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Light on the Path: The Anthropology and History of the Southeastern Indians

Light on the Path: The Anthropology and History of the Southeastern Indians

by Thomas J. Pluckhahn (Editor), Robbie Ethridge (Editor), Adam King (Contribution by), Jerald T. Milanich (Contribution by), Marvin T. Smith (Contribution by)

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A seamless social history of the native peoples of the American South, bridging prehistory and history.
The past 20 years have witnessed a change in the study of the prehistory and history of the native peoples of the American South. This paradigm shift is the bridging of prehistory and history to fashion a seamless social history that includes not


A seamless social history of the native peoples of the American South, bridging prehistory and history.
The past 20 years have witnessed a change in the study of the prehistory and history of the native peoples of the American South. This paradigm shift is the bridging of prehistory and history to fashion a seamless social history that includes not only the 16th-century Late Mississippian period and the 18th-century colonial period but also the largely forgotten--and critically important--century in between.  The shift is in part methodological, for it involves combining methods from anthropology, history, and archaeology. It is also conceptual and theoretical, employing historical and archaeological data to reconstruct broad patterns of history--not just political history with Native  Americans as a backdrop, nor simply an archaeology with added historical specificity, but a true social history of the Southeastern Indians, spanning their entire existence in the American South.

The scholarship underlying this shift comes from many directions, but much of the groundwork can be attributed to Charles Hudson. The papers in this volume were contributed by Hudson’s colleagues and former students (many now leading scholars themselves) in his honor.  The assumption links these papers is that of a historical transformation between Mississippian societies and the Indian societies of the historic era that requires explanation and critical analysis.

In all of the chapters, the legacy of Hudson’s work is evident. Anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians are storming the bridge that connects prehistory and history in a manner unimaginable 20 years ago.  While there remains much work to do on the path toward understanding this transformation and constructing a complete social history of the Southeastern Indians, the work of Charles Hudson and his colleagues have shown the way.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"A true contribution to Southern Indian studies.  The volume gathers together many excellent chapters that will become basic sources referenced regularly in ongoing debates and future interpretive work."-- Jason Baird Jackson, Indiana University

". . . Challenges the notion of the current paradigm, which would have scholars take for granted that the coming of Europeans so changed the Indian cultures in the southeast that there is an irrevocable disconnect between the time before the Europeans, and the time after. . . .recommended for those interested in southeastern archaeology, ethnography, and World-Systems Theory."
The Florida Anthropologist

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University of Alabama Press
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The Anthropology and History of the Southeastern Indians


Copyright © 2006 The University of Alabama Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8173-5287-5

Chapter One

The Nature of Mississippian Regional Systems

David J. Hally

Archaeologists working in the Mississippian Southeast tend to focus their research on individual sites or chiefdoms to the exclusion of interpolity, regional-level relationships. Granted, we recognize that Mississippian chiefdoms were often hostile to each other and that prestige goods were exchanged across their borders. But we seem blind to the possibility that chiefdom interrelationships might be considerably more varied in nature and that they might constitute a fundamental element of Mississippian adaptation itself. In this chapter, I develop the idea that the chiefdoms of northern Georgia were part of a larger regional system characterized by interaction, interdependence, and the movement of energy, material, and information among polities.


I will begin by briefly describing some of the important political and settlement pattern characteristics of Mississippian polities in northern Georgia. At any time during the Mississippianperiod, there appear to have been approximately a dozen chiefdoms in existence in the region. Each had an administrative center with one or more platform mounds, a plaza, and a surrounding habitation zone. The minimum distance separating neighboring, contemporary administrative centers ranged between 35 and 55 km (Hally 1996). In the Valley and Ridge province of Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee where we have relatively good survey data, large towns making up individual chiefdoms tended to be distributed along sections of river floodplain measuring 15-20 km in length (Hally et al. 1990) (Figure 1.1). The core area of these polities-the area that was most densely occupied and presumably most intensively exploited for subsistence purposes-was probably little larger in maximum dimension. The core areas of neighboring polities in this region were typically separated by lightly occupied or unoccupied zones that measured 10-30 km across. Across the Georgia Piedmont, populations seem to have resided primarily in smaller, more dispersed settlements. Survey data from the Middle Oconee River valley (Hatch 1995) indicate that the same core-buffer zone pattern is characteristic of polities here as well.

Chiefdoms inevitably passed through a life cycle that began with the establishment of centralized political institutions and ended with their collapse (Anderson 1994; Hally 1996). Since platform mounds were an essential component of these institutions, the commencement and termination of mound use can serve as a marker for the beginning and end of a chiefdom as a political entity. Mound construction sequences and ceramic cross-dating provide evidence that the life cycle of chiefdoms usually played out in a hundred years or less.

Survey data from several locations in northern Georgia where chiefdoms have existed indicate that local populations either disappeared completely or declined dramatically in size when mound building and use ceased at an administrative center (Hally 1996). While we do not know that this happened in every case of chiefdom collapse, it is difficult to imagine how communities could survive in competition with neighboring chiefdoms without some sort of effective centralized political organization. Population decline or abandonment of an area implies that people have moved elsewhere. We do not have archaeological or documentary evidence for where people moved, but it is reasonable to assume that they either joined existing chiefdoms nearby or participated in the formation of new ones.

