead manufacturing sites.
Archaeologists also want to know how sites interrelate in order to determine how pre-contact populations operated across the landscape. By plotting the locations of sites exhibiting similar distinctive (diagnostic) artifacts, archaeologists figure out the connections among the indigenous groups.
Artifacts, ecofacts, and features
The site materials that archaeologists examine are known as artifacts, ecofacts, and features.
Artifacts are objects made, modified, or used by humans. Ceramics and lithics (stone) are the two most frequently encountered types of artifacts. Other categories include items made of bone, antler, wood, and metal.
The ceramics category includes clay objects that were heated (fired) in order to make the objects strong and resistant to moisture. Pottery is the most common type of ceramic found at sites and it is usually shattered vessels. Ceramic vessels were used for cooking, eating, and storage. Vessel fragments, called sherds (pronounced shurds), can be quite informative as particular pottery types can often be attributed to specific groups and time periods. Other artifacts in the ceramics category range from clay pipes, beads, and figurines to the remains of fire hearths and house walls. Thus, ceramics help archaeologists determine the chronological position, cultural affiliation, and function of a site.
The lithics category includes stone artifacts. It encompasses a wide variety of items, from large stone axes to projectile points (spear, dart, and arrow) and the tiniest of stone drill bits. The by-products of stone tool production, such as stone chips and flakes, also fall into this category. Projectile points can often be placed into established types that relate to specific time periods. Some stone tools help determine site function because they can be attributed to a particular use such as animal hide working, woodworking, cutting, or drilling.
Ecofacts, items such as bone, wood, plant seeds, and pollen that may occur naturally at a site, also help archaeologists determine how a site was used. Charcoal is particularly important in determining a site’s age. Subjected to radiocarbon (C-14) testing, such materials can produce a relatively accurate date for site occupation.
Features are defined as permanent fixtures such as fire hearths, storage pits, and post holes that, unlike artifacts and ecofacts, are not easily removed. They generally have to be excavated and recorded on-site and are important to the determination of site use. For example, post hole patterns can reveal the presence of a structure at a site. The size and shape of the structure can give clues to the site’s use and time period.
Context is critical
Archaeologists define context as the relationship of artifacts and other cultural remains to each other and to their surroundings. The proper recording of context is essential during scientific excavation and is one of the main reasons why excavating is such a slow and tedious process.
Because a site was often occupied at different time periods, contextual data is used to help archaeologists group artifacts associated with a particular time period, as well as to differentiate materials from different time periods. This information also allows the archaeologist to better understand what activities were carried out at the site, in what areas of the site they were carried out, and how various activities may have been interrelated.
An archaeological site must be thought of as a non-renewable resource; that is, once it has been excavated it is destroyed and gone forever. Whatever records were made during the excavation process are all that remain of the site. For that reason, site recording must be extensive and meticulous.
It is unacceptable and illegal for people to indiscriminately dig at archaeological sites. Whether digging is done out of curiosity or for the removal of artifacts, this activity causes irreparable damage to sites. Many important sites have been destroyed or badly damaged by looters and grave robbers. This vandalism occurs at Native American burial sites since ceramic vessels and other desirable items were sometimes included with an individual at burial. Sites with mounds are especially vulnerable because of their high visibility. Because indiscriminate digging destroys vital contextual clues, it reduces a site’s potential for providing important archaeological information.
Archaeological research must continue in order to increase our knowledge of the prehistory of Mississippi. Thus, the remaining sites in Mississippi must be properly preserved and protected. While Mississippi contains a wealth of prehistoric archaeological sites, many of them have been damaged by natural and human activities. Site damage is caused by naturally occurring soil erosion and, more often, by agricultural practices (deep plowing and land leveling) or construction activities related to land development.
Although state and federal laws help protect archaeological resources, an informed and caring public is equally important in preserving the remaining sites in Mississippi.
David Morgan, archaeologist, is an historian at the Old Capitol Museum, Mississippi Department of Archives and History. This article was updated in 2021.
Baca, Keith A. “Indian Mounds of Mississippi – A Visitor's Guide.” Booklet. Jackson: Mississippi Department of Archives and History and the Southeast Archaeological Center, 1999.
Bense, Judith. Archaeology of the Southeastern United States: Paleoindian to World War I. New York: Academic Press, 1994.
Fagan, Brian M. Ancient North America: The Archaeology of a Continent. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1995.
Marshall, Richard A. Indians of Mississippi. Starkville: Cobb Institute of Archaeology, Mississippi State University, n.d.
Peacock, Evan. “The Prehistory of Hunting and Fishing.” Mississippi Outdoors, May/June 1987.
Ancient Architects of the Mississippi: https://www.nps.gov/archeology/feature/feature.htm
The Archaeological Conservancy: http://www.americanarchaeology.com
Mississippi Archaeology at Mississippi Department of Archives and History
Chickasaw TV: Prehistory https://www.chickasaw.tv/lists/prehistory
Chickasaw TV: Our History is World History https://www.chickasaw.tv/series/our-history-is-world-history
Chickasaw TV: Clans to Constitutions https://www.chickasaw.tv/episodes/winter-fire-season-2-episode-2-clans-to-constitutions