In recent years scientists have begun to reconsider some old assumptions about the earliest people in the New World. Perhaps the biggest revolution in archaeology has occurred because of research done in Louisiana. This research suggests that the earliest mounds and mound groups in the world were built in Louisiana and Mississippi during what is referred to as the Middle Archaic period (8000 to 4500 BP) by archaeologists. These dates predate the Great Wall of China, Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids. The dating of the early mounds has caused archaeologists to rethink how people lived during this early time period. Previously it had been assumed that, because of the hunting and gathering lifestyle of these early people, there was little leisure time for activities such as mound building. However, recent work by several archaeologists has begun to shed new light on these early group’s activities.
While most of the earliest mounds were built in Louisiana, some were also constructed in Mississippi. One such group of mounds, found in what is now downtown Pascagoula, were demolished around the turn of the century. A group of fourteen stone beads were found inside the mounds, one of which was a classic Middle Archaic style effigy bead. This artifact securely dated the mounds to the Middle Archaic period. A second mound, in Lincoln County, Mississippi, which has been tested by radiocarbon dating, was built between 5500 BP. and 5250 BP, also during the Archaic period. Some excavations and tests are still being conducted at this mound. A third mound dating to the Archaic period was discovered in Lowndes County, Mississippi. This mound dates to 6500–5750 B.C. These three sites, two single mounds and one group of three mounds, suggest that mounds were being built in Mississippi at a much earlier date than was previously believed.
As previously mentioned, based on the hunter gatherer lifestyle of groups during the Archaic period, it had been previously assumed that there was little time for anything more than practical activities and so it had long been presumed that the artifacts of this time period were almost entirely functional. As with the new dating of mounds though, new evidence challenges this view. Stone beads found in Mississippi, especially the effigies, are finely wrought specimens, many of which were made of rock imported from great distances.
The stone beads found in Mississippi have long drawn the attention of researchers. In 1878, some 449 unfinished stone beads, the so-called Keenan cache, were discovered in Jefferson Davis County. They were donated to the Smithsonian Institution. I had the pleasure of borrowing this collection in 1979 and returning it to Mississippi where it could be studied by archaeologist John Connaway. His report on this find is one of the most important documents dealing with Archaic period bead making. He noted that the cache of beads had been carefully placed in the ground, but did not appear to have been part of a burial offering. He also found that although none of the beads were finished, no tools used to manufacture the beads had been placed in the ground with them. One large effigy bead had been placed flat on the bottom of the pit. The long tubular beads were placed standing on end on top of this bead and then all the other beads were placed on top of these specimens. This ritual placement of artifacts suggested that possibly a ceremony occurred as the beads were placed in the ground. Connaway also made a great discovery while examining the long tubular beads. Looking through a microscope he discovered striations caused by grinding encircled the beads. This meant that they had been hafted and turned on a lathe. Interestingly, Connaway found that one bead had been partially drilled and in the hole he discovered the stone drill bit. The drill had become wedged in the bead and had broken. The bit, about the size of a grain of rice, was made of the local Citronelle gravel. By carefully studying the Keenan cache Connaway was able to deduce the steps of manufacture employed by the bead maker. Additionally, the fact that so many beads were found together in an unfinished state strongly suggested a specialist at work.
In addition to the skilled craftsmanship of the beads, archaeologists studying the stone beads soon noticed that many were made from non-native stone. A number of specimens are made from a distinctive green material with white inclusions, identified by the Mississippi Geological Survey as trachyte. Trachyte outcrops in the Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas. Several beads were made of other types of material from this same area, suggesting that there was a trade route between Mississippi and Arkansas. Such a long distance exchange network further challenged earlier ideas about hunter gatherers. Also of interest was the fact that what was being exchanged was not a necessity, such as a large good quality chert for tool manufacture, but rather material used to manufacture stone beads. The evidence also indicates that the beads were made in a small area of southwest Mississippi, near Brookhaven, and were exchanged with groups in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, Tennessee and Alabama.
The purpose of the beads has also been debated. Were they merely jewelry or did they represent something else? The effigy beads show mammal, bird and horned owl elements but no human elements. Pendants show turtle, bird, duck, owl and kingfisher elements, but again no human elements. Often these elements are combined on beads. So, a creature depicted on one bead might have some features of a horned owl and others of a mammal. Archaeologists debate the meanings of these symbols, but it has been suggested that they are closely tied with strong cultural beliefs and identity.
In summary, archaeological thought about the Middle Archaic period has undergone a revolution as new discoveries have been made concerning trade routes, migration, mound construction, and manufacturing. Further research and working with modern Native American nations will increase our knowledge regarding Mississippi’s earliest peoples.
Samuel Brookes is heritage program manager, National Forests in Mississippi. This article was updated in 2021.
Connaway, John M. 1981 The Keenan Bead Cache. Louisiana Archaeology 8:57-71.
Crawford, Jessica F. 2003 Archaic Effigy Beads: A New Look at Some Old Beads. Unpublished MA Thesis, University of Mississippi.
Rau, Charles 1878 The Stock-in-trade of an Aboriginal Lapidary. Smithsonian Institution, Annual Report for 1877, pp. 1-4, Washington, D.C.