Mississippian chiefdoms are known to have existed in 27 different locations across northern Georgia (Figure 1.2). Ceramic and stratigraphic evidence from platform mounds indicates that as many as 47 distinct chiefdoms rose and fell in these loci during the Mississippian period (Hally 1999). Most of these polities appear to have developed in locations that were lightly inhabited or uninhabited at the time. Again, we do not have archaeological or documentary evidence for where the citizens of such chiefdoms originated, but it is reasonable to assume that they came from either existing chiefdoms or those that were breaking up.

Kopytoff (1987) describes a similar pattern of polity breakup and creation for indigenous African societies. According to his internal frontier model, new societies continually emerged and developed in the uninhabited or sparsely inhabited frontier areas lying between established polities. For a variety of reasons-factional disputes, oppressive authority, military defeat-established societies tended to segment and fission over time. Disaffected and displaced individuals often left their homes in large numbers and moved to frontier areas, where they attempted to establish new communities. Strengthened by the addition of later immigrants, these communities might develop in economic and political strength over time to the point where they rivaled the very polities from which they had originated. In 1708, Thomas Nairne (Moore 1988) described a process of community fissioning for the Chickasaw that conforms in several respects to Kopytoff's model.

The internal frontiers in northern Georgia could be locations where no chiefdoms had yet developed or they could be locations that had been abandoned following the collapse of earlier chiefdoms. Preference seems to have been given to places that previously were home to a chiefdom since 19 of the 27 known chiefdom loci were reutilized at least one time during the Mississippian period. Reuse typically occurred following periods of abandonment lasting a hundred years or so.

Settlement pattern data and early European accounts indicate that chiefdoms in northern Georgia varied considerably in organizational complexity. The great majority of polities, referred to as simple chiefdoms, had a single administrative center with one or two earth mounds and a half dozen or so dependent communities. Presumably they had only a single level of administrative control above the village. Complex chiefdoms consisted of one large multimound site and several single-mound sites forming a spatial cluster measuring upwards of 40 km in diameter. Presumably these sites represented primary and secondary centers in a two-tiered administrative hierarchy. The Etowah site during the Late Savannah period (Wilbanks phase) is the most clear-cut example of this type of polity, but at least one other is probably represented by the Rembert site on the Savannah River (Anderson 1994; Hally 1996). Anderson (1994) has argued that complex chiefdoms developed out of simple chiefdoms, but at present there is little direct evidence for such a relationship.

The early Spanish documents describe a third type of polity in which a number of chiefdoms were under the political domination or control of another more powerful chiefdom and its leader (Hudson, Smith, Hally, et al. 1985). At least three such paramount chiefdoms can be identified in the Southern Appalachian region in the mid-sixteenth century: Coosa, made up of at least eight chiefdoms located in the Great Valley of Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama; Ocute, which included at least four chiefdoms located in the Middle Oconee River valley; and Cofitachequi, with an unknown number of subordinates in the Wateree Valley of South Carolina (Hudson 1994) (Figure 1.3). Little is known about the nature of these larger polities. Subordinate chiefdoms paid tribute to the paramount, acknowledged his superior position, and participated in joint military actions against common enemies. Beyond that they seem to have been left alone to run their own affairs.


At the level of the individual polity, Mississippian adaptation in northern Georgia does not appear to have been very successful. The failure rate of chiefdoms was high, while at any point in time large areas were unoccupied, their subsistence resources unexploited. Quite a different picture emerges, however, if we enlarge our spatial and temporal focus to the level of the region and the full 600 years of the Mississippian period. At these scales, adaptation appears to have been quite successful, at least if we judge success by system stability over long periods of time and across large areas. Individual chiefdoms cycled in and out of existence at regular intervals, but the fundamental structural characteristics of Mississippian society remained unaltered. Neither the geographical size, spacing, duration, or number of polities changed appreciably through time. There were 10 chiefdoms in northern Georgia by A.D. 1000; 13 in A.D. 1100; 8 in A.D. 1200 and 1300; 11 in A.D. 1400; and 17 by A.D. 1500.

Given this evidence for stability, I believe that the Mississippian occupation of northern Georgia should be viewed as a regional system or, to use Kowalewski's (1995) term, a "large-scale cultural-ecological system." As a regional system, we can expect that:

1. Member polities interacted with one another and their environments in a variety of ways. 2. These interactions involved the transfer of energy, primarily in the form of human labor; of material, primarily in the form of prestige goods and high-value raw materials; and of information in a variety of forms including material culture styles and political and religious ideologies. 3. These interactions had an effect on participating polities, their environment, and future interactions that was self-regulating. 4. The nature of these interactions and their effects were similar over a very large area and unchanging over a long period of time.

The following sections describe several characteristics of this regional system.


To judge by sixteenth-century Spanish and French accounts, by the existence of towns with defensive perimeters, and by the iconographic content of Southeastern Ceremonial Complex artifacts, interpolity warfare was a common phenomenon during the Mississippian period. Among its many effects would likely have been the geographic displacement of communities and polities, the collapse of chiefdoms, the formation of interpolity alliances, and the transfer of personnel as war captives among polities.

One of the more important conclusions that we can draw from the northern Georgia settlement pattern data is that military defeat of one chiefdom by another does not seem to have led to the enlargement of the victor's territory or population as envisioned by Carneiro (1981). Rather, one result was the formation of paramount chiefdoms in which the winner gained only limited and indirect control over the loser. Spatial clusters of contemporaneous chiefdoms similar to those representing the Coosa and Ocute paramount chiefdoms in the sixteenth century can be seen in the Late Savannah period and perhaps earlier, suggesting that similar multichiefdom polities occurred throughout the Mississippian period (Hally 1999) (Figure 1.4). Paramount chiefdoms presumably reduced warfare and promoted increased interaction of a nonhostile kind among member chiefdoms. This in turn would have facilitated the movement of people and ideas across chiefdom borders. Beyond their boundaries, paramount chiefdoms probably contributed to the collapse of neighboring chiefdoms and the abandonment of territory. This effect can be seen in the Late Savannah period when a cluster of chiefdoms that may represent a paramount chiefdom centered on the Etowah site was surrounded by an extensive unoccupied zone (Figure 1.4). It can also be seen in the Middle Lamar period when the unoccupied Middle Chattahoochee River valley lay between the paramount chiefdoms of Coosa and Ocute (Figure 1.5). An important point to note is that these larger polities probably also rose and fell with some regularity.


As noted earlier, the core habitation areas of neighboring chiefdoms were typically separated from one another by uninhabited or lightly inhabited zones measuring at least 10-20 km across. The ubiquity of these zones and the fact that they often contained alluvial bottomland and other natural resources that normally would attract settlers suggest they played a vital role in system maintenance (Figure 1.6). For one, they probably affected the nature and frequency of military actions between neighboring polities since the intervening distances would have made warfare more expensive and surprise raiding less effective. Perhaps more important, people would have ventured into these zones less frequently and remained in them for shorter periods because of the greater likelihood of encountering hostile neighbors. This meant that wild food species such as deer, turkey, and fish located in these zones were probably harvested less intensively than they might otherwise have been and that their population levels remained relatively high (Anderson 1994; Hickerson 1965).


Chiefdom collapse was probably caused by a number of factors, each of which, singly or in combination, may have been more or less influential in particular cases (Anderson 1994). Likely factors include population growth, internal competition for political power, incompetent leadership, interpolity competition for local resources and long-distance trade connections, military defeat, minor climatic fluctuations, and depletion of natural resources-especially agricultural soils. The hundred-year life span of most polities suggests that there were systemic constraints on how long they could endure under normal circumstances.

A number of important conditions and processes follow from chiefdom collapse and the regularity with which it occurred:

1. The size of uninhabited zones separating neighboring polities might increase significantly, creating a larger military buffer and thereby reducing active hostilities. The uninhabited desert separating the paramount chiefdoms of Ocute and Cofitachequi in 1540 comes to mind (Hudson, Smith, and DePratter 1984).

2. Agricultural soils depleted of nutrients by decades of heavy use would be given the opportunity to regenerate-in many cases for decades. Baden (1987) has argued that Mississippian agriculture was unsustainable at the local level. At the regional scale, however, it apparently was sustainable, because it was practiced in northern Georgia for at least 600 years with no noticeable decline in productivity or in the way of life or number of people it supported. Periodic, extended periods of fallow may be the key factor.

3. Game populations, reduced by intensive hunting within core habitation areas, would also be able to recover.

4. Large numbers of people-perhaps in the thousands-migrated to new locations, joining existing chiefdoms or those in the process of developing (Figure 1.7). To the extent that people were attracted to chiefdoms or locations that were "underpopulated," one result of such movements would be an evening out of population density across the region over time. Such movements also brought people together who had previously had little contact or little nonhostile contact, and this would have promoted the spread of cultural innovations throughout the region. As I have discussed elsewhere (Hally 1994), there was considerable homogeneity in ceramic, architectural, and mortuary styles across northern Georgia and portions of surrounding states during the late Mississippian period. Other factors were clearly involved in this, but the periodic resorting of populations must have been one of the more important.


Chiefdoms are known to have existed in 27 different locations across northern Georgia. Other locations that look like they would have been suitable were never utilized. Instead, new chiefdoms typically formed in locations that had had chiefdoms in earlier periods, this being the case in 19 loci.


Excerpted from LIGHT ON THE PATH by THOMAS J. PLUCKHAHN ROBBIE ETHRIDGE Copyright © 2006 by The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Thomas J. Pluckhahn is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Oklahoma and author of Kolomoki: Settlement, Ceremony, and Status in the Deep South, A.D. 350 to 750
Robbie Ethridge is McMullan Associate Professor of Southern Studies and Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Mississippi, as well as editor of The Transformation of the Southeastern Indians: 1540–1760. 

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